Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Voluntary Stewardship: Will More of the Same Produce Different Results?

By Tom Prout, SWCS Canadian Region Director

I write this article with the knowledge gained from more than 35 years of experience in watershed management in southern Ontario and with the anticipation that it may generate some response from conservation practitioners, farm organizations, and farm leaders.

For at least seven decades, many landowners have been implementing stewardship projects and applying a conservation ethic when making management decisions. These voluntary actions are beneficial and do contribute to the maintenance of water quality levels. However, considering our ongoing concerns with the health of our watersheds, perhaps it is time to reflect on the following questions:

  • Is voluntary stewardship taking too long and using too much money to actually achieve the water quality society desires?
  • Are changing farming practices and farming technologies outpacing the good that can be achieved by voluntary stewardship?
  • Are we using the correct Best Management Practices (BMPs) and stewardship practices in the right places?
  • Do we need new and improved BMP and stewardship practices? 
  • What are the confounding factors that prevent us from making bigger improvements in the water quality of our lakes, rivers, and streams?
  • What will the next generation of BMPs and stewardship look like?

Canada and the United States are two of the world’s leading countries, but are our societies committed to changing our lifestyles to help improve the environment we all live in and appreciate?

For decades, farmers in southern Ontario have publicly said that they would spend more time and money on stewardship projects if they received a fair or higher price for their product. However, after two consecutive years of very high commodity prices and some record yields, I am observing the opposite reaction: less conservation tillage, higher fertilizer rates to achieve record yields, increased sales of moldboard plows, and the removal of windbreaks and forests to make larger fields. With record-high farmland prices and larger equipment, farmers seem to have less time for conservation. Perhaps it is time to let farmers manage their lands as they see fit and, instead of offering stewardship grants, set water quality standards for them to meet.

Municipalities must meet water quality standards for their sewage treatment facilities, and in some municipalities there are now water quality standards for storm water discharge that developers have to meet. Local businesses have to meet discharge standards from their processing facilities. Nonpoint source pollution is really just many forms of point source pollution combined. Farmland is being systematically drained at an ever increasing rate to increase productivity. Will these tile outlets provide a way to measure nonpoint sources of pollution? Can we realistically measure nonpoint sources at the field level and tie water quality to field scale operations?

If society wants to get serious about water quality in our lakes and streams, it may be time to set water quality standards for surface and subsurface drainage from farmland. We must determine whether society can continue to afford annual payments to encourage voluntary stewardship. In making these decisions and answering the questions listed above, we will discover what the next generation of BMPs will look like.

I am not suggesting that the decades of conservation work are all for naught, and I am not suggesting that farmers intentionally pollute. However, I do believe it is time to stop and reflect on our current approach to watershed management and ask ourselves one more question: will doing more of the same thing achieve the water quality standards we want to achieve, or will doing more of the same thing get us more of the same results? We—as in the big we, society—need to decide if we want maximum productivity from farms and some of the lowest food prices in the world at the expense of the air and water quality we need to survive.

1 comment:

Jon Stika said...

BMPs are tools, yet we measure them as goals and hope some good comes of them as measured by water quality. This is akin to pounding on boards (the land) with as many different hammers (BMPs) as we can conjure up, and hope that a barn (improved water quality) appears. Decades of conservation have been mostly for naught. The answer is written on the land and in our waters. We feel good about applying BMPs to the land and it is easy to measure them, but they do little real good as measured by surface water quality. Farmers are weary of us scolding them to treat symptoms of water runoff and erosion. Such is a hopeless game. Struggle to treat symptoms as the land and water slowly continue to deteriorate. It is time to recognize the problem and solve it. Our agricultural soils are dysfunctional because farmers, agronomists, conservationists and policy-makers do not know how soil functions. Once all the players understand how the soil functions, they will quickly realize how the soils' capacity to function can be economically restored. I am not referring to organic agriculture, which is just as guilty of soil degradation as any other system of agricultural production. There is a movement currently underway in agriculture referred to as "soil health" where producers and conservationists of all stripes are beginning to understand that the soil is alive and serves as habitat to the most diverse and important ecosystem on Earth. Once folks view the soil in this way, they can restore its capacity to function and the symptoms of water runoff and soil erosion disappear. We must change the way we think about soil if we are to restore its capacity to function. We need to break out of the BMP and "stewardship" paradigm, admit that we have degraded the soil resource and work to restore it. This can be done economically and effectively... we just need to change our thinking.