Silvopastures as Ranch Insurance

I think it can be constructive sometimes to view a silvopastures (integrated tree, forage and livestock production areas) as a form of insurance in the ranching sector. A living insurance policy through diversification that works on many levels.

There can be many motivations for adopting agroforestry practices. While not a cure-all for land management, agroforestry presents a range of viable production options that can provide social, economic and environmental benefits through integrated use. Silvopasture insurance touches on all three.

Silvopasture as Production Insurance

First, it can be a form of production insurance as a means to diversify grazing resources on the ranch. Trees can help conserve moisture in their understory, and they delay the maturity of forbs and grasses. This means seasonal drought or high temperatures that can dessicate open grown-plants, are tempered in the silvopasture. These types of droughts can occur annually in some areas or are less frequent but still expected in other areas. But in both cases, having a portion of the ranch’s forage production derived from silvopastures insures against total forage losses.

And silvopastures can maintain a source of higher quality green feed when other grasses and forages have weathered away. Moreover, in northern areas, the main benefit may come from increased frost protection in the spring and fall. The ability of the overstory canopy to erase small radiative frosts adds valuable frost-free days to the growing season. Thus silvopastures extend the availabilty of higher quality grazing resources.

Silvopastures as Market Insurance

Second, it comes in the form of insurance for the whole operation against a significant downturn in cattle prices. Cattle markets are cyclical. Always have been, always likely will be. And I don’t see supply management systems taking root in the beef sector. Therefore, even the best and most efficient ranch operations in the world still need to plan for significant market down cycles. Profit margins in a buyers market will be dictated by conditions outside of the ranch’s control. The BSE crisis in Canada has also taught us that export markets can collapse rapidly and for prolonged periods. And these can come with little warning in the modern globalized, food supply chains.

Making sustainable use of another renewable resource on the ranch provides insurance against losses in your beef business bankrupting the whole operation. Silvopastures provide the opportunity to sell timber or other forest and non-timber forest products during a low in cattle prices. And this may be the difference for some ranches between staying in the business for the long-run and falling victim to short-term market pressures.

Silvopastures as Social Insurance

Third, silvopastures, through the host of ecological goods and services (EG&S) they provide, contribute to building and sustaining social insurance for individual ranches and the sector as a whole. Understandable, some producers may not relish the situation, but all must acknowledge the facts: if you live in a rural area, you are now in the minority. And if you farm or ranch, you are in the minority. The political power resides largely in urban centres. And without a constant and deliberate effort to build goodwill in communities, regions and nations, ranchers are more vulnerable to misguided policies. Policies that will wrap them too tight in red tape to move, let alone carry out their businesses sustainably and profitably.

Silvopastures and all agroforestry, through providing EG&S, aesthetics and other non-tangible benefits, contribute to sustaining the social license that the beef sector needs to keep operating in a world increasingly dominated by urban dwellers divorced from the realities of agriculture.

Canada’s Shelterbelt Shutdown

Agriculture and Agri-food Canada’s (AAFC) decision last week to axe its long-running shelterbelt program, is not only a set-back for agroforestry in Canada, but could also have severe short and long-term implications for the sustainability of Prairie agriculture.

Agroforestry Development Centre

AAFC’s move to close the Agroforestry Development Centre in Indian Head, SK and terminate shelterbelt program by 2013 has obvious immediate implications for the program staff who were were handed pink slips. And after this year, the end of the shelterbelt seedling program means prairie agricultural producers will no longer have a source of free tree and shrubs as an incentive to plant shelterbelts. Shelterbelts that both protect their crops and generate other valuable ecological goods and services.

In light of recent patterns of drought and a warming climate, this program cut jeopardizes the foundations of sustainability of prairie agriculture. The shelterbelt centre opened in 1901, and over its history has produced and distributed over 650 million tree and shrub seedlings for conservation plantings. These plantings have saved countless hundreds of thousands of hectares of productive farmland from erosion. And it could be argued that it is a major reason that there is a significant agricultural sector on the prairies today.

The program contributes significantly to Canada being a net exporter of food, and is a direct result of this program and other conservation measures in response to the ecological crisis of the dust bowl era in the 1930s. Had this service not been in place, Canada’s ‘breadbasket’ could look more like the shifting sand dunes of North Africa. For there too in antiquity was also a highly productive, expansive grain producing region and foundation for the empire of Carthage. A region that is now diminished by barren desert.

Rationale for Closure is Weak

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s official explanation for the cuts are weak at best: “Farmers don’t farm like they did 100 years ago,’ Ritz said. “We want to make sure we’re focusing on the right programs for tomorrow’s agriculture.” This is short-term thinking at its worst. Conservation plantings help to buffer the full range of climatic extremes that can be experienced, not just the patterns of recent history. This rationale is tantamount to tearing the sprinkler system out of your house and selling the pipe for scrap metal because you haven’t had a house fire in the past few years. Tomorrow’s agriculture is founded in the same ecological reality as yesterday’s and today’s: no soil, no food.

It’s hard not to think that these cuts are politically motivated, rather than a necessary response to overall government austerity. Shutting down the shelterbelt program is AAFC’s response to a 10% budget reduction. Rather than tackling AAFC’s rather plump bureaucracy, senior management chose to eliminate front-line staff and services. According to the most recent Treasury Board estimates, the nearly 3 billion dollar AAFC budget supports well over 6000 employees. And nearly a third of this staffing is in what is termed “internal services”: management, human resources (HR) and other support roles (e.g. information technology – IT). This ratio of the amount of overhead to program delivery is not only ridiculously high by private sector standards, it even stretches the limits of acceptability through a government accounting lens.

Re-organizing AAFC and looking for operating efficiencies by reducing the number of managers is an option. AAFC should also be utilizing more efficient centralized IT and HR support may. It may have been the more difficult path to achieve a 10 percent reduction, but it would have freed the resources to retain a very worthwhile program.

Shelterbelts Create Public Benefits

Those with a strong laisez-faire political philosophy will argue that if shelterbelts deliver conservation and production benefits to land owners, the individual producers should invest in them without government support. This ignores the fact however, that significant public benefits accrue from conservation-driven agroforestry on private land. These come in the form of clean air, soil and water conservation, preservation of biodiversity and the food security that comes from a strong and stable agricultural sector. The technical support provided and the trees and shrubs distributed through the shelterbelt program were really only an incentive for the investment in on-farm conservation. Producers still made significant and ongoing investments of time and resources in planting and tending their shelterbelts. And they did so without compensation for the public ecological goods and services generated.

This is sadly another example of laying waste to program that has delivered tangible benefits for over a century instead of tackling the roots of government bloat. It may help achieve Canada’s short-term budgetary goals, but it could put the entire sector at increased risk as we move forward with uncertainties of climate change. The loss of the sheltbelt program is blow for agroforestry in Canada and undermines the foundations of sustainable agriculture.

Agroforestry on Public Lands – Where Costs and Benefits Can Divide

Agroforestry continues to gain recognition and adoption around the globe. It is a viable production system that can blend economic, social and environmental benefits. But the interest and uptake on publicly-owned lands has been underwhelming to say the least. I believe this stems in large part from the general lack of integrated timber/non-timber tenure opportunities. And it is also partly a victim of the evolution of multiple-use for resource management over the past half century. The prevailing land use philosophy has been one of managing conflicts, not integrating activities to create positive outcomes.

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Disconnected in the Golden Age of Wireless

Last week I spent the better part of one work day without my electronic tethers. A technical glitch knocked out regional cellular service. And I rely upon the airwaves for all my voice and data (internet) needs. Besides setting me to thinking about the need for systems redundancy for running my business, it also gave me time to think about what it means to be connected.

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Disadvantages of Agroforestry: Support

Be it research and development, extension, financing or government regulations and policies. Finding support is one of keys to the survival of any natural resource enterprise. For many, a significant disadvantage of agroforestry is that this support either does not exist locally, is highly fragmented, or runs afoul of institutional barriers and professional biases.

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