Water is the ultimate public good. So why doesn't the public pay for its protection?


I wrote a column last week that caused quite a stir, as was the intention. My tongue-in-cheek title did what it was intended to do: it sparked conversation and some lively debate, but it also got some tempers flaring over the increased regulatory burden farmers not just endure, but must also pay for.

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I’m a firm believer in doing the right thing, in changing practices based on the best information we have at any given time (even when change is hard), but I’m also realistic. Farms must be profitable in order to continue to function. Increased regulatory demands can be capital intensive, costly, or decrease your productive land base.

While it would be difficult to find someone who didn’t want to do the best they could for their land, there are choices, decisions, practices, and equipment, that in the name of environmental protection, for example, may not have an economic payoff. When you’re already functioning under the thinnest of margins, a cost with no chance of an ROI is one of the first to be cut.

The reality is, though, that if farmers are perceived to not be doing enough or doing something wrong (valid or not), the regulations follow.

And that’s a problem, because we’ve failed to convince governments, policy makers, and the public that protection of the land and water within our possession and under our management should be a cost shared by all of us.

Bobolink East and West, Suburban Ottawa. Photo Credit: Chris Moore, 2017

Yes, we want to be and are stewards of the land we farm — healthy soil supports our families with money for bills and grows food for our kids’ bellies. But there’s a reason there are programs like Ontario’s delayed haying program, where there’s a recognition that the hay will be a lower quality (a cost). In this case, delayed haying allows the endangered bobolink to nest and hatch its young. (Don’t even get me started on the irony of a new suburb here in Ottawa naming a street “Bobolink” in what, just a few years ago was actual bobolink habitat. See photo).

When it comes to manure management, adding, expanding or converting manure storage and handling is bloody expensive. Changing small things like haying timing is one thing, but investing in concrete, new injection toolbars, or a strip-tillage implement is a major cost. Now, many of these costs are part of a larger change — and those changes may mean increased income or retained value, to be sure. But not always, and as one farmer pointed out to me, other provinces (hello, Quebec) have done a better job at supporting farmers as they shoulder the increasing regulatory burden.

That’s not to say we don’t have any financial support. Significant dollars under Growing Forward and Growing Forward 2 were spent on exactly these kinds of changes — evolving farming practices to keep nutrients where we want them, to decrease diesel used to grow the same amount of food, and so on. But I can’t help but look at the sheer cost of some practices (in the form of time, equipment, lost production) and think, if all our customers in the city benefit from this, and they do, shouldn’t they pay for more of it?

There are those who fundamentally disagree with government oversight and involvement in how we run our farms. They likely consider government cost-share tantamount to waiving a white flag and condoning more regulation.

While I’m not a fan of bureaucracy and paperwork under the guise of “doing the right thing,” more red tape is inevitable, regardless of the leaps and bounds we may voluntarily take in land stewardship, regenerative agriculture et al.

We may as well get paid for it.

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