Canola rotation: “Do as I say, not as I do”

Anyone who was driving around the Prairies this summer saw field after field of beautiful yellow flowers. People who wanted to take pictures to show their relatives how canola turns the entire vista yellow had ample opportunity. At the same time, farmers surveying the same landscape likely couldn’t help but have an uneasy feeling in the pits of their stomachs.

That’s because that lovely yellow view means there was a lot of canola seeded last spring. Given the conditions, there probably shouldn’t have been.

For the Prairies, last summer was dry — very dry — and that is usually a deterrent to seeding canola the following spring. Added to that, all last winter there was a steady drumbeat of “Blackleg is rebounding, Clubroot is coming. Extend your rotations.”

So, what happened?

Business happened. Business, and a strong case of, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

All winter long, farmers attend meetings and often someone from a crop science company will make a statement about the importance of crop diversity, how farmers shouldn’t put all their eggs in one basket, and how the ‘stewards of the land’ need to be more responsible. The irony, of course, is that crop science companies stopped investing in flax or oats or barley or mustard long ago. The drive to have canola, or corn, or soybeans take over the Canadian Prairies, like it has taken over the American mid-west, is relentless.

So, what happened?

Business happened. Business, and a strong case of “Do as I say, not as I do”

When the Canola Council launched it’s “Keep it Coming” campaign it was bold, it was ambitious and it was what the industry needed in many ways. It used crop insurance data to suggest that tightening rotations did not lower yields. At the same time, public sector experts warned about a host of problems, such as blackleg and clubroot and changing flea beetle populations, all of which are made worse by shortened rotations. It seemed like the Canola Council was sending out mixed messages.

So, what happened?

Business happened. Business, and a strong case of “Do as I say, not as I do”

Many people put their hopes in changes to crop insurance. Crop insurance programs are always touting best management practices, such as extended rotations. Somewhat surprisingly, farmers who proclaim themselves free market entrepreneurs will often stand up at meetings and demand more regulation from crop insurance when it comes to canola rotations. Crop insurance agencies, for their part do not want to rock the boat. They say it’s all in the actuarial charts and that the better farmers get better rates. Most insurance organizations are loath to chase away business because larger numbers help to sustain viability

So, what happened?

Business happened. Business, and a strong case of “Do as I say, not as I do”

But none of these groups bought canola seed and then seeded acre after acre after acre to that one crop last spring. The stewards of the land did that. They went to the meetings all winter, and heard about the importance of rotation. They cautioned their friends about the dangers of this disease or that insect. They looked at how dry it was, and still the canola went into the ground.

So, what happened?

Business happened. Business, and a strong case of “Do as I say, not as I do”

My intention is that at this point everyone reading this is angry with me.

It seems that farmers are often blamed for shorter rotations while all the other industry actors assume a scolding tone. It is true that farmers are the ones ultimately responsible for the land and what they seed on it. But they are running businesses too, and they respond to the same market signals all other businesses respond to. When a farmer looks at a projected return on investment and only one or two crops will generate more income than expenses, it is not greed that drives these decisions, but survival.

Everyone in the industry bears some responsibility for pushing rotations. Business is business, and like gravity this is a reality no one can escape from. So, there will have to be business solutions to problems the industry faces, not a circular firing squad.

If the industry players simply point fingers and blame each other, nothing will change. The attitude towards crop rotation has to be different from attitude towards the weather. To paraphrase Willard Scott, Everyone complains about crop rotation, but nobody ever seems to do anything about it.

 

Dale Leftwich

Dale Leftwich farmed for over twenty years and throughout that time worked as an agronomist, seed manager and businessman. He has been on the Boards of SaskCanola, Canadian Canola Growers and Farm and Food Care Saskatchewan. He also help develop the documentary License to Farm.

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