Farmers need a sustainable future, too

(February 12, 2020)

FEBRUARY is “I Love to Read” month, which is good for the farmers who are finally able to take a breather before the spring thaw arrives — probably in early March, this year.

To offer them (and you) some food for thought, I want to look at sustainability issues for agricultural producers, in the midst of a climate crisis fueled by a warming atmosphere and rising levels of greenhouse gases.

To begin, you can’t expect the provincial government to help. By action (and inaction), Premier Brian Pallister has repeatedly indicated the agricultural sector is exempt from initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Most recently, it was news that grain-drying operations will not be subject to his Manitoba version of a carbon tax. This was coupled with a promise (without specifics) to increase the amount of ethanol in gasoline and biofuel in diesel.

If I were an agricultural producer concerned about the direction in which the planet was headed, with its implications for my farm as well as my family, these kinds of political armwaves would be trivial to the point of being insulting.

Unless farmers live in an alternate universe, they share the planet with the rest of us, and therefore share the same responsibility for changing how we live together. In fact, any farmer who has inherited the family farm or who intends to pass it along to the next generation is likely more invested in sustainability than the city person who has never seen a live chicken.

Right now, it seems the Manitoba government is ignoring sustainability issues in the agricultural sector, in the apparent belief that Progressive Conservative votes in rural areas can bought like (dry) beans, for a bit of purple gas and a boot shine.

The PC party may have a firm base in rural areas it will never have in the city of Winnipeg, but if that’s true, then those rural areas should use their clout to at least get the current government to do something constructive for everyone.

For example, when Greyhound went out of service in western Canada, Manitoba (alone, I think, compared to all the other provinces where it operated) did nothing. So all those rural voters now have to drive, if they can, everywhere – and given how much secondary and tertiary health care is delivered only in Winnipeg or Brandon – they need to do it when they are sick, too.

To be fair, the provincial government does not seem to care much about public transportation in Winnipeg, either, despite the fact the largest source of Manitoba’s greenhouse gases, by sector, is transportation — in other words, those vehicles that burn the ethanol and biodiesel additives Pallister was intending to increase.

Cuts to subsidies for transit in Winnipeg mean New Flyer is now making electric buses for other places, when they could be making them to be used here, running on Manitoba’s hydroelectric power and providing more jobs to Manitobans.

Anyway, back to the farm. Expect no help from the provincial government, and likely little more from the feds, who prefer to play big-picture games. Look to your rural municipality for the kind of co-operative assistance you need to figure out what climate change is going to mean for your own area — not the lines drawn on the map, but according to the watershed in which you operate. Floods affect everyone — and so does drought. Plan together for both.

Sustainability literally begins at home. A sustainable future for your farm depends on you doing what is greenest for your own situation. There are various carbon-counting tools available on the internet – figure out what parts of your operation produce the most greenhouse gases, and see what can be done to reduce your outputs. It could be as simple as not burning stubble, for example. Every gallon of purple gas, even cheaper, produces GHGs. Find ways of burning less – better for the planet, and for the bottom line.

New equipment? Share it with a neighbour – or figure out how to borrow or loan it instead of purchasing.

On the other side of the ledger, figure out how much carbon is sequestered or put down in the soil by different kinds of crops or farming operations. Perhaps plant trees, to balance off carbon-intensive farming. Create your own carbon budget, aiming for a negative number at the end of the year.

If the provincial government wanted to help, it could both provide incentives for doing this, and assess penalties for ignoring GHG emissions (anyone listening?).

One other suggestion: sell local. Relying on markets elsewhere for your main income is unsustainable in the long run, and makes you vulnerable to geopolitics, pandemics and other things entirely beyond your control.

Successful farmers today have to be smart. It makes sense to use that aptitude for green, because sustainable farming is a large part of a sustainable future for everyone.

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Looking ahead with 2020 vision

(January 3, 2020)

THIS year, 2020, will start with a series of “dad” jokes about vision, about how well we can see what lies ahead.

As Manitoba marks its 150th year, it is worth remembering that the only 20/20 vision is hindsight. After all, our province’s founding father, Louis Riel, was hanged for high treason by the Canadian government — a mistake that took generations to be admitted, even though it was obvious at the time.

To reduce the number of mistakes governments (like individuals) inevitably make, we need foresight, today more than ever before. Unfortunately, there has been little evidence of foresight in the choices and priorities of our governments over the past several years, and we are all, literally, much poorer for that.

We need to look ahead, to see what is coming at us down the road and prepare. The sluggish investment market in Manitoba, the muddling economic growth that seems the best we can manage, combined with random cuts to government services and provincial debt, are some of the reasons why Manitoba has much less to celebrate this year than it should.

The question, of course, is whether the politicians — from Premier Brian Pallister down — have the humility and wisdom to realize, with hindsight, they have made mistakes and then try to correct them. Recent experience suggests this is probably a vain hope — witness U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to rewrite history itself rather than admit any mistake whatsoever — but I still want to believe it’s possible for politicians here in Manitoba.

We should be planning to create a bright green future for all Manitobans, but to an outside observer, we are instead making choices that, at best, undermine it. Even small things can say more than we realize to someone who wonders about Manitoba as a place to visit, to invest or to live.

For example, before visitors even collect their luggage, they encounter the new airport terminal with washrooms that have replaced high-capacity paper towel dispensers with a couple of blow dryers — slow, noisy, and entirely unsanitary. No paper in sight for any other purpose, either, apart from toilet paper. Most people either don’t wash their hands or wipe them on their pants as they leave.

To a visitor, it suggests Manitobans don’t understand public health, are unaware of the practicalities of arriving passengers and human nature, and have pessimistically designed their systems only to handle low traffic volumes. Venturing into the city, they will find shopping malls and restaurants understand these things — just not the airport authority. Hmm.

Exploring further, what about the most recent economic development plan for Winnipeg and surrounding regions? Oops. Nothing much of substance there. Provincial? Ditto. Cooperation between different levels of government? (Cue stories about the Battle of the Brians, and duking it out with the feds on a dozen files). Hmm again.

Moving to environmental issues, what pragmatic steps have been taken to adapt to changing conditions, taking advantage of changes like warmer weather, and countering the negative ones in terms of infrastructure and resource management? Are environmental and sustainability initiatives a priority for government, in partnership with local stakeholders? Oops again.

Looking at downtown, there is (finally!) evidence of some serious redevelopment for the 21st century. But it is all about recycling money already here, not attracting outside investment. We have the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as a destination attraction, but talk about converting the land around it to a water park or luxury condos, so we don’t really understand why.

Take in a ball game, and listen to the railcars full of oil and gas lurch across one narrow bridge in the heart of the downtown — and wonder why, on a flat prairie, they don’t go around, instead. The politicians may crow about the two underpasses built on time and under budget, but an outsider would wonder why they had been built at all.

Want to attract new business? Consider where their employees would live: no one with a sensible urban plan these days is doing new greenfield development, placing homes miles away from work spaces, and then connecting them only with traffic jams because there is no commuting alternative, like real rapid transit (a light rail system on that flat prairie).

High urban density, fast, comfortable public transit — add reliable power (finally, one checkmark, thanks to Manitoba Hydro!) and a public perception of personal safety (oops, again), and companies might look to invest in Winnipeg as a 21st century city.

We drive to where our eyes are focused on the road ahead. Until we decide ourselves where we are going, no one else is going to help us get there.

Fix your mistakes. Combine common sense with foresight. Replace bickering with co-operation.

Make 2020 into the year Manitoba looked forward, instead of back.

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