Farmers in B.C.’s Kootenay region will be dealing with drier fields in 50 years. They’re not alone.

Environment Canada predicts the upcoming decades will transform Canada’s climate, forcing farmers to re-evaluate everything from which seeds to buy to which pastures their livestock graze. That’s a huge challenge for farmers with no time to pore over scientific studies and models charting how the climate crisis will transform their land.

It's a challenge advocates say could be addressed with a glance to the past.

In the 1930s, drought, economic depression, and ill-suited farming practices forced thousands off their farms while dust storms blackened the skies. The crisis led the federal government to create the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), an institution that brought together agricultural researchers, engineers, and extension (community outreach) staff to help farmers use their land sustainably — a sort of Medicare for farms.

“It became a body of expertise and understanding of grassland ecosystems, and grazing relationships, and biodiversity. In more recent years they were really looking into how the pasture land sequestered carbon,” said Cathy Holtslander, director of research and policy at the National Farmers Union.

The PFRA's mandate was vast: It managed communal pastures, built irrigation systems, gave farmers trees for windbreaks and shade, and ran an extension service to link researchers and farmers working to improve agricultural methods. Photo by Rural Health Professions Action Plan/Wikimedia Commons

The PFRA endured for the next 77 years, helping Prairie farmers deal with water supply issues, develop drought and flood resilience plans, diversify their crops, and farm sustainably. Researchers with the organization also restored failed farmland into ecologically vibrant grasslands and offered free tree seedlings to farmers who supported native pollinators, slowed wind erosion, and captured carbon.

“These were (among the) federal government's positive contributions to the public good that people really valued. It was a living, concrete argument for public interest investment in people's lives,” she said.

The organization was dismantled by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2013.

“(Harper government members were) market fundamentalists where the only thing that mattered was profit, and (who viewed) anything that isn't making money for a business as not legitimate,” Holtslander said.

“They had to take away the good example.”

“If we imagine the transition to a #climate-compatible, low (#greenhousegas) emissions #farming sector, a bunch of things need to happen,” said Darrin Qualman, a farmer and the director of #climatecrisis and policy @NFUCanada

An example that offers useful lessons for today.

“If we imagine the transition to a climate-compatible, low (greenhouse gas) emissions farming sector, a bunch of things need to happen,” said Darrin Qualman, a farmer and the director of climate crisis and policy at the National Farmers Union.

Those things include helping farmers access independent agronomists and agrologists (independent agricultural experts) who can help them with everything from replacing greenhouse gas-intensive artificial fertilizers with low-emissions alternatives to sharing cutting-edge agricultural research, developing sustainable irrigation systems, and restoring grassland pastures.

“(We need) a proactive agency that would manage and assist in the (agricultural) transition we need to make between now and 2050,” he said.

Such an agency doesn’t exist. Farmers rely on a patchwork of extension services offered by everyone from scholars working on a specific project to product marketing boards to seed and fertilizer companies whose financial interests might not align with low-input, climate-friendly agricultural practices.

“It’s inefficient, like reinventing the wheel,” said Rachael Roussain, co-ordinator at the Kootenay and Boundary Farm Advisors, an agricultural extension program in southeast B.C.’s rugged Kootenay and Boundary regions.

“A lot of farmers are trying to adapt (to climate change). They’re increasing their soil moisture-holding capabilities (which helps build resilience against drought). They’re preparing for more variable weather events. But when they can share that with a greater circle of people, they grow and learn faster — and it livens spirits, which is so important in agriculture,” she said.

For instance, her organization supports farmers in parts of B.C. that are far removed from universities, provincial or federal agricultural experts, and other farmers.

That makes it difficult for the regions' busy farmers to keep up with research and farm trials taking place outside their direct community, or for agricultural researchers to connect with people on the front lines of climate change. (“I don’t think people really understand how busy farmers are,” Roussain quipped.)

The lack of co-ordination results in research projects being unnecessarily repeated and the loss of knowledge-sharing opportunities between people across Canada’s agricultural sector, she explained.

And so far, there have been no indications the federal government intends to create an institution that could lead that co-ordination.

“We recognize farmers, foresters, and ranchers as key partners in the fight against climate change, and we will support their efforts to reduce emissions and build resilience,” said Agriculture and Agri-food Canada in an emailed statement.

That support has included pledging to create a new Canada Water Agency, funding provincial-federal grants to help farmers adapt to climate change, and supporting agricultural research — not co-ordinating efforts within the agricultural sector, Canada’s sixth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, to reduce emissions and adapt to a rapidly changing climate.

These projects are appreciated, Qualman said, but the need remains for an institution that has staff in the field working with farmers as they adapt.

“The bottom line is we need a lot of help with the big project of maintaining yield and food supplies while cutting (fertilizer and pesticide) use and emissions,” he said.

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson/Local Journalism Initiative/Canada’s National Observer

I wonder if it was the PFRA that was responsible for crop spraying, while kids worked or played in the fields?
My mother said on the blistering hot days, the kids'd stand under them, holding their arms out and their faces up, to get as much of the liquid on them as possible: just as they'd have done if it were a sudden rainstorm and no thunderheads in sight.
I've wondered if it had anything to do with the high incidence of cancer deaths in those "kids."

I don't know if dugouts still exist ... but they certainly weren't deep holes: they were rectangular, shallow "sloughs." In summer in the 50s, the water in them was muddy brown ... the animals drank at a trough filled with a handpump by the kids, who were to keep the (wooden) trough no less than half full. We "cousins" from off the farm were only too happy to take a turn at the pump. It was darned hard work!!!
Certainly the windrows existed. But it should be mentioned that WW1 took many of the heads of households off the farms ... and then there was the "Spanish 'Flu" that lasted on the Canadian prairies until into 1921. Where my parents grew up, about 1 person in 10 died. It seems to have been common that orphans were taken into their deceased mothers' families; where widows and widowers, each with children too young to do a full "adult-sized" day of farm work were left on contiguous properties, they married and joined forces. Some of those marriages made for interesting situtions, when their children and grandchildren tried to figure out exactly how they were related to one another ... but for those who still "had a man down on the farm", the 20s were good years.
Then came a decade of drought, drying the crops in the fields, and in there were "plagues" of grasshoppers whose eventually dead bodies were left a foot deep ... my older relatives told me about it when I described the crunchy June bugs on the sidewalks of Toronto. And that was when they told me about the "Dirty Thirties."
with dust storms that half-buried the Model T, covered the water pump, made doors as hard to open as snow piled half way up. Cattle that were outside died, unable to breathe or to use their snow defenses, huddling in circles using their body heat to keep the herd warm, keeping moving to trample the drifting snow underneath them. Dust doesn't pack underfoot. And when there's wind, it's like quicksand to walk in, I was told. They strung ropes from the house to the well to the barn, and daren't let go lest they become disoriented.
That lasted the better part of a decade. And because there was basically a world-wide Depression, there was no market for wheat other than locally ... people were unable to survive by farming and farms were abandonned, but mainly they headed for the cities to try to find work where, of course, there was none. Here in Toronto, a very few blocks from where I live, there was a work camp, where men worked all day shovelling dirt from one pile to another, because the "work ethic" of the "welfare" programs wouldn't just give them food or money for food. Those were the days of hoboes "riding the rails."
And then came WW2, and mothers sent their boys off to war. I have a photo of my father in his uniform, ready to ship out, his mother beside him looking devastated but trying to accept in the way that was expected of her.
To call it a matter of "bad farming techniques" as the farm rehabilitation program website suggests, is one more case of blaming victims. The farmers brought with them Old-Country farming techniques -- much, much superior to the big equipment, agri-chemical farming of today -- they rotated crops, each year leaving a field fallow, growing, basically, meadow grass that would be plowed under. They were shallow furrows, made by single or double-share plows (the first ones were pulled by people, before they acquired livestock), and one or two horses. They don't weigh heavily on the land.
Big Production farms didn't really come on board till the 50s, along with chemical fertilizers, etc. It was called the Green Revolution ... !
The Farm Rehabilitation Program didn't help farmers after they did themselves in with their own "terrible farming practices" that had ruined the land. It helped them with the basics of re-establishing after 10 years of drought, windstorms and "pestilence." There's difference.
The windrows replaced trees that had been consumed by the insects. Along with everything else. They even attacked some of the wooden things on the farm, including a wooden wheelbarrow.
In my not so humble opinion, the farm folk of the prairies (by far most of the prairie population then) *were* truly two generations of heroes. Not because they fought in war, but because they survived, by virtue of community co-operation, almost a decade of war and pandemic, followed by a few good years, then a decade and a half of the Dirty Thirties, Depression, and war.
It's Just Not Done to "desecrate the memory of 'war heroes'." Let's not buy into desecrating the memory of those people.