Agriculture is the second biggest industry in Alberta. However, discussing strategies to combat climate change often falls by the wayside. Rural Routes to Climate Solutions seeks to change that by promoting farming and ranching practices to combat climate change and protect the environment.
Farming and ranching are cornerstones to Alberta’s diverse culture. Economically speaking, Alberta is one of the largest agricultural producers in Canada. Recreationally, farming and ranching have expanded into various rodeos and Aggie Days to connect with urban communities. In spite of this, agriculture is an untapped reservoir when it comes to climate mitigation and adaptation.
We met with Derek Leahy to discuss the disconnect between agricultural producers and climate solutions, and how Rural Routes to Climate Solutions seeks to address this disconnect. As director of Rural Routes, a subset of the Stettler Learning Centre, Derek is passionate about sharing success stories of producers who are implementing regenerative agriculture practices, not only to protect the land that produces their livelihood but to leave it better off than when they first worked it.
“We exist to provide opportunities for Alberta’s farmers, ranchers, and the communities they live in to learn about climate solutions. Specifically, to learn how to implement climate solutions and how those solutions can benefit their day-to-day lives or business operations.” - Derek Leahy, Director of Rural Routes to Climate Solutions
Are There Really “Solutions” To Climate Change?
Climate change often feels insurmountable. Is there really a solution to increasing temperatures and changing weather patterns? According to Rural Routes, climate solutions exist in two ways:
Mitigation: First, we can mitigate the current drivers of climate change. Strategies, such as reducing our carbon output or reliance on chemical fertilizers, can help lessen the impact of climate change down the road.
Adaptation: Second, we can adapt to the new conditions created by climate change. Warming trends and frequent droughts can be especially worrisome to farmers. However, by preparing for the changes now, agriculture producers take steps to meet climate change head-on.
Climate change conversations in Alberta often center around our major oil and gas industry, asking what solutions can reduce the impact of heavy polluters, while still growing opportunities in the energy sector. Although not quite as hot a topic, Rural Routes thinks the agricultural industry can also be looking to new opportunities and solutions to contribute to the change conversation. Derek explains, “producers want to undertake climate solutions that make sense for rural Albertans.” Regenerative agriculture is a perspective that embraces many of these agricultural climate solutions, creating new opportunities, while acknowledging the impact of current farming practices on the ecology, land, and climate.
How Regenerative Agriculture Addresses Climate Change
Regenerative agriculture is both a philosophy and a model of practice, with the goal of leaving the land in a better state than when it was first worked. For example, if cropland has been in a family for generations, a practitioner of regenerative agriculture would aim to produce sufficient crops, while improving soil health and reducing erosion.
Derek outlined three kinds of regenerative agriculture solutions that directly address the impacts of climate change.
One of the projected effects of climate change is increasingly dry summers. Drought can often lead to the erosion of croplands because the crops themselves don’t grow well enough to hold the soil in place.
Cover crops address this issue by leaving debris from last year’s crop, as well as any other growing plants, in place while the soil rests. This reduces erosion and protects the land from the damaging impacts of drought and winds.
When farmers plant one type of crop on one field for many years, the soil nutrients that sustain the specific crop can deplete over time, and cannot replenish quickly on their own. Conventional agriculture would address this problem using fertilizers, which often run off the fields into waterways and eventually impact local ecosystems.
Inter-cropping or companion planting is a different technique that does not rely on fertilizers. Instead, by planting a variety of crops together, each plant attracts different microbes, which improves the overall health and balance of the soil, and prevents the depletion of one specific nutrient. This strategy borrows from the Indigenous farming practice utilized for the Three Sisters where corn, beans, and squash are planted together so they can grow interdependently. This strategy also promotes biodiversity, which strengthens the ecology of the cropland itself.
Regenerative agriculture is not just for farmers. Ranchers and other producers in the business of animal husbandry can take part, too.
Also known as adaptive multi-paddock grazing, rotational grazing is a practice where herds are moved from one pasture to another each day. Rather than allowing the herd days or weeks to eat the available vegetation of one paddock, leaving the pasture damaged and even barren in some cases, rotational grazing protects grasslands and natural biodiversity alike by giving vegetation time to rest and regrow.
Overcoming the Barriers to Regenerative Agriculture and Climate Solutions
Unfortunately, implementing climate solutions like those outlined above, isn’t always as easy as one-two-three. The industry recognizes it, Derek recognizes it, and so do numerous organizations. Thankfully, those who are truly invested in making the solutions more easy, affordable, and achievable are working on making it so.
Financially speaking, regenerative agriculture has significant up-front costs, such as hiring a soil expert to determine how much fertilizer your cropland actually requires. Likewise, rotational grazing requires substantial people-power for moving cattle, and land for grazing. “We’re asking producers to do a lot right now,” Derek says, “and we really aren’t paying agriculture producers for implementing a lot of these practices that would help with climate adaptation and mitigation.” While some regenerative agriculture practices can have long-term dollar-saving benefits like saving on fertilizer costs, getting there can be difficult.
Money and resources are not the only barriers experienced by producers. Social barriers can play a significant role in producers’ hesitancy to implement climate solutions. Whether confronting generational farming traditions or the practices embedded within a farming community, it can be tough to be the one stirring up change.
“A lot of the knowledge in agriculture is passed on from generation to generation, it goes between parents and their children. Sometimes it’s not easy to hear that the way your parents were doing things is not so great for the environment, and we need to do something else. It’s just not easy to be the first person to embrace change..” - Derek Leahy
Another circumstance that agriculture producers often experience is isolation due to long work hours and rural homes, so it isn’t easy to know about, or connect with, other producers who are implementing climate solutions in their own businesses. “Having some kind of supportive social infrastructure would also go a long way for knowledge sharing,” Derek says when considering how to reduce barriers to both those who are interested, and those who aren’t even in the know. He explains, “we need to build a community to help those producers take steps to adopt more practices that are good for climate mitigation and adaptation.” Sharing first-hand stories and learning from one another is one of the best ways to make sustainable and climate-smart agriculture attainable.
Resources from Rural Routes to Climate Solutions
Rural Routes to Climate Solutions recognizes that support extends beyond financial incentives and seeks to educate and connect Alberta producers practicing regenerative agriculture with those who are interested in learning more. They achieve this by hosting educational events like farm field days and workshops, sharing success stories on their podcast and Farmers Blog, and facilitating programs like the Regenerative Agriculture Lab and Siksikaitsitapi Project.
Additional Partners Promoting Climate Solutions
Alternative Land Use Services Canada helps producers find solutions rooted in the nature of their land. As a group of landowners, ALUS supports farmers and ranchers in implementing conservation projects and climate solutions on their property. These efforts can involve maintaining wetlands, creating pollinator habitats, or managing drainage systems, and ALUS projects incorporate producers into a community of like-minded individuals.
Ducks Unlimited averts the complete loss of wetlands from agricultural and industrial lands in the province through its wetland restoration program. To learn more about the value of wetlands on our land, read our article with the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance.
Beyond Climate Solutions: The Co-Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture
“Another thing I love talking about is how climate solutions come with co-benefits. When we are addressing climate change, we're diversifying the economy, we're protecting the ecology, and we're creating new opportunities. Even if we take climate change out of the equation, climate adaptation and mitigation offer so many benefits to rural Alberta.” - Derek Leahy
What exactly are co-benefits? Co-benefits are the positive effects that accompany various climate adaptation and mitigation projects. Although they are not the main goal, they are the positive offshoots from working towards it. Many regenerative agriculture practices are ripe with co-benefits that increase their value beyond environmental stewardship.
Soil Sequestration: Carbon Capture and Healthy Fields
For example, soil sequestration (storing carbon that could be in the atmosphere in the soil) plays an important role in managing carbon outputs and achieving net-zero commitments. However, it also keeps the soil healthy and productive, supporting healthier crops and reducing reliance on chemical fertilizers. Another example is how planting biodiverse crops and native plants can help maintain soil health, but they also benefit the health of pollinators like bees, butterflies, and even mosquitoes.
Did You Know?
Alberta produces the most honey out of all the provinces and territories of Canada. This is because Alberta’s canola crops require 80,000 bee colonies to properly produce canola seed, an essential crop for Alberta’s economy as well as Canada’s.
Biodiversity: How The Kinds of Plants on Your Land Impact The Water Table
Biodiverse landscapes with trees and shrubs, while significant for cooling the planet and absorbing carbon, also play an important role in wildlife habitat creation, and play an integral role in the winter. Not only do trees and shrubs create windbreaks, which reduce the energy required to heat a home, but they collect snow. In the spring, when this snow melts, it infiltrates through the ground and raises the water table. Without trees and shrubs, that snow can blow up to 300 meters away. “It’s like a bank account that accumulates over winter, and then drains away into our dugouts or our soil,” Derek explains, emphasizing the importance of keeping that snow static with trees, shrubs, and other snow barriers.
Likewise, diverse plant life plays a critical role in slowing run-off from rain or irrigation. Why is this important? Slower run-off has a decreased risk of eroding the soil, and it is much more likely to infiltrate back into the soil. Like snow melting and sinking into the ground, slow-moving water helps replenish the water table, which creates a bank account for farms during dry, hot summers.
Economic Factors: Climate Solutions Can Have a Positive Impact on Your Wallet
Diversity, a quickly apparent theme when discussing co-benefits, also applies to economic opportunities. Many climate solutions focus on not only diversifying the ecology of the land but our own economic opportunities. Hosting bee hives on your property improves crop health, but can also act as an additional form of income from the honey and beeswax created. Inter-cropping ensures that you are not relying on one crop for an income at the end of the summer, and various hardy crops may excel in different conditions. For the first time in known history, farms and ranches can produce food and energy, using various renewable energy strategies such as wind or solar. Moreover, diverse farms have greater potential when it comes to industries such as agro-tourism, where they can teach tourists about the goals and processes of farming, while also hosting an interesting and unique farm experience.
There are many co-benefits associated with climate solutions. Communicating these co-benefits, however, can still be a challenge, one that Rural Routes to Climate Solutions has undertaken.
Old MacDonald Had A Vision For A New Kind Of Farm
Knowing that climate change is a growing concern is one thing. Recognizing that there are strategies we can use to mitigate and adapt to climate change is another. Implementing those strategies is a completely different story; that is the story that Rural Routes to Climate Solutions wants to tell.
When asked what agriculture communities and producers can learn from one another, Derek had an answer ready: “a big lesson producers can learn from one another is where to get started.” The reality is climate change can seem insurmountable, but something as simple as creating an environmental plan for your business, Derek says, is never a bad idea. Connecting with others to learn new lessons and strategies is also a critical part of success. “Having peer-to-peer support makes you see that you’re not the only one trying to figure this out on your own,” Derek adds.
Rural Routes hosts a variety of programs and events to complement its podcast and blog. Each has one simple goal—to improve connectivity while creating a sense of community among producers. Because, at the end of the day, we are all much stronger together.
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