Retire overused farmland, say U of G researchers
Land wears out, just like cars, clothes and people. Poor soil quality, erosion, mineral leaching and pollution indicate when farmland has been overused. When that happens, says a
University of Guelph research team, don't fight it: retire it.
The team is looking at the economic benefits of retiring these lands by returning them to a more natural state, with grass and tree cover that will help soil recover. And it may also help
alleviate public concerns about water pollution, said geography professor Wanhong Yang, and agricultural economics professor Alfons Weersink.
The research stems from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Green Cover Program which has allocated $100 million in next five years in compensation to farmers for removing part of their land from agricultural use. The researchers are assessing farm land in the Grand River Watershed to determine characteristics that give land retirement potential. Yang hopes to selectively target regions where the costs of reclaiming land from farmers are minimal, and the benefits reaped from conservation are maximized.
"Land that's less productive, with more erosion, high slope, and proximity to a body of water can benefit most from retirement," said Yang. "Ideally, we would like to see the
available funds maximize the environmental benefits of land retirement."
Judging land's suitability for retirement is a three-step process, said Yang. First, the researchers determine the land's value by collecting data such as its soil type, average crop yield,
and the cost of production. Yang enters the variables into his economic model, which gives him a profit estimate. Land suitable for retirement might be less productive land, with minimal returns to the farmer. In that case, the farmer may be willing to retire it for a lower price.
The second step in the process involves a hydrologic model, which estimates water quality benefits and environmental sensitivity based on the area's physical attributes. The model also accounts for pollution that may be flowing into the region from secondary sites – problems that would need to be addressed if the region is considered for retirement. The third factor that helps decide if land is ready to retire involves geographical information system (GIS) analysis, that records land features.
"This type of modeling which integrates economic, environmental and GIS analysis is new to Canada and probably unique internationally," said Yang.
The researchers are now completing the data collection stage. Yang said if the benefit-to-cost ratio is high, theoretically the land will offer greater benefits to the general public as a naturalized area, than it would to the farmer as crop land. The area offered for retirement usually constitutes only a small part of the farmer's total land. And although participation in the program is completely voluntary, Yang said it's a win-win situation.
"Conservation and responsible environmental management has become one of the themes of Canadian agriculture," said Yang. "Global pressure is mounting to reduce government subsidies, and a program like this provides incentive for farmers to relieve crop land as they see fit, enabling more efficient operation."
This work will provide an indispensable decision-making tool for policy makers, governments and conservation groups in future projects of this kind, said Yang. For example, information collected in this study about land profitability can have implications for new federal agricultural policy initiatives such as the Agricultural Policy Framework. The project is expected to continue into 2004. This research project is sponsored by Ducks Unlimited Canada.
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