Quebec farmers building climate solutions from ground up
Mitchell Beer, Local Journalism Initiative
One of the more middle-of-the-road voices in the North American agriculture community is raising the flag for faster action on climate change. And while the moment of alarm is coming from the United States, some of the most powerful solutions are taking shape on Quebec farms.
Late last month, Politico reported U.S. Senator John Tester of Montana had issued an urgent call for climate solutions. He said he was motivated by a summer drought that brought “the worst year on his farm since they began farming in the 1970s,” according to the Politico article. “And that he ‘longed’ for the day when his tractor could be powered off a battery” instead of diesel.
"If we don't do something about climate change and start today with real solutions, there are going to be a lot of hungry people in this world,” Tester said. “A lot of hungry people."
Tester’s deep worry is practical, not ideological — just like many of the folks you meet, but often don’t hear about across the wider climate community. And it’s part of a bigger picture. Not long after his remark, a December wildfire destroyed 25 structures, including grain elevators and bridges in Denton, Montana, and forced residents of the small town to evacuate.
This is the same U.S. mountain state where farmers have been worrying about water access and availability for years, an experience that should ring true to farmers from Quebec to the Prairies.
Look at the equal and opposite problem for producers in Abbotsford, B.C., and you see that when it comes to the climate emergency, so much of it is about water in all the wrong places.
A 50-per-cent saving
Tester’s longing for an electric tractor got me wondering how that technology is doing. In late June, Electric Autonomy said the cost of the units means the transition is still some years off.
“Often tractors can last 30 to 40 years, and when it does come time for a replacement, customers are trying to get a break on cost, not add a premium for going electric,” the industry e-newsletter stated, citing National Farmers’ Union climate director Darrin Qualman.
But there’s another side to that story. In Uxbridge, Ont., fruit, vegetable and flower grower Tony Neale bought a prototype electric tractor in 2018. After raising local funds for a 10-kilowatt solar array, he can charge the vehicle in about five hours, and “with the price of electricity and the price of gas, I’m saving about 50 per cent,” he told Farms.com.
But Tester and his political colleagues should be looking at a toolbox of climate solutions that extends far beyond farm machinery. We’ve been telling some of those stories over the past year.
A toolbox of solutions
In February, Richard Williams of Ferme Lève-Tôt in Alcove, Que., talked about the role of cover crops in protecting the soil against erosion, adding organic matter and nutrients, and controlling weeds. The primary benefit is a more productive farm. But Williams pointed to the added organic matter in the soil as the “really simple” link back to carbon capture.
In March, Paul Slomp, a grass-fed beef and pork producer near Montebello, Que., told about the “excellent carbon results” and higher profits he had achieved with an adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) grazing strategy that involves moving the herds twice to eight times per day.
And in November 2020, Vaudreuil-Dorion farm adviser Phil Lavoie shared some powerful success stories from clients who were practising carbon management in their small livestock operations. With chemical fertilizer pricing out at $500 to $600 per tonne, improved pasture output was saving one operator $2,400 on hay in a single year, Lavoie said his clients could invest their savings in the next round of good practices — like liming their fields to balance pH, or rotating herds to give pastures a chance to regenerate.
With $200 million in federal funding in place to help farmers cut emissions and boost resilience, 2022 will be a time to test out good ideas and learn how to scale them up. After learning about some of those techniques first hand from QFA members, I’m looking forward to seeing what the new year brings.