Members of Western Canada’s conservation community grabbed their coffees and took their seats as Manitoba farmer and 2019 Nuffield Scholarship recipient Ryan Boyd was introduced as the morning’s keynote speaker at the 12th Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference held in Winnipeg in February this year.
Boyd was known to some in the crowd from conversations around his family’s South Glanton Farms, a 3,500-acre farming operation north of Brandon, near Forrest, that is flush with grasslands and wetlands. Many delegates were likely anticipating Boyd to trot out the virtues of livestock’s need for grass and water — the heartbeat of the Prairie conservation world and the glue that binds producers and conservation groups.
Boyd certainly didn’t disappoint the crowd on the inclusion of grass, water and cattle in his talk. He is a proud member of the livestock fraternity, proud of his roots, his network and peers and especially where he comes from. But Boyd took the farming bar even higher with this audience, as he didn’t shy away from the importance of cereal crops in his farm life.
It wasn’t a beef-producer-versus-grain-producer, one’s-better-than-the-other, pander-to-the-audience type of presentation. Boyd took the audience to his family farm, telling them about regenerative agriculture and how he uses it on his farm. And he darn well opened some eyes in the process.
Regenerative agriculture is a fast-evolving, producer-led interest in Manitoba. Many different organizations are currently pursuing and promoting regenerative agriculture. Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association’s (MFGA) interests in regenerative agriculture lie squarely in producing high-quality food while improving the natural ecosystem.
The ultimate goal for MFGA is producer profitability resulting from healthy agricultural lands being managed with wise land-use practices that vastly improve soil, water and air quality.
As reported in the Winnipeg Free Press, Manitoba is about to become a key production centre for plant-based protein, with a second pea-protein production plant about to break ground. Merit Functional Foods Corporation is building a $65-million, 65,000-square-foot facility that will produce both pea and canola protein. Roquette, a French company, arrived here a few years back and is building a $400-million pea-protein plant on the outskirts of Portage la Prairie.
For many, that level of investment in our province’s crop proteins signals immediate debate of beef-versus-plant food. Yet, that’s not the core issue. As they say in the biz, the customer is always right. In our grocery stores and markets, the customer has the power to choose what kind of burger they want to buy. Manitoba farmers such as Boyd and others are simply pleased for more market opportunities.
Their own burger preference may be a juicy, grilled beef burger that was raised on healthy Manitoba grasslands that are storing carbon and enhancing biodiversity, among other things. But farmers are also pleased that the annual crops that they may or do grow have an accelerating buyer’s market right here at home by way of the recent investments in Manitoba. Their overriding priority is balancing how they farm and how they grow their crops.
Best management practices within regenerative agriculture improve water infiltration, accelerate carbon capture in the soil and increase biodiversity of the entire agro-ecosystem. Regenerative agriculture farmers often mimic nature, leaving grasslands and wetlands intact for herds and utilizing cover crops — short-period crops that can be grazed and not usually harvested — and intercropping in their field plans.
Regenerative agriculture can provide a valuable land base for forage production, crop rotations and livestock grazing, while delivering numerous ecological goods and services, including wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, water capture and storage, and the resilience of Manitoba’s agricultural landscape to climate extremes.
From a societal lens, regardless of an urban or rural address, resiliency is a key point. Climate experts have predicted that the not-so-distant future may bring temperatures to Manitoba that will be similar to north Texas’s climate today. That means warmer temperatures for longer periods stand to influence crop decisions at the farm gate. It also means the possibility of more extreme weather events, incurring infrastructure-damaging floods and dry-weather devastation of droughts.
By utilizing grasslands and the deep-root structure of perennials, as well as enhancing the soil via cover crops and strategic crop rotations, producers are increasing the soil absorbency to hold and retain moisture via the practices of regenerative agriculture. Producers such as Boyd are already readying Manitoba for times ahead.
MFGA fully believes that regenerative agriculture should be accepted by policy-makers, researchers, industry leaders and the public as a growing interest among livestock and crop producers in Manitoba. MFGA looks forward to doing our part with and on behalf of Manitoba producers while providing necessary organizational leadership for regenerative agriculture to continue to accelerate in Manitoba.
But to be the best it can be for all Manitobans means that the focus must shift from what is grown to how it’s grown, as showcased and promoted by producers such as Boyd. For best success, the regenerative agriculture movement will need consumers to lead or at least help promote and demand these regenerative practices.
Consumers, after all, are the ones with the power to do so via the way they vote and their individual purchase preferences.
Duncan Morrison is executive director of the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association.