With farming, no two days are ever the same. There is always something new to learn, or at least, something you haven’t seen before.
The past Sunday, it was sunny for the entire day – unusual this year. Although I tried, the beans were still too wet to combine and we weren’t ready to switch to corn. So we went for a walk between the cornfield and the river. We always see some damage in the corn. I originally thought it was caused by deer, but then learned it was actually raccoons pulling the stalks down and making big flattened areas, some big enough to turn a combine around.
I noticed some of this as we were walking, but then noticed something else. What I saw turned out to be a beaver super highway leading from the cornfield through the woods down to the river. There were corn stalks lining the trail, and some floating in the water. The steep, muddy slopes made a perfect beaver slide and I could just imagine them gleefully making off with their harvest. The trip back up to the field, I’m sure, would not have been nearly as fun. We took a closer look at the corn stalks and noticed all that was left was a sharp pointed spike.
We continued walking, paying closer attention to areas where the corn was damaged. We found eight of these trails in total, some obviously had been more heavily used than others. Just for fun, I posted some of these photos on Facebook and got a lot of interesting reactions – mostly from people commenting on how cool beavers are. I do agree with that – beavers ARE cool and I support them living on our farm, as long as they choose places where they don’t do too much damage. I did, however, find it interesting that no one commented on the fact that the beavers were … ahem … stealing our corn. If beavers were coming into folks’ garages or decks and helping themselves to wood for lodge construction, I suspect the “coolness” of beavers might be overshadowed by other feelings.
This discussion was especially interesting to me because just around the same time, a friend of mine shared the research he had conducted while completing his PhD at the University of York in England. My friend was interested in learning more about how farmers in both countries view agriculture and environmental protection.
I worked on a couple of English farms in 1990 and was amazed at the rights the public had to what I would have considered private land. The farmers I worked for were required to allow people to walk on public footpaths crossing their farms and to ensure people had access. Many of these paths are hundreds of years old. Farmers there had a very different perspective on public access to natural spaces than we do here.
My friend conducted his research by comparing farmers in England to farmers in southern Ontario. He was looking at what factors influence farmers’ decisions to carry out actions to protect the environment, as well as what approach to public policy would be best to address multiple land use interests.
Some of the findings were not that surprising. For example, all farmers must place a higher value keeping their businesses financially sustainable or they will have no environment to protect. Farmers in England, who have traditionally received a higher level of subsidization for environmental protection, can, as a result, afford to do more to protect the environment.
Ontario farmers also did things to protect the environment as they were able to financially, but with more competition for government funding to complete environmental projects, the ability of farmers to do so was somewhat limited.
For the most part, farmers in both England and Ontario agreed that integrating environmental protection into farming practices was preferable to setting aside land and preserving it in a natural environment classification. While this looked good in theory, practically, it is difficult to achieve.
Ontario farmers interviewed in the study identified several advantages to integrating both land uses – including integrated pest management, timber extraction, reduced soil erosion, habitat for grassland birds, and linking natural systems (Marr, 2018). Ontario farmers pointed out that separating farmland from natural areas allowed greater opportunity for increased mechanization and wider public access in natural areas. On the other hand, integration was perceived to result in more wildlife damage and pests, reduced production, and field sizes that were not commercially viable.
Looking at policy in both jurisdictions revealed that there was a stronger tendency in England to integrate environmentally friendly practices with agriculture, whereas Ontario tended to have more set aside lands such as provincial parks.
In England, the approach has traditionally been to pay farmers more to do things like keep their hedgerows in place, even if integrating agriculture with the natural environment decreases the agricultural productivity of the land overall. A few years back, one of the big grocery chains was trying to brand environmental protection and paid farmers a premium to do so. In Ontario, we have a mindset that favours keeping the most productive land as productive as possible – and if we need to set some aside for nature, we tend use marginal land.
What does all of this have to do with beavers? For me, the beavers serve as a reminder of the complexity of balancing a variety of needs and desires for a valuable resource – our land. What is the most cost effective way of doing that? Developing good public policy is a challenge that often requires us to sit back and take a long-range look at where we are and where we want to go. Can we afford to share our land with the beavers? Can we afford not to? ◊