Moving the yardsticks: The million-acre pollinator maneouver

Pollinators much prefer flowering crops, like alfalfa, to corn and soybeans.

A proposal for a one-million-acre set-aside for pollinators in Ontario by 2018 sounds like something a government or activists would propose, and farmers would lose their minds over.

What? A million acres in a province losing 350 acres of prime farmland a day to development?

But now, this set-aside program, the gemstone in the new 10-page Ontario Pollinator Health Blueprint, is looking like an amazingly clever maneouver by farmers.

For example, how clever it is that the Grain Farmers of Ontario, the lead organization behind the blueprint and the target of so much criticism for its members’ use of pesticides, is the very organization calling for this massive set aside?

How clever too that it came to its own pollinator plan by soliciting opinions from 900 farmers whose voices are being heard through an eight-person task force that includes two beekeepers?

How clever that the plan also calls for others, including public landowners (i.e. the government) to stand up and be counted in the set-aside program?

And how clever that it has arranged a review of the plan with provincial agriculture, food and rural affairs minister Jeff Leal, who opened the door to consultation and now has a farmer-led plan to show his cabinet colleagues?

Very clever.

It’s about taking control of an agenda that was starting to leave agriculture behind

The million-acre figure is a headline-grabber. It’s not trite. It’s not about farmers pushing back against the public’s call for sustainability. It’s not about farmers whining that people don’t understand the intricacies of agriculture or the realities of producing food (even though they don’t).

Rather, it’s about taking control of an agenda that was starting to leave agriculture behind. That job is never-ending, and this is a great example of being as bold as your opponents.

No one now can say farmers are downplaying the significance of pollinators. The size of the set aside being proposed in the blueprint equals nearly one million football fields (a football field is about one acre in size).

And at this point, it doesn’t really matter that there are some unknowns. For example, the whereabouts of this one million acres of land is uncertain. The grain farmers themselves say there isn’t a clear assessment of how much land is even currently available to pollinators, let alone clear evidence of how much is actually needed, and where.

But they believe it’s out there.

GFO chair Mark Brock foresees a registry being created in which acreage and habitat would be recorded and monitored. The registry would provide a mechanism for everyone to know what pollinator-friendly lands and programs already exist. As well, it would offer up a way to track new habitat and programs.

A million acres of repurposed farmland, as well as private land and public land for pollinator-friendly habitat, would mean continuous blooms throughout the growing season could be available to bees and other pollinators.

“It’s a large number of acres, but if all members of our communities support the end goal, we believe it can be achieved and bees will be able to find habitat in many different locations,” says Brock. “We see a lot of opportunity for good bee habitat in areas like fence rows, road sides, and municipal lands.”

The way he cites public land is noteworthy. This million-acre exercise isn’t totally falling on the shoulders of farmers, and shouldn’t. Farmers are leading it, but Brock says all parties must cooperate and be committed to meet and maintain the one-million-acre target.

Monitoring, research, benchmarks, registries – they’re all part of what’s needed to help sort out fact from fiction, and reduce the hyperbole over pollinators. It’s a complicated, huge issue, and it’s clever of farmers to face it head on with a million-acre program in which everyone has a stake.

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