Among the many budgetary cuts to wonderful programs and services that Canadians have come to rely on, the government has chosen to discontinue the Prairie Shelterbelt Program. The program was established in 1901 and provided tree and shrub seedlings to eligible landowners in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Peace River region, as well as technical services.
In order to demonstrate eligibility a person had to provide proof that they owned land in one of the aforementioned regions, and had a solid plan for the planting and care of the trees and shrubs. Design practices that best served the types of seedlings, soil types, and regions were listed on the website and representatives were available to speak with should further clarification or direction be required. Each order had to be accompanied by a sketch demonstrating the location and design.
“The seedlings provided are an incentive to producers adopting beneficial management practices and environmental stewardship. The aim of the Prairie Shelterbelt Program is to improve the performance and sustainability of the agricultural sector by helping to achieve the social, economic and environmental benefits of agroforestry.
Agroforestry systems such as shelterbelts conserve soil and water, manage snow and wind, improve air quality, protect yards and livestock, provide income for landowners, stabilize crops and enhance habitat for wildlife.” (Agriculture and Agrifood Canada)
Last year Shane and I ordered and planted 225 seedlings. We would have ordered more but we wanted to make sure we would have enough time to carefully attend every seedling provided to us.
Our soil is extremely poor in this region, and water scarce, so careful planning was required. A friend of ours came out for a day with his Bobcat and dug several wide trenches (thank you Jay!) based on our assessment of the natural contours and shelterbelt requirements. Rather than one wide straight swath, we went with three curved paths two rows deep. We had planned to add a third row to the paths next year. We also planted about 30 shrubs in rows alongside already established trees.
We hand dug each hole a fair amount bigger than would be required so that we could amend the soil for the tiny seedlings. It was quite time consuming but worth it, we felt, to give our seedlings the best chance starting out. We also put little chicken wire ‘cages’ around each seedling to protect them from wildlife passing through and the gale force winds we often see through that section of land. Overkill? Maybe, but we want to make sure these little trees have the best fighting chance to establish themselves. I think it was worthwhile because later in the year some of the seedlings were growing so quickly that the cages had to be removed to allow them more room to spread out.
The trenches we dug seemed to do the trick because when we did get a bit of rainfall, they collected the water nicely and stayed wet longer than the surrounding areas. Most of the seedlings were bursting with new branches and big leaves by midsummer. Even the Hawthorne, which we were told might take longer to establish, showed signs of being strong and healthy.
We didn’t order anything this year because we were afraid we wouldn’t have time to provide adequate care given our building schedule. We thought we’d focus on building and caring for the trees and gardens we have this year and order several hundred more next year when we had more time. Had we known the program would be on the chopping block we’d have made the time.
I’m sad to see this program cut. There’s just no way that we can afford to buy the trees from local nurseries to build the kind of systems that we need to help protect and recondition the soil, feed the local wildlife and improve the microclimate. For all of the useless, bureaucratic government offices, this was one program that really worked for both people and the environment in a meaningful, immediate way- with long term benefits. For something conceived of at the beginning of the 20th century, it was really ahead of it’s time. And I guess that’s why it simply didn’t fit with the Conservative agenda.
Foot note: If you, like me, wish to contact your MP about this cut, or about any other concerns you may have you can go online at www.parl.gc.ca; also letters can be sent without postage to [MP’s name], House of Commons, Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6.