Protecting Your Yield & the Environment

Adopting forests, windbreaks & riparian buffers on your farm

By Michael Drescher

Environmental best management practices in the agricultural sector are activities that reduce risk to the environment stemming from agricultural operations. These best practices reduce the risk of damage to many parts of the environment including to soil, air and water, as well as to plants and animals, and to their habitats, on and off the farm.

Not all environmental best management practices are suitable to operations under every condition. But while there are some operational costs, all of these approaches are designed to be practical and should have little to no impact on business profitability.

Depending on the circumstances, specific best practices can even reduce the cost of operations and increase productivity.

Windbreaks (or shelterbelts), riparian buffers and farm forests are also examples of environmental best management practices. The benefits of these best practices include reduced soil erosion, more wildlife habitat, increased crop yield, nutrient capture, protection of surface and ground water, and others. However, a 2014 report by Statistics Canada suggests that only 13 per cent of the farm area in Ontario is covered by forests and wetlands.

photo of field with trees and barn in background
    Travis - Adobe-Stock

Regrettably, the area covered by forests and wetlands continues to decrease nationwide as natural and semi-natural land is converted to intensive agriculture. The Statistics Canada report also suggests that windbreaks or shelterbelts are present on only 28 per cent of Ontario farms; riparian buffer zones are present on only 23 per cent of farms.

Earlier results suggest that adoption and maintenance rates of environmental best management practices in Ontario are lower than in some other provinces and further decreasing.

To understand this issue better, we conducted a research study to find out why, or why not, Ontario farmers adopt windbreaks, riparian buffers, and farm forests on Ontario farms. We also wanted to understand how more farmers could be supported in adopting these best practices on more land.

Our study reached close to 500 farmers across Ontario using surveys and 40 farmers through additional interviews. While this is a good number of participants, we caution that these farmers may not be representative of all farmers in Ontario.

Our results suggest that most farmers agree that windbreaks, riparian buffers and farm forests have a wide range of on- and off-farm benefits.

Most of the participating farmers in our research also actively maintain windbreaks (64 per cent) and farm forests (72 per cent) on their land, though fewer maintain riparian buffers (47 per cent).

Farmers felt that they should maintain windbreaks, farm forests, and riparian buffers for various reasons, including family tradition and benefits to farm operations.

Some farmers even added windbreaks (35 per cent), farm forests (20 per cent), and riparian buffers (29 per cent) on their land, while only a few removed them from their farms (four per cent to 12 per cent).

Of note, many farmers rent land from others and these farmers are much less likely to maintain windbreaks, farm forests, and riparian buffers on the rented land (12 per cent to 21 per cent).

We also asked farmers what their neighbours were doing about best practices. It is a concern that a lot of farmers said that many of their neighbours removed windbreaks (45 per cent), farm forests (45 per cent), and riparian buffers (28 per cent), while very few of their neighbours added new ones (11 per cent to 24 per cent).

Most often, farmers indicated that a lack of labour is an important factor for limiting the adoption of windbreaks, farm forests, and riparian buffers. This is also related to the cost and effort that is required for these best practices.

More than 85 per cent of farmers felt that the adoption of windbreaks, farm forests, and riparian buffers should be supported by subsidies, accounting for at least 50 per cent of the cost. Over 35 per cent of farmers even thought that the subsidy should be at least 70 per cent of the cost.

However, two thirds of farmers were not aware of any subsidy programs that would support adoption or maintenance of windbreaks, farm forests, and riparian buffers.

Overall, what is most important for adoption and maintenance of windbreaks and farm forests is not whether farmers believe that these best practices can provide any benefits.

Instead, in most cases the deciding factor is whether farmers believe that they can get, or have, the labour to do the required work to install and maintain them. This is made worse by concerns about the cost of hiring additional labour.

For riparian buffers, the most important factor affecting farmers’ choice is whether farmers think that their adoption and maintenance is the right thing to do.

Farmers whose farm is closer to cities or towns are more likely to rent land from a land developer (instead of from another farmer) than farmers whose farm is farther from any settlements. This is important, because some of these farmers told us that they were paid by their land developer landlords to remove farm forests and windbreaks from the land that they rent. Overall, this suggests that farm forests and windbreaks might be more often removed from farmland that is closer to cities or towns.

Farmers who farm a lot of land, sometimes thousands of acres, are more likely to remove farm forests, windbreaks and riparian buffers, than smaller area farmers. At least in part, this is due to growing farm sizes offering efficiencies of scale.

chart comparing farmers and actions regarding windbreaks, riparian buffers and farm forests
    The proportion of farmers that maintained, added or removed windbreaks, riparian buffers, and farm forests on their own and on rented land, as well as the proportion of farmers that observed that their neighbors added or removed windbreaks, riparian buffers, and farm forests.

Land prices are going up, as are equipment prices. Operations have to be as efficient as possible if the goal is to offset these increasing costs and maximize profits. This is achieved by having larger fields and larger equipment that allows more work to be done per acre in less time.

Larger fields are created by buying up more land, especially if the fields are next to each other, and removing farm forests, windbreaks and waterbodies between the smaller fields.

In addition, larger equipment, like cultivators that are 60 to 80 feet wide, is more difficult to maneuver around obstacles, which is another reason why large area farmers remove farm forests, windbreaks, and single trees.

combine harvesting field
    Some windbreaks may be removed for equipment maneuverability. -G-Adobe-Stock

Ironically, it is those farmers with larger farms that are very profitable who may have the surplus capital required to adopt and maintain farm forests, windbreaks and riparian buffers. However, these farmers are less likely to do this because their main interest is in profit maximization. They may think that farm forests, windbreaks and riparian buffers might cut into their profit margin through loss of productive acreage and less efficient operations.

On the other hand, smaller farmers who farm only a few hundred acres or less, and are economically squeezed, have no or little capital left to adopt or maintain farm forests, windbreaks and riparian buffers.

Often, these smaller farmers cannot afford to hire any additional labor to do this work. In other instances, smaller farmers cannot buy and install the required materials because the suppliers are not interested in their relatively small orders. The suppliers are geared toward working on large areas and planting great numbers of trees, which is beyond the needs and capabilities of most small farmers.

The trend toward larger farm sizes and bigger equipment might have unanticipated consequences, though.

Depending on the specific conditions, the larger fields on very large farms can experience more wind erosion and the great weight of the larger equipment used to farm it can lead to more soil compaction.

Compacted soil can cause increased water erosion, which is further fueled by climate change that brings about more intense rainfalls. This stronger soil erosion needs to be battled with narrower rows of tile drainage.

So, while increasing field sizes may lead to higher efficiency of the work and higher yield overall, the yield per acre actually might go down.

It will be interesting to see how the larger field sizes and heavier equipment will affect relative business profitability in the long run. The goal for large area farmers may be to find the sweet spot of maximum efficiency while avoiding large reductions in yield per acre.

Clearly, large area and small area farmers may have different reasons for why they might or might not adopt or maintain farm forests, windbreaks and riparian buffers.

Large farmers may only become interested if environmental best management practices support strong income that is economically competitive with other production practices, such as through payment for ecosystem services programs.

Small farmers may benefit especially from subsidy programs that offset a large share of the labor cost for the adoption and maintenance of best practices, as well as from easier access to materials, supplies and labour.

All Ontario farm associations (the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, the National Farmers Union – Ontario, and the Christian Famers Federation of Ontario) are interested in promoting environmental best management practices. For example, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs have worked together to develop a series of books on these best practices.

The books explain cost effective options for many different best practices ranging from approaches to conserving soil, to managing pests, and reducing nutrient run-off. The book series provides a wealth of information for farmers interested in these best practices.

If you are interested in making environmental conservation a greater part of your operations, find the book series online at OMAFRA’S Best Management Practices Series website. BF

The research was co-authored by Rob Feick and Wayne Caldwell and funded by grant # OAF-2020-101061 under the Ontario Agri-Food Research Initiative of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

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