Some Alberta counties are taking a zero-tolerance approach to clubroot — and canola growers are learning the hard way that they mean business.
“Our policy basically states that if you have clubroot, you cannot seed that land back to canola for four years,” said Steve Upham, reeve for the County of St. Paul.
“We were given this duty by the Weed and Pest Control Act to enforce this and make sure that agriculture stays healthy and is a vibrant part of the Alberta economy. We take that responsibility very seriously.”
In fact, one producer who refused to adhere to the policy had two quarters of canola sprayed down this year.
The county introduced its clubroot policy in 2016 after the disease started to snake its way north, said Upham, who also farms near Spedden.
“We had been reasonably successful at keeping clubroot at bay,” he said. “But the way things have been financially around farms the last few years, farmers have tried to tighten their rotations. So we’ve had some issues with clubroot starting to surface.”
Under the policy, fields in the county suspected of having clubroot are tested, and once clubroot is confirmed, the landowner receives a pest notice, which prohibits him or her from growing canola and other cruciferous crops for three years (and only clubroot-resistant varieties in the fourth year.) The landowner must also control volunteer canola and sanitize his equipment when leaving the field.
The county tests every single quarter seeded to canola, and when the first infested field was found, the owner acted “very responsibly,” seeding the next crop down to hay.
“There are some great producers who have had some issues with clubroot, but they realize that the risk is high, and bit by bit, they clean it. They do their due diligence and get rid of it,” said Upham.
“But you’ve got to be on it every day.”
But earlier this spring, another farmer called the county’s bluff after receiving his pest notice. After seeding one infected quarter to canola, the farmer was warned he was in contravention of the policy and that the county would have to spray the crop down if he didn’t do it himself.
“He seeded one quarter and then came to council to appeal to us to not do anything about it. We said that the policy stood and we were going to act on it, and then a few days later, he seeded another quarter,” said Upham, adding the county got a court order to access the land and spray the crop down.
“We sprayed it off, and it just sat there fallow for the summer. Farmers know what it costs to seed a quarter of canola. He had two quarters sprayed off. That’s considerable.”
The producer “wasn’t very happy,” but as a farmer himself, Upham wasn’t very happy either.
“It’s very frustrating. This industry is so vitally important to the economy of Alberta, and we have due diligence to protect it if we see the need,” he said.
“Especially the production of canola. If producers lose that, they have a major impediment to their bottom line.”
As clubroot continues its spread across Alberta — the first confirmed case in the Peace region was found this summer — producers need to “think responsibly” about their rotations and “not risk canola’s future.”
“It’s spreading so uncontrollably. And if it isn’t nipped in the bud, it can kill you,” said Upham.
“Sure it’s going to cost a little bit, but that’s the cost of doing business. It’s far cheaper than the consequences.”
But right now, many producers are more worried about short-term cash flow than long-term consequences, said Cody McIntosh, acting agricultural manager for Red Deer County.
“It’s really an economic decision that they’re making,” said McIntosh. “They know, in the long term, it’s not good for the health of the land. But there’s large land rental payments and large equipment costs. So the tendency is to underutilize rotation.”
Red Deer County — which has had a clubroot policy since 2008 — previously mapped all fields with canola and extrapolated rotations based on the inventory numbers. The results were alarming.
“More than half were following at least a one-in-three-year or a one-in-four-year canola rotation, which is good,” said McIntosh. “But we were seeing about 25 per cent that were canola every other year. That’s alarming — 25 per cent of crops are going shorter than recommended.
“Then there was a small percentage — under 10 per cent — that were back to back. We assume we have an average of about 1,000 canola fields in Red Deer County, so 100 of those were back to back. That’s pretty significant.”
But because clubroot hasn’t caused any “absolute wrecks” in Red Deer County, producers haven’t got serious about extending their rotations, he added.
“We’re not there yet as far as the severity of clubroot, so people don’t see the other side of the coin,” he said. “It still pays to push the rotation.”
Red Deer County initially took a hard-line approach to managing clubroot through a zero-tolerance policy, and McIntosh believes that helped the county slow the spread of clubroot.
“Speaking to municipalities that had clubroot before us, they said, ‘You cannot be firm enough on the first few cases. It all buys time. The more restrictions you have before you get clubroot, the better,’” said McIntosh.
“What we managed to do in Red Deer County was slow the spread of clubroot down so that the awareness and education component were in place before we had any wrecks in fields.”
That’s a trend that other counties have noticed as well, said Canola Council of Canada agronomist Dan Orchard.
“There aren’t a lot of counties that don’t regulate, but certainly, there have been anecdotal and survey data that suggests that counties that don’t regulate and have high levels of infestation have the most severe infestations as well,” said Orchard.
Leduc County — where Alberta’s first case of clubroot was found in 2003 — has been a “flagship” when it comes to managing the disease, said Orchard.
“Leduc County was the first to really scout every single canola field every year, host all sorts of information sessions, regulate it, and enforce measures if need be,” he said.
“Their county still has significant levels of clubroot because it was pretty bad before we had resistant varieties and other management measures. They have lots of fields that are infested, but they have very low levels compared to other counties that aren’t taking these measures.”
Working with the county
Even so, Red Deer County’s policy was adjusted in 2015 to build in a tolerance.
“Putting a five-year prohibition on the growth of canola when we were finding one per cent clubroot infestation was pretty severe,” said McIntosh.
“We knew our neighbours — especially those to the north, in Camrose, Westaskiwin, Leduc, and Lacombe — all had dozens of clubroot cases and they weren’t handling them as sternly as we were.”
Red Deer County determines how severe the infestation is — minor, moderate, or severe — and bases management decisions on that, he said. A minor infestation is managed by the producer on his own, but moderately or severely infested fields might be barred from canola for up to five years. And like the County of St. Paul, Red Deer County has the right to destroy a crop that contravenes the policy.
“I don’t want somebody to put in $20,000 worth of seed and then have us kill it down, but the Alberta Pest Act and our policy say that, if we have to destroy a crop, we could,” said McIntosh, adding it’s never got to that point.
“I want to work with them and come to an understanding of using best management practices to curb the disease rather than using a heavy hammer.
“We’re here to help these guys farm — not prevent them from farming.”
Ultimately, it’s better for producers to work with their counties than it is to hide clubroot in their fields, said Orchard, adding “that’s been a problem in the past.”
“Often farmers are reluctant to work hand in hand with their counties because they feel that the county is dictating their farming practices,” he said.
“But farmers will have to manage this somehow. The management protocols from counties that do have regulations are quite in line with what farmers should do and would end up doing anyway.
“These counties aren’t enforcing anything that’s unrealistic.”