In denial? Farmers ‘failing’ in battle against clubroot

Scott Keller has crunched acreage numbers and found tight rotations and susceptible varieties are commonplace

For the last three years, Scott Keller has been crunching acreage numbers from the provincial crop insurer — and he’s not liking what he sees.

“To me, everything the researchers and the Canola Council (of Canada) is saying that farmers should do; they’re not even doing anything outside of just adopting the resistant varieties,” said the New Norway producer, a former agronomist who now farms full time.

Keller used Agriculture Financial Services Corporation (AFSC) data from its annual Yield Alberta publication to estimate canola rotations across the province.

Those numbers suggest an awful lot of farmers are using a one-in-two-year rotation.

“Another failing grade for Alberta farmers and their #clubroot management — 15 years into knowing about this disease and no reduction in frequency of canola grown in rotation,” Keller tweeted while sharing his results on the social media platform.

AFSC divides the province into 22 areas, and provides yield and acreage numbers for both major and minor crops. Using six years’ worth of data (2013 to 2018), Keller zeroed in on three regions: Peace Country (areas 17-22), north-central (areas 11-13 and 15), and south-central (areas 5, 7, and 8).

Given the number of farmers growing canola every second year, the province’s canola sector deserves a “failing grade,” says Scott Keller, who has analyzed crop insurance data to estimate the percentage of growers using a one-in-two-year rotation.
photo: Courtesy Scott Keller

While the percentage of acres sown to canola varies considerably between these areas (from roughly 30 per cent to above 50 per cent), most have seen tighter canola rotations even though agronomists, scientists, and government officials have been pleading with farmers to lengthen their rotations.

In the north-central region — where the disease was first found and that Keller calls the “clubroot region” — an average of about 42 per cent of acres were sown to canola over the last six years, according to AFSC data. If half of the farmers in that area are on a one-in-three-year rotation, then the other half are growing canola every other year, Keller estimated. (In the Peace, the numbers are even worse, with canola averaging about half of seeded acres, according to his analysis of the numbers.)

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Moreover, only 72 per cent of the canola varieties being grown in the “clubroot region” were clubroot-resistant ones, Keller said. (Yield Alberta also lists acreages of canola varieties.)

Keller doesn’t put the blame on farmers alone.

“The buck stops at the farmer, but it takes a community to ignore a problem like #clubroot for as long as we have,” he said in a series of tweets singling out seed companies (for not enough production of resistant varieties and not having stewardship agreements requiring a one-in-three rotation), the provincial crop insurer (for not offering lower premiums rewarding longer rotations and farmers trying new crops), and government (“leaving each county to write and enforce their own rules has been a disaster”).

Susceptible varieties

Alberta Canola chair John Guelly doesn’t doubt Keller’s numbers.

John Guelly.
photo: Supplied

“I’m still shocked that people in our area — clubroot central — that there’s a number of people who are still growing susceptible varieties,” said the Westlock-area producer, who found clubroot on his farm in 2013.

“That’s just ridiculous in my mind.”

Guelly said he has told the seed retailers in his area not to stock susceptible varieties of canola seed. Some have told him that head office tells them they have to take an allocation of resistant and susceptible varieties, he said.

Guelly worries a farmer could come in and make a last-minute decision to buy a susceptible variety.

“That’s definitely an issue. There’s still a ways to go on that one.”

He also agrees with Keller that many are probably still using the two-year rotation.

“They probably haven’t found clubroot on their land, or they haven’t been looking for it,” he said.

“I’m still shocked that people in our area — clubroot central — that there’s a number of people who are still growing susceptible varieties. That’s just ridiculous in my mind.” – John Guelly.
photo: File/Jennifer Blair

Many people may choose to use the one-in-two rotation because it’s in their comfort zone, he added.

“Nobody wants to change and do different things. The fewer crops you have, the fewer decisions you have to make,” said Guelly.

But producers need to send the message to retailers they want resistant seed, he added.

“I don’t think farmers realize that these resistant varieties are producing as well as the susceptible varieties,” he said.

In his analysis, Keller found the best area, by far, was risk zone 11, which runs from Edmonton down to Ponoka.

“They were 91 per cent resistant varieties,” said Keller. “You look at the worst area for not using resistant varieties and it seems to be Wainwright and all down Highway 14, like Tofield. They are only adopting clubroot-resistant varieties 58 per cent of the time last year.

“That’s a shock. Risk area 15 (around St. Paul), has been extremely quick at adopting resistant varieties and they only found it (clubroot) two years ago.”

Keller calculated that 40 per cent of the province’s canola acres come from areas where clubroot is most prevalent; Camrose, Wetaskiwin, up to Westlock and all the way east to the border. Another 40 per cent comes from the Peace River region.

“Three-quarters of the canola in Alberta is from those two regions and they have the tightest canola rotation,” said Keller.

In risk area 11 (which includes Sturgeon County, Leduc County, and the area around Edmonton), he estimates half of the farmers were employing a one-in-three year and were growing canola every other year.

In risk areas 11, 12, 13 and 15, which had clubroot, many farmers were still growing clubroot-susceptible varieties. In Camrose County, where he lives, there have been only two cases where clubroot was found on a resistant variety.

“We have been a red county for five years,” he said. “I think we have 120 clubroot-infested fields now in our county and we have about 1,200 or 1,300 fields of canola every year.”

Alternative crops

While canola is widely deemed the most profitable crop, Guelly said he was very surprised to discover that in the past two years, he’s netted more off his malt barley. He said that peas can also be a great option.

“Maybe people can bounce between peas and barley as a third crop,” he said.

Keller said producers whose county borders a clubroot-infested area should think about using a clubroot-resistant variety. Guelly agrees, although he noted research done by Stephen Strelkov a professor of plant pathology at the University of Alberta, has shown resistance doesn’t break down simply by using resistant varieties.

There won’t be enough resistant seed in the seed for 2019, but farmers should tell their retailers that they want resistant seed for 2020, said Guelly. He said he also expects there will be greater selection of resistant varieties of canola available in 2020.

In a presentation at FarmTech in January, Guelly talked about his experience with clubroot, urging his audience to actively scout for it instead of hoping it’s not in their fields. He is now working with several others to get the Alberta Clubroot Management Plan updated. The old plan recommends a one-in-four rotation, but research done in Quebec and replicated in Alberta has found that if the clubroot spore load is low, a one-in-three rotation can greatly reduce spore counts.

Guelly also wants people to be able to talk about clubroot and not feel stigma or shame.

“Get people to talk about clubroot and get rid of it and manage it,” he said. “Unless they feel free to talk with their neighbours and their agronomist, they’re not going to be able to have the best conversations and find out about all the new research and what the new management techniques are.”

Clubroot isn’t going away, he added.

“We just have to have the management to keep it in check and keep spore loads low and learn to deal with it,” he said.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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