Petitions bearing almost 6,000 signatures calling on the federal government to halt its proposed closure of the Indian Head Agroforestry Development Centre were presented to an opposition MP last Friday at an event timed to coincide with what many fear will be the tree farm’s last harvest.
Citing changes in farming practices over past decades, federal Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz announced in April that the Prairie shelterbelt program in operation since 1901 had completed its work and would be closed or sold to a private-sector buyer.
Bruce Neill, a retired manager of the nursery at Indian Head who is now the spokesman for the Save the Shelterbelt Program group, said 4,000 of the signatures were gathered from farmers and townsfolk in southeast Saskatchewan immediately after the closure was announced. The rest were gathered after petitions were sent to RM offices around the province.
Neill said that many rural residents were shocked to hear that the future of the labs, greenhouses and a century’s worth of painstakingly developed genetic material adapted to the Prairie climate is unknown.
“I don’t think that they have a plan. Somebody somewhere just made this decision and then said, ‘Go figure it out,’” said Neill.
Lorne Scott, formerly Saskatchewan’s minister of the environment during the Romanow years in the 1990s who is now reeve of Indian Head, was present at the ceremony presenting the petitions to Liberal MP Ralph Goodale on Friday at the local RM office.
The tour participants were not allowed to enter the centre or speak with nursery workers, but were able to watch tree seedlings being harvested from a picnic area open to the public about a quarter-mile away.
The federal government’s position that the agroforestry centre’s work is finished is not credible, he said, noting that last year saw 3.5 million trees sent out free of charge for planting — enough for 700 miles of shelterbelts.
“All you need to do is drive from Winnipeg to Calgary and you’ll see virtually no farmyard without trees around it. Certainly the vast majority of them came from Indian Head,” said Scott, who also farms five quarters near the town.
Now, with many old shelterbelts coming to the end of their lifespans, there will still be a big demand for new seedlings to rejuvenate the stands.
The tree farm’s annual budget is roughly $3 million to $4 million per year, putting the cost to the taxpayer at about $1 per tree, he noted.
So, he added, nothing has been forthcoming from the federal government about the possibility of adding a “cost-recovery” fee of $1-$2 per seedling with volume discounts that would cover the expense of running the operation.
“Unfortunately, there was no consultation and no plan. There’s no indication that it will continue to operate as a nursery,” said Scott, adding that it might end up being converted into a residential subdivision for the town.
Liberal MP Ralph Goodale said the decision to end the program is “a competely wrongheaded move” and promised to have the petitions officially and publicly tabled in the House of Commons.
“You can just imagine the kind of vision that it took for some agricultural leaders 111 years ago to stand on the bare prairie and say, ‘We’re going to have a tree nursery here,’” said Goodale, adding that the fruits of the centre’s work — some 600 million trees — can be seen across Western Canada protecting farmyards from biting winds, and conserving soil, water, and biodiversity on agricultural lands.
“Closing it shows utter blindness to the realities of Prairie agriculture, and closing it is an absolute false economy,” he said. “This is a government that has its priorities all screwed up.”
Patrick Girard, a spokesman for Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, said the centre could be transferred to another owner.
“With regards to the current status of the centre in Indian Head, there continues to be considerable interest from third parties regarding an ongoing tree production and distribution business focused on the agricultural community. AAFC is providing any interested parties with relevant information to develop their possible business plans,” Girard said in an email.