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Extension services

While the emphasis of the farm management programs appears predicated on a financial strategy, relieving government of its traditional role of farm income support, there are numerous components that enhance the sustainability of farm practices. A case in hand is the recent announcement of the Land Management Assistance Program (LMAP), a joint federal-provincial effort implemented this spring in numerous provinces. "Its intent is to improve the long-term financial returns for these farmers and the sustainability of the natural resource base for agriculture," reads the statement announcing the program details. Money first, environment second.

Within LMAP there are several up-front components to improve the environmental effects of agricultural practices; grants for maintaining crop residue cover, permanent ground cover and best management practices. Of particular interest is the inclusion of funding for "Farm Conservation Clubs", which are designated for carrying out farmer-to-farmer demonstrations, on-farm research and helping to improve on-farm planning and decision making.

Operating under a variety of different names, farmer clubs have been the European method of extension for many years. With the demise of traditional institutional extension and the switch of government agricultural personnel to program delivery, farm management clubs are beginning to emerge to fill the void.

Quebec is now in the last year of a four year program entitled "Club d'encadrement technique" (technical support club). The program provides financial assistance for start-up costs and the training of personnel, as well as 80% of the salary of advisors hired by a club that can range in size from 5 to 40 farmers.

Livestock and crop production, pest control (insect and disease), soil conservation, non-synthetic chemical (nosynth) production methods and the establishment of computer management systems are all specific areas that can be administered within the club. Because there is a separate program for financial management groups, the economic aspects are excluded, as are marketing activities.

Jacques Nauld is an advisor working with a group of cash crop farmers in the "corn belt" region south of Montreal. He says the main emphasis of his work has been the rationalization of crop production practices, particularly the lowering of inputs. "The most frequent question I get at the beginning (of working with a farmer) is, 'How can I reduce inputs without affecting yields?'"

Nauld's approach is to give general ideas of ways that a farmer can improve crop production practices, try them out on a small scale and them implement the chosen strategies step-by-step. He emphasizes that although his main areas of concern are crop production and soil conservation, for example designing a crop rotation plan, he takes a holistic approach to devising a program, taking into account all the activities of the farm and not just focussing on weeds alone or just fertility.

He acknowledges that economics are the main driving force for farmers to start working with a club, and wonders if the price of inputs were to drop and commodities rise whether most farmers would stick with the program. "There are a few farmers oriented to the environment, they're easy to tell because they don't come with just a finance question but with one on something like pollution," Nauld says.

But he notes that once farmers become a part of the process they often become more aware of environmental concerns. Because the club program is "an extraordinary method of extension" operated at the grassroots level, involves small numbers, on-farm trials and priority setting by the farmer, Nauld believes that participants will end up, after the initial five years, being way ahead. Perhaps even to the point where the farmers won't require some of the services of the club anymore, a time when advisors like Nauld will have to change they way they work. "My aim is that after three or four years, they can drop me, which is unlike the fertilizer guy who has to keep coming back every year," he says.

A further development in this area has been the piggy-backing of advisory services on programs that have a wider purpose. In a flip-flop of programs with financial objectives improving the sustainability of farm resources, environmental programs can also have a beneficial effect on farm finances.

Sarah Cushing is a field technician with the extension service of the University of Vermont at Montpelier. She is part of the crop management segment within the Missisquoi Hydrologic Unit, a water quality program in northern Vermont operated cooperatively between ten different agencies. The aim is to improve the water quality of the Missisquoi water basin, and amongst the many sources of water pollution - from septic tanks to industry - farmers have been targeted to reduce manure and fertilizer run-off.

Cushing`s main task is soil testing and manure analysis in order to devise a "nutrient management plan" for the fields of participating farmers. The program also carries out pest scanning so that applications of pesticides are more focused, reducing the risk of excessive use and potential contamination. She feeds the data into a manure management spreadsheet program and comes up with the different options available to the farmer. "I'm not there to tell them what to do, only to give advice on the various options. If a field shows a high phosphate rate, I may recommend that applications be limited to prevent problems from a water quality point of view, but that's about it," she says.

Cushing also helps with the development of record keeping, an essential item in her view to follow the variations over the years and to be able to make comparisons. "Crop rotation plans are not things that should be made in April, just before planting, but something that can be used to look five years in advance," she added.

The program started in 1990 with 10 farmers and now has 12, with another six that want to join. The farmers are only charged $2.00 an acre for corn and alfalfa fields, and $1.00 an acre for hay and pasture. Cushing notes that after the initial five year term of the program is finished, the objective will be to establish a crop management association on a permanent basis.

Beyond the framework of management support clubs and programs, there are numerous other services and programs that farmers may use. Livestock farmers have been long-time users of herd analysis and record of production programs, as well as nutrition, breeding and health services offered by various outfits ranging from AI centres to feed companies. These have been as much tied to increasing production or improving efficiency through additional inputs as through management.

More and more private companies specializing in farm advisory services without being tied to specified products are emerging, although expansion has been limited by the expectation of farmers to receive support without charge from governments, companies and service organizations. User fees and cutbacks in the range of services, particularly from governments, will likely enhance the role of management clubs and advisory companies in the future.

Copyright 1992 REAP Canada.

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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