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Interest in forestry and agroforestry is expanding among private landowners in the "Forest Fringe" region of Saskatchewan, Canada, a transition area between the Boreal and Grasslands Eco-regions. Through the Saskatchewan Forest Centre (SFC), the provincial government promotes agroforestry and rural afforestation for economic, social and environmental benefits.

    Unveiling the SFC Agroforestry Demonstration Network at the Riparian/Wildlife site. (Photo courtesy Deb Weedon)

Trees as a Potential Crop

In recent years, annual profits from agriculture in the province have decreased. Primary factors associated with this decline are environmental and shrinking market access as the result of trade barriers and subsidies.

In 2003, the province of Saskatchewan negotiated with a new forest products company to obtain 80% of their wood supply from Crown lands. This resource development resulted in a move toward deriving the balance of required wood supplies from private lands. These factors have led some farmers to consider managing trees as another crop. This crop diversification can result in another source of income that would be periodic, lump sum, or both and would depend o­n how the tree crop is managed.

Using GIS data obtained from the Southern Digital Land Classification, soil maps, and the hybrid poplar suitability project, over 1.2 million ha of private land in the forest fringe area has potential for forestry development and farm diversification using afforestation or agroforestry practices.

Saskatchewan Forest Centre

The Saskatchewan Forest Centre (SFC) was established in 2002 as a not for profit, technology transfer organization, with a mandate "to stimulate the acquisition, creation and dissemination of knowledge to build a socially, ecologically and economically sustainable forests sector."

Three units operate from the SFC: Agroforestry, Value Added and Fire/Forest Ecosystems. The SFC Agroforestry Unit is helping farmers make decisions o­n the incorporation of trees o­n their land base, using afforestation and agroforestry practices.

The Centre is funded by the following agencies: Saskatchewan Departments of Environment (SE), Industry and Resources (SIR), Agriculture, Food and Rural Revitalization (SAFRR), Natural Resources Canada's Canadian Forest Service (CFS) and Western Economic Diversification Canada (WED).

Hybrid Poplar

The favoured tree species of most landowners in the province are various hybrid poplar cultivars. The reason hybrid poplars are so well liked for use in afforestation or agroforestry is that they are a fast growing tree. Usually, hybrid poplar reach a harvestable size in 20 years, depending o­n site quality, while species such as white spruce or jack pine need between 60 and 80 years to reach merchantable size. Although a 20 year crop to a farmer remains an option relatively hard to justify due to the long investment time and distant returns, some options exist to create periodic returns until final harvest (e.g., thinning). In any farming system, a critical decision is the crop (tree species) chosen. The same environmental factors that affect traditional agriculture crops affect trees, such as wind, moisture, nutrient availability, and frost.

Hybrid poplar has been deemed "suitable" or "highly suitable" as an alternative farm crop o­n over 1.9 million hectares in central Saskatchewan. The evaluation was done by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), in association with the SFC, and will aid landowners in determining land capabilities for various species.

Multiple Products

The SFC encourages a "multiuse" approach that allows the segregation of a harvested tree stem into components that can provide the landowner with the greatest return o­n investment. This approach can be intensive requiring additional time and money, but it creates additional product value that reaps greater rewards if the raw material is utilized for high-value end products. The approach involves managing the tree growth to obtain several products at harvest.

For example, pruning results in clear (knot free or small knots) wood in the first bole of the tree that can be sold at a premium as veneer logs or high grade sawlogs. The second bole of the tree could be used for lower value sawlogs and oriented strand board, while the top and limbs can be chipped for use in pulp or oriented strand board. Currently, demand for engineered wood products is high and increasing. Many new opportunities in international markets exist for the use of wood from hybrid poplars in these wood products.

Demonstration Network

The SFC has established an Agroforestry/Afforestation Demonstration Network, showcasing various agroforestry practices established by landowners. Some of the following trials are found in the network:

  • Silvopastoral
  • Riparian management
  • Wildlife habitat plantings
  • Afforestation
  • Hybrid poplar stooling beds
  • Clonal trials
  • Fertilizer trials
  • Weed control trials

Trees can and should be incorporated into farming operations for several reasons. These fast growing trees not o­nly serve as a potential alternative wood supply, they can be used to accomplish forest and land conservation objectives. By increasing the biodiversity of the land base o­n agriculture lands, habitat for desired wildlife and plant species can be restored. Additionally, trees are an attractive option where land values are low due to marginal agriculture productivity. Farmers are also using agroforestry as options for intergenerational land transfer, erosion reduction, and incorporation into Environmental Farm Plans.

Community Benefits

The incorporation of trees into existing farming practices is being viewed from a community perspective as well. Cities and towns in the province have shown great interest in incorporating tree production into a community economic plan. The Agroforestry Unit of the SFC is busy helping landowners and communities understand how diversification options can include trees. Following is a list of some benefits and products that can obtained from this holistic approach to economic development as discussed with communities and private landowners in Saskatchewan:

  • Forest products (veneer logs, saw logs, OSB logs, pulp wood)
  • Kyoto/carbon credits
  • Waste management, including livestock and human (phytoremediation)
  • Production of wildlife habitat
  • Increase in biodiversity
  • Utilization for biofuels
  • Biomass production
  • Reduction of soil erosion and salinity
  • Shelter for livestock and crops
  • Ecotourism
  • Water filtration

Crop Insurance

The SFC has been working with Saskatchewan Crop Insurance to develop a plan o­n how to insure trees as a crop. With partial funding from the SFC FDF, the Centre for Studies for Agriculture, Law and the Environment (CSALE) is investigating taxation issues for trees o­n agricultural lands. Several other agroforestry and afforestation projects funded by the FDF are o­ngoing. The Agroforestry Unit has a good relationship with Farm Credit Corporation (FCC) and keeps them informed of agroforestry activities occurring in the province. Considerable information is available o­n the SFC website www.saskforestcentre.com relating to agroforestry. Included are technical sheets, guides o­n tree establishment and maintenance costs, and completed agroforestry-related FDF reports. To meet its technology transfer mandate, the Agroforestry Unit of the SFC delivers current agroforestry information in association with SAFRR Extension Agrologists through technical sheets, workshops, programs, and field days. There are federal programs such as the Greencover Program and Forest 2020 that are providing financial assistance to landowners to convert regular cropping practices to those that incorporate trees.

Conclusion

In Saskatchewan, the mounting interest by landowners to turn to agroforestry and afforestation efforts to diversify existing cropping options has lead to increasing discussion of the natural "fit" of trees, not o­nly in the forest fringe but also o­n the prairie landscape. The sustainability of rural areas is an issue faced by most of the world. In Saskatchewan, trees have become part of a range of activities as a solution. Whatever the reason for a landowner to turn to agroforestry, there are positive benefits, not o­nly for the individual, but for the community and the environment.

By Deb Weedon, RPF 
Agroforestry Team Leader, Saskatchewan Forest Centre

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