Our yard in Cactus Lake, Saskatchewan was bordered by a number of caragana hedges and deciduous trees. Caragana arborescens is a dense, prickly bush with small, yellow flowers typical of the pea family. In the late summer sun the seed pods crackle and pop, flinging their seeds onto dusty gravel roads and somerfallow fields. Caraganas were planted to form a protective barrier, sheltering yards and fields from harsh winter and summer winds. They separate our yard from the wheat field directly south of our home. As children we sucked sweet nectar from the blossoms, but when the wood was cut or broken it gave off an acrid smell that caught in the back of your throat. The branches have thorns that ravage summer-bared arms and legs and the bushes hiss malevolently with grasshoppers and caragana beetles. Love it or hate it, caragana is an integral part of our prairie agricultural history. The aging bushes are being integrated into a new model of shelterbelt plantings which includes a plan to help support native bees. This new eco-buffer model has international implications which is being promoted as part of a Canadian plan to improve and protect biodiversity. The bad news is the federal government is about to cut the very program that developed the revolutionary eco-buffer model.
When I make my weekly phone call to my mom in Cactus Lake, she gives me the weather report and the bird report. If it's been cold and snowing, I can hear the weariness creep into her tone of voice and I worry about her. I don't like to think of mom and dad driving to their Christmas parties and square dances on icy roads with blowing snow. I worry about their spirits getting low from feeling trapped and snowbound in their tiny isolated hamlet. Mom's bird report is in actuality the bird-feeder report in which she recites the roll call of recent visitors: red polls, wax-wings, downy woodpeckers and blue jays. My mom knows her local flora and fauna: birds, trees and wildflowers. When recent contestants on The Great Canadian Race could not name a single one the provincial flowers as part of a challenge, my mom hooted derisively at their abysmal lack of knowledge. "They didn't even know the Alberta wild rose," she is laughing so hard on the phone she can hardly spit out the words. Mom was a teacher in Cactus Lake's one-room schoolhouse. At that time, the provincial flowers would have been an important part of the patriotic elementary curriculum, but it was mom's father, Grandpa Clark, who inspired her love for nature and helped her develop a sharp eye for birding.
Fred Clark was a soft-spoken, gentle man I barely remember from childhood. In my favourite photograph, grandpa Clark is standing beside a beehive that is stacked with supers that reach above his head--a lovely little visual joke that would make those in-the-know smile. On the day that I understood that there was no way a beekeeper would really stack working hives that high, I felt he revealed part of himself to me--the quiet trickster. Mom says he was passionate about planting trees and loved the way they attracted the prong-horned antelope to his farm. "He planted trees until the day he died," she says proudly. My grandfather farmed near the town confidently named Conquest, Saskatchewan which over the years became known as the Caragana Capital of Canada. Those who grew up with caraganas might not think this was something to be proud of, but I think it's worth taking another look at this shelterbelt standard.
As I grew up with parents and grandparents who lived through The Depression I had always wondered why farmers didn't plant more bushes and trees between fields to keep the top soil from blowing away. When I worked in England in the 1990's and saw the beautiful dense hedgerows between fields, I couldn't understand why that model wasn't taken up on the prairies. I know the extreme cold and drought prohibits the growth of British hedgerow species, but surely there must be local bushes that would perform a similar function. The land around Cactus Lake is rolling prairie with large cultivated fields relieved by small ponds ringed with native bushes and trees. These are the ponds where I spent summer afternoons crouching on my haunches dipping a mason jar into the water to collect snails and other critters. The brackish smell of the water was layered with the comforting scent of wet willow bark and wild mint. Red-winged black birds sang "conkaree!" from cat-tails while their yellow-headed cousins did impressions of squeaky screen doors. Spotted fauns napped in the dappled shade of trembling aspens and porcupines nibbled roots in the shadows. These ponds and bluffs were islands of biodiversity in a sea of monoculture made of acres of wheat, barley, rye, mustard, and rapeseed crops. I felt sure there were plants from the pond bio-zones and wild bluffs where we picked Saskatoon berries that could be extended out to help shelter crops from the harsh elements while increasing wildlife habitat.
What happened in the early years of prairie settlement was the cultivation and propagation of a bush that originated from Siberia. You guessed it--Caragana arborescens aka the Siberia Pea Tree. It was the most affordable option at the time because it was a survivor species and it could be grown from seed. And grow it they did--millions of Caragana bushes were grown at the Experimental Farm in Indian Head, Saskatchewan. William Cram was appointed as the horticulturalist at Indian Head Experimental farm in 1945. His promotion of planting trees to protect farms, fields and gardens and yards earned him the nickname 'Caragana Bill.' Farmers from the three Canadian Prairie provinces could apply to the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration Shelterbelt Centre for trees, depending on need and farm size (and their willingness to put in the time and labor needed to plant the trees). Farmers like my Grandpa Clark benefited from the wealth of experience and knowledge from the staff at the Indian Head Farm and from the scores of tree seedlings they received from the shelterbelt program.
There were other hedgerow and windbreak species grown and shared by the centre including: lilacs, willow, green ash, Siberian larch, spruce and poplar. Initially shelterbelts were planted to create farmyards for the early settlers for shelter from snow, sun and wind and to provide relief from the wide open spaces on the prairie. The prairie that the first settlers tilled had been covered by native plants that colonized the rich soil left behind by receding glaciers. Once this delicate grassland ecosystem was destroyed, the topsoil became vulnerable to drought and erosion which is in part what caused The Depression. Shelterbelts are a primary part of a multifaceted strategy towards topsoil preservation.
In favourable years, prairie food and flower garden flourish in the micro-climates created within successful shelterbelts. Planting a shelterbelt around a farmyard 5 rows deep with 2 rows of conifers can reduce the heating bill by 25%.There is the added benefit of trapping water from melting snowbanks which can be diverted for livestock and gardens. Buffer zones were grown to prevent erosion and keep snow from blowing from the fields onto the roads. Shelterbelts can act as livestock fences and protection from the elements. They are also used to create a barrier between fields and ponds, bogs or riparian areas. One of my childhood friends has planted a shelterbelt around her family farm yard to insulate it from the traffic noise. In addition to their spiritual and aesthetic value, shelterbelt plants can have cultural and monetary value as cosmetic, medicinal and food plants.
William Shroeder, one of the current horticulturalists at the Indian Head Farm specializes in breeding poplars. Perhaps we should call him "Poplar Bill." I phoned him to ask if caraganas can be an invasive species after reading that goats were recently brought in to Wascana Park in Regina to keep them under control. He explained that apart from the sterile cultivars, caraganas can be invasive in habitats such as parkland in northern Saskatchewan. Folks plant them around their cabins where there are no biological controls to check their growth. On the grasslands the land is tilled beside the bushes which them from spreading. Permaculturalists a looking at caragana bushes with renewed interest because of its hardiness in drought and winter, its ability to fix nitrogen in the soil and its potential as a food plant. I haven't eaten caragana "peas", but they have been used as chicken feed and famine food for humans. The leaves have been used to make a blue dye. I aske Bill if he's ever seen caragana used for chicken seed. "I saw a farmer in Kindersley put chickens in mobile cages along the caraganas. They ate the grasshoppers that were attracted to the bushes."
The good news is that Poplar Bill and his colleagues have developed a new shelterbelt model called eco-buffers based on the more natural model of the prairie bluffs where I spent my childhood exploring and daydreaming. These are composed of the bushes and trees that support the Western Bumblebee which has almost been extirpated from western Canada. (The Western Bumblebee is Bombus Occidentalis, aka the white-butted bumblebee, not to be confused with the Canadian white-tailed bumblebee, Bombus moderatus, which is not to be confused with the British white-tailed bumblebee, Bombus Lucorum.) Not that Caragana isn't a bee plant. Au contraire--being in the pea family, bumblebees love it, and it was an important prairie honey plant in the mid twentieth century when Caragana hedges were in their prime. However Caragana only blooms during May and June, leaving a dearth of bee forage for rest of the year.
The new eco-buffer model has been constructed with ecological bee experts such as ecologist Mark Wonnek. The plants have been chosen to help provide a continuous supply of flowers for nectar and pollen and to provide other materials bees need such as plant resins and leaves of species that leaf-cutter bees use to make their nests. By creating soil conditions for ground-nesting bees, these new eco-buffers will provide support for our ailing pollinators. As farming machinery reaches peak size, heritage windbreaks planted in the former shelterbelt model at Conquest have been removed to accommodate the new mega-tractors. My cousins were very upset at the loss of trees and bushes that our ancestors had planted. (As we reach the era of peak soil and peak oil, I imagine tractors will become smaller and more fuel efficient and those wind rows that were removed will be sorely missed.) Rather than being planted in homogenous straight rows the new eco-buffers could be integrated naturally into the topography of a farm within a "precision farming" paradigm. This will create an aesthetically pleasing fluidity in the landscape that will allow the machinery room to maneuver and antelopes the freedom to travel between the biodiverse eco-buffer habitats (at least the ones that aren't bordered by livestock fences).
While the government in Nebraska is offering new grants to help their farmers replace and renew their aging shelterbelts, the federal Conservative government here in Canada has decided to shut down the 112 year old shelterbelt program at Indian Head. At a time when that program has developed a key solution to some of the major problems with current agricultural models, funding has been cut and jobs are being axed. Our ancestors have planted over 610 million trees sequestering megatonnes of carbon. The legacy of the program is priceless.
While the research and development program at Indian Head will continue, the government wants a private nursery to take over the shelterbelt program and farmers will have to pay market value for their trees and bushes. (Will the new eco-buffers have to be supported by crowd-sourced funding?) Many of us have benefited from the knowledge, labour and experience fostered at Indian Head. Our ancestors created the landscape of our childhood with these bushes and trees. We need a government that continues to invest in this legacy. We need to let it be known that we want a government that values the ecology and food security of our country. Please sign the online petition and send the Honourable Gerry Ritz, the Minister of Agriculture in Ottawa a card letting your views be known.
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