History of Prairie Agroforestry

A Historical Perspective on Agroforestry and Afforestation on the Canadian Prairies

The completion of the trans-continental railway in Canada in 1885 and the homestead provisions in Canada’s Dominion Lands Act stimulated the sod breaking across the Prairies by farmer/settlers more than a century ago. The government felt that it was essential to plant trees in the prairies in order to encourage agriculture settlement. Large scale prairie forestry was promoted between 1870-1886 to offset a perceived deforestation problem in eastern Canada, improve environmental conditions (i.e. more rain, less wind) for agriculture and to provide fuel and building materials to attract settlers.

In 1886 the House of Commons passed The Experimental Farm Station Act to create farms or nursery stations to grow tree stock for planting and to conduct research in planting trees for timber and shelter; the Department of the Interior joined the planting endeavor in 1901′

Forest Nursery Station in Indian Head, Sask. 1905
Forest Nursery Station in Indian Head, Sask. 1910

In 1904, George Lang, who was nursery manager at the Experimental Farm at Indian Head, Saskatchewan, challenged these new farmers about the idea of planting trees for shelterbelts and using tree plantations as a source of wood for shelter, fencing, fuel and other purposes. The tree species from the nursery that could be planted ranged from cottonwood and maple to pine, spruce and larch, and some grew to 30 feet in 12 years. To think that an acre of 1820 trees cost $14.50 for planting and maintenance and that one could possibly make $197 by selling them off as fence posts after 12 years of growth!

Planting tree stock at the Forest Nursery Station at Indian Head, Sask. ca. 1908
Four-year old poplar at the Indian Head Forest Nursery Station.

What has transpired in the last 100 years in terms of planting trees on the Prairies since George Lang gave his talk? The Experimental Farm in Indian Head, now known as the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Association (PFRA) Shelterbelt Centre, has been producing trees since 1901 (58,800 that year) and currently produces five million trees annually that are distributed across the Prairies. In 2002, they surpassed a cumulative total of 100 million trees. Where have all these trees gone and what was the outcome of George Lang’s vision for trees? One aspect of George’s speech that has been carried on to this day is the establishment of shelterbelts. There are thousands of kilometres of shelterbelts on the Prairies, and the PFRA in 2001 set a goal of planting 8,000 kilometres of shelterbelts by 2006 to help reduce greenhouse gases as part of their Shelterbelt Enhancement Program (SEP). The SEP has also expanded to planting trees for the purpose of riparian buffer strips or planting mixed species in one-hectare blocks or � mile strips for wildlife habitat.

A farm plantation with a shelterbelt in 1909
Planting 4-year old jack pine at the Indian Head Forest Nursery Station ca. 1908

But what has happened to the tree plantations?

During the last 100 years, tree plantations as a source for wood have not really taken off and flourished on the Prairies, as did the shelterbelts. There are some plantations of various species scattered across the prairies either at old nurseries or provincial and municipal parks, but the concept of establishing tree plantations never received the momentum that shelterbelts did. There may be several reasons for the lack of adopting plantations in the early 1900s: farmers were more concerned about removing trees from the landscape to farm crops; and a lack of information regarding plantation establishment and maintenance or a reduced demand for these plantation trees when a large expansive forest existed to the north.

Russian poplar test plantation at the Indian Head Forest Nursery Station
Ten year old Scotch pine plantation in Spruce Woods Forest Reserve, MB in 1916 (top) and three years later in 1919 (bottom)

Thirteen year old Manitoba maple (left) and two year old growth of willow (right) from cuttings at the Brandon Experimental Farm (1910)

Today, however, there seems to be a renewed interest in the development of tree plantations on the prairie landscape. What has caused this renewed interest in tree plantations? What is needed to keep it going and what have we learned so far? There are several factors as to why tree plantations are gaining interest from governments, the forest industry and farmers. One of those drivers is the potential interest in using tree plantations for a carbon sink (storing carbon in the trees and soils) as one strategy to help reduce global warming. Increasing fuel costs have again led to an interest in using short rotation woody crops as biomass for energy. Another is the move by government agencies to help diversify farm incomes by incorporating trees in the farming system, as well as the added benefits to the environment in terms of riparian management, wildlife and habitat. Lastly, some forest companies are interested in obtaining wood from areas other than the natural forests due to potential wood supply concerns, the pressure from environmental groups and large chain retailers to not cut old growth or intact areas, and the ability to harvest wood closer to their processing facilities, reducing costs.

Field day at the hybrid poplar plantations near Meadow Lake, SK. Aug. 25, 2004.