Agronomic and demographic assessment of fields and farmers involved in a Pesticide Free Production (PFP) pilot project in Manitoba

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Nazarko, Orla M.
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Limited adoption of existing strategies for pesticide use reduction led to the development of Pesticide Free Production (PFP). This alternative crop production system was developed by Manitoba farmers, researchers, and extension workers in 1999. PFP is intended to be a flexible, straightforward framework for reducing pesticide use that will appeal to a broad range of Manitoba farmers. The guidelines prohibit the use of in-crop pesticide use, seed treatments, and prior use of residual pesticides. However, a pre-emergent application of a non-residual pesticide such as glyphosate is permitted, as is synthetic fertilizer use. The agronomic and demographic characteristics of fields and farmers involved in a PFP pilot project were characterized. Seventy-one farmers volunteered 120 fields for inclusion in the project. Fields and farmers were categorized into one of three groups, based on whether or not PFP certification was achieved. If certification was achieved, fields and farmers were further categorized based on whether or not the field or farm was in transition to organic production. Eleven crops were included in the project, primarily spring and winter cereals and flax (Linum usitatissimum L). Overall, 68% of fields and 83% of the land base volunteered was certifiable as PFP, with higher levels of certification in spring cereals and lower levels in canola (Brassica napus L. and B. rapa L.) and winter wheat (Triticum aestivum L.). Over 2300 ha were certifiable as PFP. The primary reason for farmer interest in PFP was to reduce input costs. Farmers without certifiable fields tended to be more interested in marketing opportunities than farmers with certifiable fields. Participants volunteered from virtually all agricultural regions of Manitoba. However, there were proportionally more participating fields from regions that typically have higher levels of cattle and forage production and reduced or zero-tillage. Yields were not significantly different among groups. Yields of certifiable PFP crops were 90% and 84% of the long-term yield average in fields not in transition to organic and fields in transition to organic, respectively. Weed densities in certifiable fields were 110 plants m-2 and 112 plants m-2 in fields not in transition to organic and fields in transition to organic, respectively, and were not significantly different among groups. Weed densities in certifiable fields were considered to be relatively light on the basis of comparison with pre- and post-spray weed densities for this region, and participating farmers' indication of the severity of weed pressure. Farmers indicated high satisfaction with the outcome of certifiable PFP. Residual weed populations were not an issue for the majority of farmers, and few indicated that they expected to increase future pesticide use as a result of producing a certifiable PFP crop. Management practices most commonly indicated for use in PFP were crop rotation with forages, increased seeding rates, and delayed seeding. Certifiable PFP tended to be more common among farmers who demonstrated active preparation for a reduced-pesticide year. As herbicide use decreased among groups, an increase in the use of tillage was evident. Results indicate that soil conservation practices may be more frequently implemented in cropping systems utilizing PFP than those in transition to organic production. In general, farmers participating in the project, particularly those not in transition to organic, were typical of Manitoba for most demographic variables, including farm income, farm and field size, age, and off-farm employment. One exception was that all participant groups had higher levels of education than a random sample of Manitoba farmers. The regional distribution of participants, crop choice for PFP, and farmers' decisions to retain relatively small and weed-free fields for certifiable PFP demonstrated a tendency for PFP to be implemented in relatively low-risk situations. However, in the context of typical Manitoba farm operations, PFP was implemented on relatively large fields and farms, indicating the potential for its implementation on a commercial scale. The finding that farmers implementing PFP can be considered mainstream is a critical one, as it suggests that there is the ability of PFP or other intermediate strategies to be implemented by a large segment of the farm population in Manitoba. In this way, PFP has the potential to have a significant impact by providing a framework for pesticide use reduction.