Helping farmhands

Redberry Lake sits in central Saskatchewan near the town of Hafford. This saltwater lake nestled within rolling prairies is the nesting grounds for more than 180 species of birds—many endangered or threatened—and is a popular summer tourist destination.

For the past 15 years, Redberry Lake has been desig­nated a biosphere reserve where maintaining the health of the natural environment is practiced alongside a focus on meeting the needs of the local, mainly agricul­ture-based, community.

In September, School of Environment and Sustainability (SENS) students worked with local farmers to help them assess the sustainability of their farm operations as part of a field course for students in the school's Master of Sustainable Environmental Management program.

"Exploring Redberry Lake Biosphere Reserve was a wonderful opportunity, and I learnt so much during the field course," said Alexandra Gresiuk, SENS student. "I'm from Saskatchewan, so I know how important agriculture is. I also care about the environment, but until this course I didn't realize that sustainability and farming could coexist."

Groups of three to four students were paired with a local cattle or crop farm and spent five days taking soil, water and vegeta­tion samples, as well as evaluating the operations for how sustain­able they were. Students consid­ered environmental, economic and social dimensions of sustain­ability. In late October, the teams met with the farmers to present their reports and talk about their findings.

Gresiuk and classmates Ashley Shaw and Muzeyi Bagonluri were paired with Nick Partyka, a farmer with a 3,000- acre cropland operation about 20 kilometers west of Hafford. Partyka's family has been farming in the area since 1914.

"Nick is doing a really good job. He includes wetland buffers and uses a targeted instead of blanket approach when it comes to fertilizers," said Gresiuk. "Our report focused on some of the potential consequences we could see coming up in the future like eutrophic wetlands, degraded soils and flooding."

To help prevent this from becoming a reality, the students suggested the farm increase existing buffer areas around wetlands, to help the natural plant life filter the pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides used on crops. They also stressed the need for cover crops to limit soil erosion and add additional nutrients.

"We were looking at not only the impact the Partyka farm would have to its own lands, but also the impact to the larger biosphere reserve and ecosystem," said Gresiuk.

Partyka was appreciative of the hard work done by the students and is looking forward to going through the recommen­dations in the report.

"There are a lot of good points in the report. We are doing quite a bit of it already and planning to do more, especially to control encroaching and noxious weeds, basically those invasive species," said Partyka. "Otherwise these weeds take over the land and need more particular herbicides."

"I liked working with the students—they are a very diverse group and I found learning about their local farm practices infor­mative, like Alex's experience in B.C. and Muzeyi's in Ghana," added Partyka.

For the students' part, working with the farmers was a rewarding experience as well.

"Having a client was really nice. You typically don't have that experience of doing real work for a client while in school. I really liked getting the feedback from Nick. It makes me a better scientist," said Gresiuk.

 

Meagan Hinther is a commu­nications specialist with the Global Institute for Water Security and the School of Environment and Sustainability.
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