The Rise of Specialty Crops in Saskatchewan, 1981-2001

By Carlyle, William J. | The Canadian Geographer, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

The Rise of Specialty Crops in Saskatchewan, 1981-2001


Carlyle, William J., The Canadian Geographer


Introduction

The most significant change in cropping patterns in Saskatchewan over the past 20 years, and perhaps since agriculture became well established in the province, has been the increase in land sown to specialty crops. The area devoted to the main specialty crops in Saskatchewan--dry field pea, lentil, mustard seed, canary seed, dry field bean, triticale, buckwheat, sunflower and chickpea--increased from 136,000ha in 1981 to 2,474,000ha in 2001, or from 1.2 to 16.1 percent of all land sown to crops in the province. In 1981, Saskatchewan accounted for one-third of the main specialty crops by area in the Canadian Prairies, even though it had half the cropland in the region. The proportion of specialty crops in Saskatchewan has, however, risen steadily since, with its share of the Prairie total reaching two-thirds by the late 1980s, three-quarters by the mid-1990s and just over fourfifths by the turn of the millennium. Moreover, because the main specialty crops grown in the Prairies are scarcely grown elsewhere in Canada, Saskatchewan's share of these crops in the Prairie region is very close to its proportion of them in Canada as a whole.

The main purposes of this paper were to examine the reasons for this rapid and vast increase in specialty crops in Saskatchewan since 1981 and to attempt to explain the geographical patterns of specialty crops within the province by 2001.

Main Reasons

There are many and interrelated reasons why specialty crops have become of increasing importance in Saskatchewan during the past two decades (Table 1). The approach taken here to account for this increase is based on Bowler (1992), who developed a model to suit the full complexity of structures and systems that characterise agriculture in developed market economies. The model involves an examination of the entire food supply system.

The food supply system as adapted for use here regarding specialty crops in Saskatchewan comprises many and frequently changing elements including (1) agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and energy, (2) on-farm production variables including the extent of the land base, farm size and crop assemblages and rotations as related to farm-gate prices and agronomic considerations, (3) research and linkages to farmers, (4) contracting, transport and processing, and (5) market development, domestic and foreign, for the different types of specialty crops.

Inputs

Manufactured fertilizers have been increasingly used on Saskatchewan farms since about the 1960s, and they now account for expenditures of some $576 million annually, or an average of $15,568 per farm using purchased fertilizers, with the bulk of the expense being for nitrogen fertilizers. The main specialty crops in Saskatchewan--dry field pea, lentil and chickpea--are all pulse crops, and they have been rapidly increasing in area partly because they have the ability to fix nitrogen from the air in plant-usable form if appropriate rhizobia (bacteria) are present in the soil (McVicar et al. 2001a). The rbizobia enter root nodules of the pulse crops, where they are supplied nutrients and water by the plant, and in return they provide nitrogen fixed from air in the soil to the plant, thereby stimulating plant growth. Under ideal circumstances, the pulse crops fix 70-90 percent of their nitrogen requirements from the air and obtain the remainder from the soil, so that manufactured nitrogen fertilizers are not required, hence reducing costs (McVicar et al. 2001a), If soil nitrogen is low, limited amounts of purchased nitrogen fertilizer may be applied to fill the gap between seeding and the formation of nodules on the roots of the pulse crops, but costs for these purchased nitrogen fertilizers are minimal (McVicar et al. 2000a). Another economic benefit of planting pulse crops, revealed by field trials in Saskatchewan, is that spring wheat and other cereals following them in rotation require less purchased nitrogen fertilizer because some of the nitrogen fixed by a pulse crop remain in the soil after the crop has been harvested (Miller et al. …

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