Senators on the agriculture committee studying soil health questioned departmental officials last week on how and why they left early adopters of no-till out of incentive programs. Quebec senator Chantal Petitclerc said the early adopters started storing carbon without the benefit of grants, programs and subsidies that are now available from the federal government.

“What can we do for those folks aside from just thanking them for being trailblazers?” she said during the Feb. 14 meeting. “Do you factor in the work that was done by these trailblazers that may have caused a competitive disadvantage for them at that time?”

Marco Valicenti, director general of the Innovation Programs directorate at Agriculture Canada, said programs that promote best practices, such as the On-Farm Climate Action Fund, reward incremental improvement.

“We are trying to really push those who are laggards a little bit to move to the forefront, so we are focusing on that incrementality,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that someone who has been an early adopter can’t participate. It just can’t be on the same acre of land that they’ve already used that best management practice.”

Gilles Saindon, assistant deputy minister of the science and technology branch, said the early adopters benefitted differently through increased production.

“Their productivity is greater, so that’s the return for them,” he said. “Those newcomers will take years to get up to speed so there’s the competitive edge.”

The answers didn’t satisfy other senators. Alberta’s Paul Simons said procrastinators will be rewarded but the leaders don’t get any financial or practical recognition of what they’ve done.

Brent Cotter from Saskatchewan said it’s “a weird arrangement” to reward late adopters and asked officials to respond.

“My concern is the idea of disregarding the people who have actually made these things possible not just for themselves but for others, and then to have them disregarded is problematic in jurisdictions like mine in Saskatchewan, where the early adopters have paved the way,” he said. “The answer that says, ‘on the next 100 or 1,000 acres you’ll be like everyone else,’ isn’t much of an answer.”

Nova Scotia senator Colin Deacon didn’t like the answer either.

“I just felt from your answer to (Cotter’s) question that you’ve decided there really isn’t any way to reward those who have been leaders and that it really comes down to creating markets or systems that benefit those who are new to the show,” he said. “I have to believe there is a way to reward the amount of carbon you’re keeping in the soil on a regular basis. I felt that you have decided it’s just not possible, and I’m not satisfied with that answer.”

Officials said the payments to those who adopt best management practices now won’t be made in perpetuity but only over a few years to encourage more adoption. The senators picked up the same theme during the Feb. 16 meeting with other witnesses.

Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Mary Robinson said that the federal offset credit system would allow producers to earn credits only for activities that began after 2017.

“(Early adopters) did the heavy lifting and on-farm experimentation required to develop many of the best management practices that contributed to the increased soil carbon sequestration from 1981 to 2016,” she said.

“While offsets may not acknowledge these early adopters we do need to acknowledge and support early adopters when creating future programs to identify further best management practices.”

Simons asked how programs could recognize these pioneers. Brodie Berrigan, CFA’s director of government relations and farm policy, said he didn’t have a good answer. He said the government decided to use the 2017 date.

“What message does that send? What incentive are you putting in place when you’re not recognizing the efforts of those early adopters? That I share your frustration is the best answer I could provide,” he said.

Deacon said there could be a way to do this through the fact that soil carbon levels change. “I think there is an opportunity here to reward farmers… for the net level of carbon in their soils,” he said. “As that net grows and remains, they are being rewarded. Effectively, that would reward those who already came to the party early and not disincentivize those who are coming late. I’m befuddled that our policymakers could think that the approach they have taken is an effective one to achieve the goal that we all have.”

He added that there appeared to “be a real gap in thinking based on the practice of reality.”

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