Sustainability in jeopardy?

Large corporations are promoting sustainability but farm groups promoting sustainable farming are dwindling

MINOT, N.D. — Large corporations love to talk about sustainable farming.

Unilever has committed to source all of its food sustainably by 2020. PepsiCo has made a similar promise. By 2020 it plans to buy all its ingredients from producers that satisfy its Sustainable Farming Initiative.

Many other huge companies, including Walmart, General Mills and Kellogg’s, are also running sustainable agriculture programs.

Despite the corporate push, a strange thing is happening in Western Canada: organizations that support sustainable farming are either dead or dying.

The Northern Prairies Ag Innovation Alliance (NPAIA), formerly the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association, held its annual conference in Minot in January. The event attracted about 175 producers, but only 20 to 25 were from Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Alberta Reduced Tillage Linkages, which had a mandate to improve the economic and environmental sustainability of farming, died several years ago and the Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association is “struggling” to survive, said Paul Thoroughgood, Soil Conservation Council of Canada chair.

Adam Gurr, who farms near Rapid City, Man., and one of the few Canadians at the Minot event, came to the conference to learn about soil health and cover crops.

Those topics aren’t discussed at the local coffee shop, at least in his region of Manitoba.

“There aren’t a lot of guys you can get together … that are even interested in talking about those sorts of things.”

Gurr said it’s unfortunate that there isn’t a group leading the charge on alternative practices because someone should be testing concepts like cover crops.

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“I know as a producer I want to see that stuff translated into a field scale,” he said,

“Prove it on field scale with commercial equipment.”

Brooks White, NPAIA board member, said there are many conversations on social media about soil organic matter, cover crops and building soil health. But many of those people aren’t members of NPAIA.

“I think that’s one of the challenges we have right now is keeping these events going and how do we improve attendance or generate more interest,” said White, a grain and bison producer near Pierson, Man.

Leaders of the Ag Innovation Alliance would like to do more outreach, but that’s difficult with limited funds.

About a dozen organizations and companies had booths at the Minot conference. However, most corporations promoting sustainable agriculture were absent.

NPAIA did contact a number of companies for support but the response was minimal. General Mills had a rep at the event and ADM had a booth.

“I think if we could work together with some of those big companies and develop programs … maybe that’s where to start,” White said.

That’s a possibility, but if a sustainable farming organization has a small membership, companies aren’t likely to partner with it.

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The decline of groups promoting innovative or progressive farming is part of a broader trend in Western Canada, Thoroughood said.

Commodity groups that rely on checkoffs are thriving, while associations that rely on voluntary memberships are waning.

Grassroots organizations promoting sustainable agriculture should be booming because the agri-food industry is clearly headed in that direction.

“Just about every large food producer … like Nestle, or retailers like Walmart and Loblaws, they’re all going towards some model (where) they just don’t want to buy a commodity on weight and protein,” Thoroughgood said.

“(They) want to know something about the consequences of its production.”

The larger question is whether these companies will be able to affect genuine change in Western Canada and get producers to adopt and embrace more sustainable farming practices.

If farmers don’t believe in the concept, a top-down approach may be doomed for failure. The zero tillage movement was successful in Western Canada, partly because it was led by farmers.

White is a member of NPAIA because he likes the grassroots feel, where farmers share their stories about innovative farming.

“I learn a lot sitting around the tables … and getting ideas from other producers (on) what’s working for them.”

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