Sustainability finding home in mainstream agriculture

It’s pretty easy to scoff at the term “sustainable” when it’s bandied about by urban hippies.

It’s harder to laugh off when hardcore agronomic and marketing professionals embrace the terms.

And in finding ways for commercial farmers to embrace both profitability and sustainability, professionals such as Lana Shaw and Brenda Tjaden are also discovering a growing body of serious farmers looking to develop beyond what product-sellers want to provide.

“There are advances to be made while still improving profitability,” said Shaw, the agronomist who runs the South East Research Farm at Redvers, Sask.

“The industry needs to stop making excuses that we can’t do better. Well, why not?”

Shaw, whose work focuses on intercropping, and Tjaden, who focuses on “regenerative” farming, both found interested crowds of farmers listening to their presentations at the Farm Forum Event held earlier this month in Saskatoon.

Tjaden, a marketing specialist with long and deep ties in the conventional and organic markets, has even named her company Sustainable Grain, which has not kept her from picking up clients.

While some farmers bristle at terms and concepts such as “sustainable” when thrown at them by urbanites and environmentalists who might not understand real-world farming, they have a different response when the term comes from aggies.

“We’re showing what can be done,” said Shaw.

Intercropping is a popular concept among farmers these days, although not many do it on any sort of large scale. There are still many variables, wrinkles and complexities to be worked out before the system will feel comfortable to the average farmer.

The interaction of soil, bacteria, bugs, disease and the crops themselves is a complex situation, and that’s what the South East Research Farm is trying to break apart.

However, Shaw said many farmers want systemic answers for production problems such as flea beetles, ascochyta and low soil organic matter, and they know they’re unlikely to get it from companies that sell independent goods and services.

“There’s no profit in it for them,” said Shaw, whose research operation is partly funded by farmer contributions.

“The profit’s in it for the farmer.”

As notions of sustainability grow in importance for both the consuming public and the farmer, creating a system that satisfies both is important. A viable system needs to be environmentally, socially and financially solid or it won’t work.

“Intercropping hits all of those points,” Shaw said.

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