Sustainability focus poses concern

BANFF, Alta — Farmers may feel uncertain about the meaning of sustainability but many are already meeting the requirements.

Social, economic and environmental sustainability are the three pillars of the concept but for many farmers profitability remains most important.

“Economic viability is definitely number one for producers. If we don’t have that, the others don’t really matter,” said Jason Lenz, new chair of the Alberta Barley Commission.

The issue was discussed at the commission’s annual meeting in Banff Dec. 8.

The Alberta farm sustainability extension working group, comprising the barley, canola, pulse and wheat commissions, surveyed 400 farmers to learn their opinions about sustainability.

“The commissions are dedicated to having a proactive approach on this and increasing producer readiness,” said Jolene Noble of the working group.

When asked to describe what would impact their farms most in the next three to five years, most replied input costs. The response did not differ among regions, gross farm sales or age of farmers polled.

New environmental regulations, changing weather patterns, animal care regulations, trade barriers and biosecurity were also mentioned as concerns.

Many also reported using modern agronomy techniques that help save money and protect the environment.

The survey found 83 percent of those surveyed practice zero tillage. Most said they soil test but many admitted they did not use the results. About 58 percent said they use legumes in rotation and the same number had shelter belts on their property.

There is more precision seeding and spraying, as well as efforts to reduce waste.

While many farmers seem to be doing the right things, consumers are looking for further information and retailers are finding new ways to show they are sourcing sustainable products.

“They are finding different ways to communicate with their consumers and one of these is a stamp on a product,” Noble said.

Beef, dairy and potato sectors are already working on verified sus-tainability.

“Within the cropping sector, I think we do have the ability and opportunity where we can see the writing on the wall. We know it is coming,” she said.

To improve sustainability, the commissions plan to offer more information on best management practices that fit into sustainability requirements. The priority will be focusing on management practices that improve the bottom line, said Noble.

Farmers are also encouraged to adopt environmental farm plans and these are being enhanced to include sustainability goals.

“In my view, I don’t think people are going to have to do anything different or change dramatically how we do agriculture in Canada,” said Paul Watson, environmental farm plan director for Alberta.

“Most of the time it will be a paperwork burden,” he said.

Sustainable sourcing is a common practice where corporations want to buy goods from suppliers who adhere to a code of practices that reduces social, management, ethical and environmental impacts of food production, processing and distribution

Large companies like Walmart, PepsiCo, General Mills and Univeler are demanding sustainable products.

“If you want to sell potatoes to McCains you have to do an environmental farm plan,” said Watson.

Environmental farm plans across the country are offering economic and sustainable goals.

Chapters on soil management, handling nutrients like manure and fertilizer, crop management, pest control, equipment maintenance, controlling spray drift, monitoring of pests and pesticide rotations are included.

These are also beneficial management practices that should also improve crop yields, he said.

The farm plans are also regularly updated with advice from farm groups and researchers into sustainable practices.

He said further elements will be added to deal with climate change and mitigation as well as living with species at risk on a farm.

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