SURVEY TO HELP BENCHMARK ALBERTA’S ON-FARM PRACTICES
BY TREVOR BACQUE
Farmers in Alberta use a wide range of best management practices (BMPs) to complete each growing season successfully. Starting with preparations prior to seeding and working through harvest time, farmers have many ways to get from A to B as efficiently as possible. In order to determine the readiness of farmers to embrace sustainable sourcing schemes and find out where awareness needs to be created, provincial farm groups—including Alberta Barley and the Alberta Wheat Commission—partnered with market research firm Ipsos-Reid and the Government of Alberta to conduct a farmer sustainability survey. The Alberta Canola Producers Commission and the Alberta Pulse Growers Commission are also involved as program sponsors. About 400 Alberta farmers participated, discussing BMPs on the farm. The results will give industry members a fresh perspective on the environmentally sustainable farming practices currently being used in the field.
In a global marketplace, food security, traceability, sustainable sourcing and other “metrics” have become increasingly important to consumers. The readiness to respond to such changes begins at the farm level.
“Sustainable agriculture is becoming increasingly important in building market-access opportunities and ensuring the long-term viability of our industry,” said Jolene Noble, co-ordinator of the Farm Sustainability Extension Working Group, created to assess and address areas of need for on-farm sustainability extension and education. Noble, who participated in McDonald’s Verified Sustainable Beef Pilot Project, will work alongside Ipsos-Reid to determine where farmers see themselves in relation to international sustainability standards and BMPs. One of the end goals is to help align farmers with global sustainability standards and BMPs through developing programs that will address gaps in their day-to-day operations.
Primary areas of assessment include soil management (such as fertilizer use and organic matter preservation), agrochemical handling and storage, as well as water management.
This survey follows on the heels of a smaller sampling done in 2015, in which on-farm audits were conducted to give 33 Alberta farmers an idea of how their farms rated against internationally recognized sustainability standards.
With large retailers such as Wal-Mart, Unilever and General Mills focused on sustainability, traceability and safe production, surveys like this will continue to give farmers the ability to respond to the sustainable sourcing needs of international markets and buyers.
When results are finalized, the survey information will help serve as a sustainability blueprint as market demands continue to evolve. This could provide Canadian farmers with a leg up on global competition by having sustainability metrics already in place on farms. Global food security and environmental review programs such as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point or the Environmental Farm Plan are but two ways farmers can ensure they balance farm profitability and sustainability.
Charlie Arnot is CEO of The Center for Food Integrity in Kansas City, MI, and said crop farmers have a real opportunity to define what sustainability really means in the context of agriculture.
“We have to redefine what we think is success,” said Arnot. “Frequently, we want to solve problems in one year—change nutrient management, seeds or chemicals. We have to understand that earning and maintaining that social licence is going to require time and financial resources.”
People outside of agriculture are much more interested in food than ever before, and it’s this segment of the market that needs to be engaged.
Many major companies are developing proof of sustainable sourcing for the public, but in the end, it all comes back to the people who grow the crop: farmers.
“Since farmers are at the beginning of the supply chain, seeing the opportunity and the need to be engaged, those are two critical components to protect and maintain that social licence,” said Arnot.
A Canadian Centre for Food Integrity recently opened in Guelph, ON. Its aim is to lead public discussion about generating an understanding of the food system and how to build consumer trust and confidence.