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As sustainability climbs to the top of the federal government’s agricultural policy agenda, farmers may wonder how they ensure their farms are well positioned for the future. “Often, the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word ‘sustainability’ is climate change and the environment,” said Jolene Noble, extension co-ordinator for the Alberta Farm Sustainability Extension (AFSE) working group. “But sustainability is not only an important part of agriculture because of environmental leadership, but also because of succession planning, business readiness and future market access.”

Still, with many sustainability standards and practices in Canadian agriculture, it can be difficult for farmers to meet the myriad requirements. Enter the AFSE sustainability information hub and self-assessment platform being developed collaboratively by Alberta Barley, Alberta Canola, Alberta Pulse Growers and the Alberta Wheat Commission. This online tool will combine the sustainable practices suggested by three sustainability standards—International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC), the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform (SAI) Farm Sustainability Assessment (FSA) and Unilever’s Sustainable Agriculture Code (ULSAC)—into a user-friendly platform that allows farmers to benchmark their level of sustainability, create and implement an action plan and track their progress.

“This voluntary readiness tool will give farmers a very good idea of what would be asked in an audit,” said Noble. “While the marketplace is not currently demanding certification, there is a high likelihood it will become a requirement. Producer readiness is important and can take a considerable amount of time, so it is important that we start now.”

The online tool will increase readiness by providing a library of best management practices (BMPs) and guidelines for their implementation, action plans, progress reports and information about each practice’s impact on the farm’s bottom line. The AFSE working group is also integrating this tool with other services such as Environmental Farm Plans to ensure a streamlined process that avoids duplication.

The AFSE tool is modelled after Dairy Farms +, an initiative launched by the Dairy Farmers of Canada in 2016. Following a life cycle analysis and a carbon footprint calculation for a typical unit of milk done in 2012, the group, in partnership with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, began developing a tool that would allow dairy farmers to assess their readiness to sustainably address socio-economic and environmental issues.

This tool helps farmers make changes that build consumer trust and address future market access issues. “There are currently 110 BMPs included in the tool, addressing issues such as farm labour, impact on the community, animal husbandry and environmental footprints,” said Shelley Crabtree, Dairy Research Cluster communications specialist. “The tool also shows producers how costly a practice would be to implement, as well as the impact it will have on energy use and other inputs.”

The topic of sustainability is cropping up across the agricultural sector. “The change in government policy that we have seen recently reflects the importance of on-farm sustainability and the changing marketplace,” said Noble. “The AFSE tool is responding to these same trends.”

And it’s not just the government talking about on-farm sustainability. “There is a trend in agriculture toward providing a high level of assurance and trust in the products that are being sold to consumers, especially in Canada,” said Crabtree. “These online tools help farmers ensure a high level of accountability in these areas.”

The AFSE tool will be available online in the first quarter of 2018.


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