I had the privilege to work with a group of producers at their policy day this week. The day’s overarching theme was sustainability. It was a humbling experience to watch a group of producers grapple with issues that included antimicrobial stewardship, climate change, and watershed protection. Over and over this group was tasked with…. Is there any room for improvement? … AND… What can you do on your farm to improve?
I say humbling because for each topic I heard unanimously – yes – we can do better. And then as the groups began to discuss what they could improve I heard innovative ways to build on approaches that are already science-based, effective and yet practical.
Sustainability is the new buzz word in agriculture. Sustainability encompasses economics, environment, and community. It includes animal welfare, environmental stewardship, worker safety, and corporate responsibility. A sustainable industry recognizes that the balance sheet is not the only yard stick for success.
I believe those producers responded as they did because they live sustainability every day. They wouldn’t still be in business if they didn’t. Most producers (including ourselves) are what we call owner-operators. That means we own the business that we work in daily. In some instances we are simultaneously everything from CEO to entry-level grunt as the only employee on the farm.
To live this life you need to think sustainability. You need to consider work-life balance because without it your family and friend support-network dries up. You need to ensure animal welfare because without good care your animals won’t produce to their potential. You need to find time and money to support your local community because without your town you are an island in the middle of nowhere. And of course, you need to have sustainable economics because without that you aren’t in business.
Over the last few years several Canadian Agriculture industries have released sustainability reports. I see value in this information for those of us IN agriculture. Benchmarking practices allows us to identify systemic weaknesses and track improvements. But that is for us. What should we do for you? I believe building authentic relationships on shared values is more important to sustaining your trust than any report will ever be.
How can we build transparent relationships? Each of us can start by sharing what sustainability looks like on our own farms. In our schools. Our churches. Our community groups. And in our social networks. If we could each humbly share our approach while graciously accepting there is always room for improvement the demand for sustainably reporting might not be sustained.
Our Sustainability Story
On our farm, sustainability was part in our decision to get back into beef. We live in an area with a lot of non-arable (i.e. unfarmable) land. Some of it has so many rocks you can’t drive through it. Other areas are prone to standing water (or sloughs as we call them). Some fields have saline soils that yield very poor crops but can be improved over time if seeded to grass.
All of these areas are a “waste” to our grain farm but a “resource” to our cows. I relate to the pork producers I wrote about at first. I am proud of our land and how we manage it. Yet further improving our grass and protecting native pastures is one of my core goals. I take courses, attend rotational grazing field days, and spend time with experienced producers.
Cows, turn low quality feed into a high quality protein for people. When grown on low-quality land this gain is achieved with minimal loss of potential grains for humans. Today in North America malnutrition is more likely to be from overconsumption than lack of food. Our situation makes it easy to forget how integral livestock are for providing the world with high quality protein. But farmers’ role in society is to remember that the world needs to eat. Every day.
Increasing the productivity of our land by balancing our grain production with cows is one piece of our approach to sustainability. If you define sustainability as financial, societal and environmental it all fits. We contribute to the local economy through our purchases and as an employer, to our community as a resource for people to learn about food and charitable acts, and to our environment by protecting native grasslands and improving soil health.
But it is my gut-check that tells me our farm is truly sustainable. Sustainability is the buzz work today but we all know that marketing will be on to a new one tomorrow. And fad-farming isn’t sustainable. Instead, we focus on building a farm that supports our family today and will be viable, vital, and diverse when my children’s turn comes.
Do you have questions about the sustainability of Canadian farms? Please post your thoughts.