Farmers committed to the environment

News articles – originally printed in Ontario Corn Producer, February 19, 2009

Environmental consciousness and responsibility are becoming increasingly popular as more of us start “going green”. The reason? Consumers’ rising awareness of their environmental footprint and what impact that might have on the future – theirs, their children’s, and their grandchildren’s.

But in the farming world, caring for the environment is not just the latest trend. It’s a long-term commitment that has been going on for decades as farmers and government have quietly invested millions of dollars and hundreds of hours into environmental education, improvements and stewardship projects.

Not only do farmers benefit directly from these initiatives, but there are also many positive spin-offs for society as a whole – including for those Ontarians who have never been on a farm or know nothing about agriculture and environmental stewardship.

Over the last twenty years, Ontario farmers have voluntarily reduced their use of pesticides by more than 50 per cent. This is due to the establishment of the Grower Pesticide Safety Course, which requires growers to take a course and pass an exam every five years before they may buy and use crop protection products. The course covers topics including integrated pest management and how to safely apply and store products. And what most people probably don’t know is that this program of training and certification was developed at the request of farmers themselves.

Farmers have also played a key role in soil conservation efforts by changing their tillage practices. Many farmers have adopted “conservation tillage” or “no-till” methods to reduce soil erosion and compaction, preserve organic matter and promote the growth of soil-dwelling creatures like earthworms. Less tilling also means using less fuel which leads to a decrease in harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

Use of these environmental practices jumped from 27% to 63% between 1991 and 2001 alone. Now, nearly two-thirds of Ontario farmers have changed their tillage methods. The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is equal to taking 125,000 cars off the road!

But probably the most dramatic examples of agriculture’s environmental commitment can be seen in the results of the Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) program. Farmers were instrumental in creating the first EFP initiative in Canada in the 1990s and the program has now spread across the country. The EFP program teaches farmers how to assess the environmental benefits and risks on their farms through a two day work shop and by developing a peer-reviewed action plan to make improvements.

Since the program’s inception, more than 70per cent of Ontario farmers have completed an Environmental Farm Plan. In the last three years (April 2005 – March 2008) alone, more than 12,000 farmers participated in more than 800 EFP workshops across the province, workshops that typically take two full days to complete. Close to 9,000 peer-reviewed EFP improvement plans were developed as a result of those workshops.

As a result of the EFP program, farmers have completed almost 14,000 improvement projects and invested close to $120 million of their own money into on-farm environmental improvements over the last three years. In addition, many of these investments were supplemented by government cost-share programs estimated at approximately $80 million, bringing the total estimated environmental investment to just under $200 million.

The most popular on-farm improvement projects focused on the following Beneficial Management Practices areas, as identified in the Environmental Farm Plan:

  • Improved cropping systems
  • Improved pest management
  • Improved manure storage and handling
  • Water well management
  • Nutrient management planning
  • Farmyard and horticultural facilities runoff control
  • Product and waste management
  • Riparian area management
  • New water wells for agricultural purposes
  • Manure land application

There are also other programs dedicated to protecting species at risk, drinking water and environmentally sensitive areas – such as the Lake Simcoe area for example – that help farmers fund additional environmental improvements that benefit all of society and not just farmers.

Most urbanites do not immediately think of farmers when they think about what it means to be an environmentalist. But probably more than anyone, farmers directly depend on the environment for their farms, their families and their businesses. Clean air, safe water and healthy soil are essential on the farm and farmers recognized decades ago that if we don’t look after our environment, it can’t look after us.

And in all the urban controversy swirling around modern agricultural practices, such as the use of pesticides and biotechnology, many people simply aren’t aware this is only a small part of what is happening on Ontario’s farm land and in the countryside we all take for granted.

Unbeknown to most, it’s the efforts of farmers that keep us fed and keep our environment vibrant and healthy. And if it weren’t for their long standing dedication to the environment and their commitment to environmental stewardship, it would be much harder for the rest of us to “go green”.