Producers flag growing disconnect with public

Glacier FarmMedia – For Jeff Gross, the sharp divide between city folk and farmer attitudes about sustainability are clear from the field edge.

“I farm around Regina or really close to it,” he said. “Some of the people that pass on the road… like last night I was coming in with the sprayer and I got a friendly wave with the middle finger. I get those quite often, farming around cities.”

Why it matters: Many farmers worry that the public doesn’t understand farming and could have too much influence on future policy.

Ironically, Gross has not only embraced agricultural sustainability but has led the charge to monetize it. As the founder of C-Green Aggregators, he was the first in Canada to trade carbon credits, moving 10 million tonnes on the Chicago Climate Exchange. He’s also a founding shareholder of ethanol producer Terra Grain Fuels and founder of Pacific Ridge Corp., which is building a pea processing plant near Regina and an oat milk processing plant in Saskatoon.

He’s an early adopter of advances particularly in biotechnology, crediting talks with his fellow farmers in figuring out how to tailor tech for his own operations. It’s allowed him to face Ottawa’s slings and arrows with impunity.

“Personally, I’m not even fazed one bit about what the federal government is saying on the 30 per cent reduction on synthetic fertilizers,” he said. “I’ve done it in the last three years. I haven’t lost any yield. I’ve actually got better yields, better seed quality, better grades.”

Gross was part of a panel discussion presented by Ag-West Bio at its annual general meeting in Saskatoon on June 23. Entitled “The environmentally friendly farmer and the attack on modern agriculture,” the in-person event drew about 100 people for a discussion about farmers’ role in facing down threats and capitalizing on opportunities around sustainability.

Farmers often are cast as villains in the public narrative: they spray dangerous chemicals, spread environmentally damaging fertilizers and guzzle fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. So, solutions are cooked up, regulations written and policies imposed.

“It’s not even about just government. It’s the consumer having a different vision of what we actually do as farmers,” said Brett Casavant. “That keeps me up at night. Just when people see you as a polluter and not a good steward of the land, when that’s the exact opposite of what you’re trying to be.”

Casavant farms near Tisdale, Sask., and is chief executive officer of C-Merak, which processes crops into food ingredients.

“To me, that’s why we’re headed down the value-added story,” he said. “It’s trying to connect, trying to tell the whole story, to re-connect with the consumer. That’s what we’re trying, as hard as we can.”

Without connections among producers, consumers and governments, Jake Leguee said farmers are told how to farm, without anyone actually consulting a farmer.

Leguee, who farms near Fillmore, Sask., kicked off the event with a presentation on the communications efforts he does in addition to serving on several boards. His “Year in the Life of a Farmer” blog carries titles such as “Corporations Aren’t Evil,” “Do Farmers Really Need Nitrogen Fertilizer?” and “Don’t Tell Farmers how to Farm — Ask Them Instead.”

“We are constantly being bombarded with messaging about how we need to do things better. About how we need to reduce emissions. About how we need to reduce pesticide use and fertilizer use and even transform what we’re doing,” he said.

Farmers get this message from governments, non-governmental organizations, corporations, “even just random people on the internet,” Leguee said.

It ignores a basic feature of agriculture: it is always transforming. Producers are constantly looking for an edge, which often yields benefits both for their operations and the environment.

Leguee pointed to the air drill that first showed up on their farm in the 1990s, allowing them to seed directly into stubble. Before this, farmers had to prepare the plant bed by tilling it black, then hoping for just the right amount of rain to get germination started without losing soil to wind or water. As it turns out, direct seeding also leaves a lot of carbon in the soil, something that has only been recognized relatively recently.

It’s a change that happened not because it was imposed but by the choices of farmers themselves.

“That transformation happened organically and I mean that in the true sense of the word,” Leguee said. “It happened because early adopters saw an opportunity to make things better and as other farmers started to watch this transformation happen, they thought, ‘hey, there’s an opportunity here.’”

That urge to embrace innovation is a constant that has transformed agriculture into a sophisticated high-tech, data-driven affair.

Leguee showed a photo of the inside of his tractor, with multiple computer screens overseeing elements such as knife openers on the planter to “monitor every single seed on the way to the ground.” The result is excellent emergence and a crop that performs better with fewer inputs.

He pointed out other transformative technologies deployed on combines, nozzle-by-nozzle control on sprayers, soil testing and on-farm weather stations, all of which makes farming more profitable and sustainable.

“It didn’t take anybody on the internet ramming information down their throat to get them to change,” Leguee said, “They changed because it made sense for their operation.”

He said the environmental benefits from incremental changes by individual farmers have been profound, not only for Canada but everyone in the developed world with access to good technology.

Alanna Koch shared this assessment, although she said she was wary of the federal government’s approach.

“Technology is the answer,” she said, pointing to upcoming autonomous equipment to ease farm labour shortages, advanced genetics technologies to develop new varieties and innovations in crop protection products.

“But for me, I don’t know if I would agree entirely with what Jeff is saying regarding fertilizer,” she said, explaining that individual exceptions aside, it remains a main driver of productivity.

“While some might find innovative ways to reduce synthetic fertilizer, I’m not sure we can feed the world the way we have if we have that tool taken away from us,” she said.

Koch is board chair of the Global Institute for Food Security and serves on several other boards as well as having served in the provincial government at senior levels. She also farms near Edenwold, Sask.

While she is leery of onerous and poorly-thought-out regulations, she acknowledged that a laissez-faire, let-the-market-decide approach isn’t the answer either. It’s naïve to assume all producers will adopt best practices.

“That’s where regulations, I think, regulations have to be there to be able to have us doing the right things… making sure those bad actors are called on it when they aren’t doing the right thing, but not overreaching,” she said. “I think regulations are about boundaries, not barriers.”

Leguee is also leery of ad-hoc regulations over which the farmer has no control.

“I know lots of guys are finding ways to reduce fertilizer use and that’s great, but I don’t want the government dictating what I can and can’t do,” he said. “I can make the best choices for my farm because I have the incentives for it.”

– This article was originally published at The Western Producer.