As many in the industry strive for sustainability, an experienced Ontario farmer wants to go one step further to build a farming system that does better than perpetuate itself.
“The term ‘sustainability’ has really come to mean less damaging than the alternative, rather than truly improving or repairing,” said Harry Stoddart, during a presentation at the Manitoba Conservation District Association’s 40th annual conference held in Brandon on December 8.
“I like the term ‘regenerative’ or ‘restorative.’ Essentially, the central concept in that is that we are not happy with the status quo. We are not talking about reducing our harm, we are looking for ways we can rebuild and restore.”
A sixth-generation farmer, Stoddart spent seven years as a management consultant before taking over his parents’ conventional hog farm in the Kawartha Lakes region. Today he farms full time and is also a faculty member in the sustainable agriculture program at Fleming College in Lindsay, Ont.
With a number of years’ experience experimenting with various management systems, in both conventional and organic methods, Stoddart says implementing a holistic management system should be a top priority for every operation.
“From my perspective, holistic management is key to any farm operation. It doesn’t matter whether you are grazing or not, the concepts in holistic management, the financial planning piece are key to moving a farm forward profitably and maintaining your eye on the triple-P bottom line — people, planet and profit,” said Stoddart.
“We implemented a holistic management program about four years ago and it was one of the best things that we ever did for the management of our operation. I highly recommend it.”
The concept of holistic management looks at allowing land managers to mimic nature through guided relationships between plants, soil, livestock and waterways. The four cornerstones of the concept are financial planning, grazing planning, land planning and biological monitoring.
“In agriculture, our success is tied to the environment piece more closely than any other industry, and when you get right down to it, we are in the business of capturing solar energy and transforming it into protein and carbohydrates for human use, whether that is food or fibre.”
Stoddart says he has seen a number of benefits to his operation since switching over to holistic management techniques, including increased land stability, reduced erosion, and better water filtration.
He insists on a no-till system, saying the key is focusing on nurturing and growing the soil.
“Soil or dirt is probably one of the things that gets the least amount of respect in agriculture. When we talk about soil, oftentimes the conversation stops at chemistry. But, if we want the soil to be working for us, we need to get rid of the Big Iron. In my mind there are no ifs, ands, or buts about that,” said Stoddart.
He added that while many producers are opinionated about management practices — organic versus conventional, till or no till, sustainable versus restorative — the conversation needs to be focused back on the end goal of rebuilding deteriorated soils.
“The discussion we need to have isn’t about conventional or organic practices. I have destroyed soil worse or just as bad with organic practices as I ever did with conventional,” said Stoddart.
“Anywhere we have agriculture we have degraded soils. And, this has been happening long before we got into chemical, industrial or any name you want to put on modern-day practices. The future isn’t about turning the clock back 50 years, the future is about taking the knowledge that we have now and creating systems that are truly restorative systems.”