Graeme Finn recalls handing a visitor to his farm a handful of soil and asking their thoughts.
The Alberta beef producer had World Wildlife Fund representatives there to hear how their Madden-area farm’s grazing practices were benefiting species at risk.
“Well, it’s dirt,” Finn recalls them saying.
“I said, ‘you’ve got more life forms in there than the whole catalogue of animals and species you’re trying to protect.”
It was one of those ‘eye-openers,’ Finn told the 2018 Agricultural Excellence conference while a panellist at the late-November event.
And it’s the kind of conversation and understanding farmers need with the non-farming public to keep doing their job, and doing it even better, if they are to achieve new goals set by the federal government for substantially boosting exports and domestic production.
Finn shared his anecdote while detailing their farm’s year-round grazing strategies and their farm’s philosophy to work with the environment to improve it.
But he also shared some frustration, too. That word ‘sustainability,’ bothers him, he said, even as they practise it in all things they do on their farm.
“We’ve been what everybody is calling sustainable,” he said. “In the dictionary sustainable is a level line. That’s not where we want to be. We’ve got to be beyond sustainable.”
Every farm in the country is now expected to shore up its resources and deliver more and better, if Canada is to ‘unleash it’s growth potential’ by roughly doubling agri-food exports by 2025. That’s the ambitious target set in 2016 by the federal Advisory Council on Economic Growth, naming agriculture as one of six Canadian sectors expected to lead the way over the next decade in national growth.
At the recent Farm Management Canada-hosted event, the panel and other sessions delved into what farmers need to achieve that ‘sustainable growth.’
The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) released a report earlier this year urging the agricultural sector to set its sights on ‘quality growth’ rather than race to the bottom with a production blast.
But it’s a deeper set of questions as to what quality growth actually looks like from the farm’s perspective, and what will make it achievable.
CAPI CEO and president Don Buckingham, who facilitated the panel discussion, was asking Agricultural Excellence attendees to weigh in.
The supports farmers must have to move on this — or as one put it, “to have a future as well as a life on the farm,” — are strong trade agreements that ensure market access, reliable infrastructure for handling, processing and shipping farm product, other panellists said.
“Sustainability is not only from the production side in relation to environmental practices but also includes market access, infrastructure, rural labour and public trust,” said fellow panellist Charlene Bradley, a Stranraer, Sask.-area farmer and manager of an inland terminal for G3 Canada Ltd.
The farm labour shortage puts huge pressure on farm families, and is a limiting factor for expansion, as it gets more and more difficult to find those willing to take jobs and live in rural Canada, she said.
“As an elevator manager finding manpower to support the grain-handling system in rural areas is one of my largest challenges,” she said.
An overarching concern is the ever-growing gap between those who produce and those who consume and the blowback modern agriculture is facing, panellists also agreed.
Added third panellist Kara Oosterhuis, a senior winner of the Alberta Young Speakers for Agriculture competition, agriculture must move forward in such a way that entices the next generation in, too.
“It’s not only making our lands and farms viable for future generations,” she said. “It’s showing future generations exactly how important agriculture is and why they one day may want to devote their lives to this challenging and exciting lifestyle.”
Canadians’ willingness to pay more for food, and thus generate higher returns back to the farm gate, is a critical part of the equation, as well.
A comment from an audience member was that the only reason Canadians now enjoy so much disposable income for all the other things they enjoy is because food is so cheap.
“We gave that to them,” he said.
And Canadians aren’t willing to give that up.
Generally, most aren’t prepared to pay more for food, noted Buckingham.
“That is the ‘bad news/good news,” he said. “If you’re not spending that much on food, you can buy more RVs and things like that. The bad news is that we have an expectation that we’re always going to have cheap food and each time we want something more we want the producer to include that in, as opposed to paying for that additional attribute.”
“Is now a time for more agriculture to be added to school’s curriculum?” asked another audience member who identified herself as a teacher.