By Vanessa Renaud, Director, Ontario Federation of Agriculture
April 22 is Earth Day. It marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement and efforts to raise awareness of the need to protect the Earth and its natural resources for future generations.
And while most Canadians are increasingly aware of how important our environment is, there are few people who know our soil, air, and water more intimately than farmers. Afterall, those natural resources are foundational to our livelihoods and our ability to feed people – and we know firsthand how important it is to maintain and nurture them for future generations.
I farm with my family near Maxville, about half an hour north of Cornwall, where we grow field crops. I’m also a Certified Crop Advisor, which means I help farmers with advice and decision-making about the crops that they grow. I work as a crop consultant with many different farmers across our region, so I see first-hand the kind of work that they put into being good environmental stewards, encouraging soil health and protecting water quality.
Preventing soil erosion is driving most of the commonly seen environmental best management practices on farms in my area. Buffer strips, for example, help keep soil and fertilizer out of water courses. Many farmers plant crop mixes that not only have fibrous roots that give structure to the soil, but also serve as excellent pollinator habitats when they’re in bloom.
Cover crops are a popular tool to keep the soil healthy and on the field instead of blowing away. They are secondary crops that are planted after farmers have harvested their main field crops, so that the ground always has a living green cover.
I also see farmers expanding their crop rotation, which means they’re finding other crops to plant in addition to corn and soybeans, such as grain crops like wheat or rye. This helps with keeping soil healthy and fertile. And there is less tillage than there used to be as farmers increasingly move away from plowing and use methods like minimum- or no-till to keep soil disturbance to a minimum and avoid erosion.
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) has long been a strong advocate for soil health, land stewardship and environmental programming for farmers. To help develop new environmental policy and program recommendations, OFA recently worked with other farm organizations and Dr. Michael Drescher, an associate professor in the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo, on research to gain better insights into what motivates farmers to adopt environmental best management practices (eBMP) on their farms.
Drescher gave an overview of the study results at the recent OFA research day. His work focused on three practices: windbreaks, farm forests and riparian buffers, which are areas of permanent vegetation between farmland and water courses. All three practices support reducing soil erosion, providing wildlife habitat, and protecting water quality to varying degrees.
He found that over 70% of farmers maintain forests or wooded areas on their farms, 64% have planted windbreaks and just under half maintain riparian buffer strips. Many farmers also rent farmland from other landowners to grow crops, and few reported investing in these practices on land that they don’t own.
As well, farmers closer to urban areas are more likely to rent farmland owned by developers. In fact, for every kilometer closer to a city, the odds of a landlord being a land developer increases by 12% and they generally don’t maintain or even encourage removal of eBMPs, Drescher noted. His study also found that about two-thirds of respondents were driven to adopt these practices of their own conviction. Other motivators were outside pressures, like government encouragement and other farmers in the area adopting similar practices.
The most frequent barrier to adopting all three of these practices is labour, including maintenance, just as regularly managing and cleaning up branches when trees in a windbreak get too big for example. Agriculture in particular struggles with finding enough workers to fill available jobs on-farm.
Finding the funds to implement and maintain farm forests, windbreaks and buffers is also a challenge for some farms, and over 85% of study participants expressed a desire for government programs to help offset at least half of eBMP costs.
For more information, contact:
Director of Communications and Stakeholder Relations
Ontario Federation of Agriculture
519-821-8883 ext. 218