Online Tool Helps Farmers Assess Sustainability Practices

by | Aug 3, 2021 | Business, Features, Sustainability

Farm Sustainability Readiness Tool helps farmers navigate compliance process.

Alberta farmers have long been considered to follow some of the most sustainable practices among agricultural producers in the world. 

The challenge for many of them is they don’t have the time or resources to properly record the data that backs this up, which makes complying with most sustainability certification programs difficult at best.

The aim of an online tool created on behalf of the Alberta crop commissions (Alberta Barley, Alberta Canola, Alberta Pulse Growers and Alberta Wheat) is to make navigating that compliance process easier for growers. The Farm Sustainability Readiness Tool was developed to help farmers better understand where their operations are at in terms of sustainable practices and identify potential areas where they could improve. 

It was introduced in 2018 by the four producer-led commissions and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry in partnership with Group AGÉCO, a consulting firm which specializes in economic studies and corporate social responsibility. 

“A large number of our members are already doing these sustainable practices. If I had to throw out a ballpark number I would say 85 per cent,” says Nevin Rosaasen, sustainability and government relations specialist for Alberta Pulse Growers. “The thing is not many of them are recording those practices. That’s where the documentation is important.

“What we wanted to know was where our farmers are at in terms of sustainability,” adds Karla Bergstrom, manager of government and industry affairs for Alberta Canola. “We thought if they pass with flying colours it would be a great news story. If they don’t, and there are areas that we need to work on, that’s a really good extension exercise to go through to figure out where some of the holes or gaps are.”

Nevin Rosaasen
Nevin Rosaasen, sustainability and government relations specialist for Alberta Pulse Growers

The Farm Sustainability Readiness Tool is not a certification program. Instead, it’s meant to provide farmers with the information they need to better understand whether or not they meet the requisite standards set out by most international sustainability certification schemes and how they can better position themselves to do so.

What is the Farm Sustainability Readiness Tool?

Producers can use the tool free of charge by registering online at farmsustainability.com. Once registered, they’re asked to fill out a questionnaire that’s broken up into three areas: economic viability, environmental sustainability and social responsibility. Questions range from whether or not a producer is taking adequate measures to limit the spread and impact of plant disease in the environmental sustainability section to what kind of employment practices they follow in the social responsibility portion. 

Users are provided with a score sheet once they have completed the questionnaire, which they’re free to update as many times as they wish. The score is intended to provide producers with information on which areas of their operation they need to improve on if they wish to achieve sustainability certification. The tool also provides them with tips on best practices and recommended management practices based on the data they provide in the survey. There’s also a resource library which provides information on everything from financial viability to air quality, greenhouse gas emissions and labour relations.

Updated data on the number of visitors to the sustainability readiness tool website wasn’t available. But Bergstrom says uptake for such initiatives generally depends on market drivers at a given time, meaning the more demand-driven signals there are from the market the higher the uptake is likely to be.

Rosaasen says while the crop commissions are hopeful about interest among Alberta producers, they believe some encouragement may be needed to get them to use the Farm Sustainability Readiness Tool. The commissions have advocated to the Alberta provincial government for farmers to be provided with some type of incentive to fill out the questionnaire, such as some kind of top-up through the Canadian Ag Partnership or a reduction in crop insurance premiums. Those discussions have yet to bear any fruit.

Karla Bergstrom
Karla Bergstrom, manager of government and industry affairs for Alberta Canola

Rosaasen says one of the challenges for many producers when it comes to sustainability recognition is many certification schemes come with different levels of compliance. For example, some certification bodies will not allow the removal of a single tree or brush even when there is no other choice for a producer while others allow for some discretion. The Farm Sustainability Readiness Tool spells out what many of those differences are, he says, and allows growers to make more informed choices.

Farm Sustainability Readiness Tool Gains National Interest

Although some of the information available through the sustainability tool is Alberta specific, Bergstrom points out any producer can use it regardless of where they are located. In fact, other provinces, including Saskatchewan and Manitoba, have shown strong interest in it and how it could be adapted to suit their specific needs and demands. 

“They’re very interested in what we have done. The potential exists to build out the fact sheets that would be relevant to those jurisdictions,” she says, adding whether or not that happens will depend largely on buy-in from producer organizations in those provinces.

The Farm Sustainability Readiness Tool was originally launched as a pilot project by the four crop commissions, collectively known as Team Alberta, which represents about approximately 20,000 farmer members across the province. Bergstrom says joining forces on the project was something of a no-brainer since they had been working together on a number of shared policy issues among growers for several years and shared similar views on a number of concerns. Initial funding for the pilot was provided through the federal/provincial Growing Forward 2 initiative.

Bergstrom says the initial inspiration for developing the online tool was the fact many of the sustainability platforms which are available, such as International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC) or the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI), can be extremely complex for most farmers to navigate.

“When you looked at the check lists of each of these sustainability platforms had, they were quite intense and you didn’t know where to start or what the objective was,” she says. 

“Group AGÉCO worked with us to group those into common areas and come up with a self-assessed checklist that farmers could work through and see where they were at. We wanted to make it user-friendly for farmers. If there were gaps that showed on their checklist they could see where they could make improvements on their operations. And if there was a premium to be had in the market, they could then determine if they were interested in working with companies that would certify them.”

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