What you probably didn’t know is happening on our farms

Here’s a piece I wrote as a guest post for the Canadian Beef Blog.

Every day is Earth Day on the farm. This slogan has long been used by folks in agriculture to highlight how farming benefits the environment. The good news stories don’t get told is a common complaint I hear from the farmers and farm groups I work with. And that’s usually true.

It’s the bad actors that make the headlines and get the column space – manure spills, pesticide overuse and water contamination feed the sensationalism machine much more voraciously than a wetland preserved, an erosion control implemented or a strip of trees planted.

I’m not going to pretend that the bad things don’t happen. They unfortunately do, but luckily, they are the exception rather than the norm.

So, in honour of the upcoming Earth Day (and the spring season I’m hoping will finally soon get here!), I’d like to tip my hat to the many thousands of farmers who don’t make the headlines for what they do for the environment. Here are some neat facts about what’s really happening on the farm:

Lower greenhouse gas emissions

Nearly two-thirds of Ontario farmers have switched to low-till or no-till farming – reducing the number of times they have to travel over their fields with their farm equipment to work the soil to grow their crops. This saves fuel and conserves soil. It has also led to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that’s equivalent to taking 125,000 cars off the road!

Fewer pesticides

Over the last twenty years, Ontario farmers have voluntarily reduced their use of pesticides by more than 50 per cent. Farmers have to take a course and pass a test every five years before they may buy and use crop protection products.

The course covers topics including integrated pest management – using good bugs to fight bad bugs – and how to safely apply and store products. And what most people probably don’t know is that this training and certification program was developed at the request of farmers themselves.

In the Thiessen family’s vegetable greenhouses in Leamington, Ontario, for example, this means using natural controls to help prevent disease and pests and keep their tomato and pepper plants healthy. I’ll save the debate about the pros and cons of pesticide use for another day, but as a consumer, I will say that I’m glad farmers are being proactive on this one.

Environmental assessments

The majority of farmers in Canada have completed an environmental assessment of their farms – called an Environmental Farm Plan – that helps them identify risks and develop appropriate solutions. And as a result of those plans, they’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars on things like buffer strips to prevent soil erosion, proper storage facilities, fencing to keep livestock out of streams and lakes, water recycling and equipment that will help them use seeds and fertilizers as accurately and precisely as possible.

One such example is crop farmer Terry Reesor of Stouffville, Ontario, who also runs a farm supply business that includes liquid fertilizer storage. He installed a membrane liner underneath the storage tanks to protect the small lake and surrounding watershed on his family farm against liquid fertilizer leaks.

Promoting wildlife habitat

More than 30 per cent of Canada’s 68 million hectares classified as agricultural land isn’t suitable for planting crops – it’s too rocky, too hilly, too wet too dry or some combination thereof. Often this land is used as pasture for grazing livestock and does double-duty as excellent wildlife habitat. Many farmers choose practices such as native grass seeding, rotational grazing, and buffer zones around water bodies that sustain wildlife populations and promote biodiversity.

The Madley family’s Canyon Ranch in British Columbia, a fifth generation family ranch, is one such example. Extensive fencing maintains and protects riparian area and installation of water troughs and fencing on a nearby creek protects breeding habitats for curlew and other upland bird species. Cattle holding pens are set back from the creek to establish a buffer zone that protects it from nutrient and bacterial runoff, and groundwater springs and the creek’s side channels were fenced to protect habitat for salmon fingerlings.

The work’s not done yet, but…

I know there’s much more we could all be doing to protect the environment and safeguard our air, soil and water for future generations – and many of us don’t do nearly as much as farmers are every day. Yes, it benefits their farms, their businesses and their bottom line, but that environmental benefit also positively impacts all of us who enjoy the land, air and water in our country.

And that almost never makes headlines.

Photo source: Ontario Farm Animal Council photo library

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