Producers can, and will, continue asking the age-old rhetorical question about why anyone thinks they are, or would be, insensitive to the environment when (unlike most people) they and their families actually live where they work.
And although it’s a valid question, I get a feeling that the way our what’s-in-it-for-me society has evolved, logic doesn’t carry as much weight as it used to. Consumers don’t care what you’re doing for you, they care about what you’re doing for them.
So how do you farm for profit while keeping regulators and the public satisfied that you’re farming responsibility?
Collaboration and profile is one answer, and here’s an example that’s emerged recently as a result of the Ontario environment ministry’s keen interest in the Great Lakes, and the way farming practices contribute to phosphorus and algal blooms in the southwestern Ontario watershed and Lake Erie.
Farm groups got together more than a year ago, said they were going to take leadership addressing the problem, work collaboratively with others, and now they are. They’ve formed the Thames River Phosphorus Reduction Collaborative, focused on the agriculturally significant Thames River that flows through the heart of some of the best farmland in southwestern Ontario.
When it flows fast and hard, the Thames can be muddy and brown, prone to flooding and erosion. Corn and soybean fields line it much of the way towards its mouth. So does housing and some industry. But really, this river is about farming, recreation and a region’s culture. Do you remember Crystal Gayle’s song from the 1980s, River Road? It was written by Sylvia Tyson, a Chatham native (the Thames River runs through Chatham) who sings about “running away down River Road”? She’s referring to the winding road that runs along the Thames River, which everyone who grew up there, including me, called River Road, and had some connection to.
So how does agriculture help fix it? Well, to start with, the collaborative group plans to develop what it calls “innovative tools, practices and technologies to reduce phosphorus entering into southwestern Ontario waterways.”
It’s an awesome task. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), one of the group’s participants, notes the Great Lakes is the largest freshwater system on Earth, holding 20 per cent of the planet’s fresh water.
To reduce phosphorus levels in Lake Erie specifically, a new plan, called the Domestic Action Plan, is being proposed by the federal and Ontario governments. It has huge implications for farmers, targeting a 40 per cent reduction in the total phosphorus entering Lake Erie. The plan supports initiatives developed between Canada and the U.S. targeting a 40 per cent phosphorus level reduction by 2025. Who knows if that will hold through the Trump regime, but right now, it’s real.
The OFA says excess phosphorous from U.S. and Canadian sources that runs into municipal drains can promote the growth of algal blooms in downstream water bodies, like Lake Erie. It says the western basin on Lake Erie has experienced several algal bloom incidents in recent years, disrupting the ecosystem, causing the closure of beaches, and resulting in a ban on city drinking water in Toledo, Ohio.
Now, the Thames River collaborative group says it will create tools and practices for farmers to address circumstances such as run-off from excessive rainfall that contribute to the problem. It doesn’t say what, exactly, it will do, but adds that it has already gathered best practices from around the world and is looking into how they can be applied in Ontario.
The federation is working with similar groups organized across the province to evaluate agronomic practices to reduce nutrient loss. It notes that Ontario farmers are already implementing best management practices, nutrient stewardship principles, growing cover crops and timing nutrient applications to reduce phosphorus loads in watersheds.
And while environmental stewardship is not new to farmers, the federation is being contrite and acknowledging some responsibility.
“We all have a role to play in phosphorus reduction and progressive environmental stewardship. As farmers, we take our role seriously,” says federation vice president Mark Reusser.
He says the federation “will continue working with groups like the Thames River Phosphorus Reduction Collaborative to address phosphorus entering waterways from Ontario farms, improve agricultural practices and preserve the health of our land and water.”
That’s the way to win public confidence. Take measures, and then show how they’re helping. People want, and need, to hear from farmers.