Sustainability is so much more than just the environment (or a buzzword)

Opinion

I’ve been hearing a lot about sustainability lately. It’s been showing up in headlines more and more, and it has almost become one of those buzzwords that everyone uses: “Our farm is sustainable.”

But what does that really mean?

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to speak at the Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture competition at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair and spoke about sustainability. So I figured maybe it was time I shared my speech (keep in mind, this was pre-COVID-19), but it’s just a glimpse at my take.

Sustainability isn’t just one thing. It’s not just being stewards of the land — it’s about being stewards of ourselves, too.

What is sustainability and why does it matter to Canadian Agriculture?

We live off the land. I live off the land. You live off the land. Sustainability is vital to the health and welfare of our planet, and to the ever-changing agricultural industry. Here’s why:

Sustainability is environmental. It’s knowing that profit and taking care of the land go hand in hand. We know there is such a thing as too much fertilizer and too many chemicals. I believe the value of crop rotations can’t even be monetized to its full extent because it’s that crucial to the longevity of the land. Agriculture employs methods such as solar energy, wind energy, and hydroelectricity. Often times, farmers are branded as not environmentally aware – but I can personally tell you instances in my county where solar energy is beginning to power our irrigation pivots.  We live off the land, so in this industry, we really know the importance of our environment.

Sustainability is also financial. It’s the ability to go into a local bank to take out the operating loan which can be used to finance the inputs to grow a successful crop the next year. An ongoing trust relationship with the bank is crucial. Sustainability is keeping our overhead costs low, in order to avoid dumping our debt on future generations. Advancements, such as crop insurance, have allowed our industry to continue on in the tough years, by protecting us from financial disaster. In my short lifespan, I’ve witnessed the importance of crop insurance. Even though premiums can add to the cost of production, the cost benefit is worth the piece of mind. I remember growing up in my small town of Bow Island, Alta., when we would watch the storm clouds roll up while keeping an eye on the weather radar. Although this is an anxiety-ridden event – crop insurance has allowed us to continue farming – even when baseball sized hail comes roaring through a once thriving chickpea or soybean crop. When we face multiple drought years, like many have in the recent seasons, and the wheat is headed out at ankle high at the end of June, we don’t have to worry as much about whether or not we’ll be able to put a crop in the ground the following year.

Sustainability is technological too. Today this can mean pretty cool advancements like precision ag, advanced seeding technology, and automated tractors. Drones have made it possible for my Dad and I to sit on the edge of a field while scouting nearby crops. Of course, we followed up by putting our feet to the ground and actually walking through the field. However, it’s amazing what technology used in the proper way can do when helping us achieve success in our industry. Technology has given us the ability to build new infrastructure. The movement from the horse and plow to the first tractor allowed agriculture to become more sustainable. The first irrigation pivot in southern Alberta did the same, all the while feeding back to the economy and communities. Growing up on a now almost half and half dryland/irrigation farm, I have experienced first-hand what irrigation alone has done for the viability of our industry, and what it has contributed to some of our small-but-thriving villages. Without the ability, through stable governments, to build our local towns, our roads, our education facilities, and different modes of infrastructure, agriculture simply wouldn’t be what it is today.

Sustainability is our human resources as well. We need to continue to provide some of the best education in the world to attract and retain our future industry professionals. I believe that in order to continue this successful education trend we are on, we need to continue cutting edge research and to ensure the innovative ideas are communicated to the students. Students receiving cutting edge information means our industry is implementing it as well. However – it’s important to keep yourself up to date and current, even if it’s been decades since you’ve sat in a classroom. Attending conferences, field days, and trade shows are some of the best things you can do as an industry professional to keep yourself in the loop. As a bonus, delicious local food and drinks are often included in these days, so can you really go wrong?

Sustainability is access to medical resources. In order to take care of our land, crops, and farms, we need to take care of ourselves. As people who settle in rural areas, we have to be able to go to a nearby hospital when the unfortunate happens. No matter how safe we are being on our farms, accidents happen, and part of having a sustainable farm is being able to have medical facilities and infrastructure close by. However, it’s not just our physical health that we need to take care of – it’s our mental health as well. Suicide numbers have increased, and there are countless reports of farmers feeling isolated within their farming operation. And no- this isn’t just millennials feeling this way. There’s not a ton of research surrounding mental health in agriculture, but this too is changing. In a survey from the University of Guelph, 35 per cent of producers met the criteria for depression, 45 per cent for high stress, and 58 per cent for anxiety. But on top of that – 40 per cent of producers say that they would feel uncomfortable when it comes to talking about their mental health, because of how others may portray them. Sustainability is creating a safe space to come together and build trust. It’s taking that scary leap, and talking about the toughest things. It’s acknowledging the need for help is not a weakness.

Finally, sustainability is working together. It’s a whole ecosystem interacting. Sustainability in agriculture is an imperative interconnected system. In order to continue to advance agriculture and keep it moving forward, we as an industry need to continue to work together as one community. It’s not only making our land and farms viable for future generations – but showing the future generations exactly how important agriculture is – and why they may one day want to devote their lives to this exciting and challenging lifestyle. That’s why sustainability is so important to Canadian agriculture – and agriculture as a whole – so we can all continue to live off of our prosperous land.

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