What drives farmers to make permanent changes? It's probably not one-off government grants



This week, the Auditor General published an evaluation of the federal government has implemented its climate plan for agriculture, and the results were not good.

My initial reaction to this was not shock or surprise, as the targets seemed lofty, difficult to measure, disconnected from actual practices, and more designed to grab headlines than actually effect change.

In March 2023, RealAgristudies, in partnership with the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI), asked farmers about sustainability programming and incentives to get a better understanding of the farmer’s position.  If we assume that there is a connection between certain practices and sustainability goals, what motivates the farmer to engage in those practices needs to be better understood (Read the full CAPI report here).

At the time of the study, 27 per cent of farmers (geography made no difference) said they were enrolled in private or government programs encouraging the adoption of sustainable farming practices.

For the farmers that did participate in programs, 40 per cent of them said they would have adopted those practices with or without incentives, 46 per cent said that was true for some practices but not all, and only 14 per cent said the incentives were a must for practice adoption. Incentives-driving-practices was more prevalent in Eastern Canada than in the West.

If only 45 per cent of primarily crop and 35 per cent of primarily livestock farms would have adopted the practices without the incentives, it’s no wonder an incentives-based government program such as the On-Farm Climate Action Fund (OFCAF) has struggled to succeed, and adds up to government money not being as connected to outcomes as many stakeholders would deem effective. It also begs the question: should government funds be focused elsewhere entirely, such as research?


I have said many times on RealAg Radio and in keynote presentations that leading with climate ideology to engage change is ineffective and a massive turn-off among the farm audience. Stakeholders hoping to drive change should be talking about return-on-investment.

Because the ROI of some practices is difficult to measure and research is only just beginning to provide good data, governments in Canada and beyond our borders have attempted to lower the barriers of adoption by addressing the upfront costs through incentives. In our study, 63 per cent of farmers said that they were interested in participating in incentive programs, but only 23 per cent said that current incentive amounts were enough.

As indicated below, 78 per cent of farmers are saying current government programming has little or very little impact on their practices. Again, there appears to be a real lack of efficiency in the system.

Instead of upfront incentives to de-risk the practice for the farmer, 57 per cent of farmers felt that outcome-based incentives would be preferred, while 13 per cent disagreed.  Although financially rewarding actual outcomes seems like a better idea, the measurement is often not as simple or practical.

If this or any future government intend to move the needle on climate-related targets, a better understanding of the farmer is required. I think many assumptions are being made in terms of what drives decision-making, change, and behaviours at the farm level. Clearly, as the Auditor General noted, the current strategy is ineffective in more ways than one.

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