We got to thinking about what the word ‘sustainable’ really means. In some ways “green farming” and “sustainable farming” have become interchangeable. It is hard to think of a green practice that a sustainable farmer wouldn’t like to include, but it depends on how far you want to take sustainable.
Sustainable, as we think of it here at Orchard & Vine, means not only sustainable operations for the environment, but sustainable for the consumer and sustainable for the farmer as a business person who needs to make a living.
We would put together four different points of view.
Frequent contributor Elnora Larder went out to ask what trends are occurring locally and further afield, under the broad label of sustainability in agriculture. Valhalla Environmental Consulting’s to look at the big picture of what a sustainable farm needs to think about.
Farm Credit Canada offers some practical examples of sustainable farming and accounting experts BDO provides insight on the real costs of implementing some of these sustainable designs.
Note that all contributors to this feature were written independently and any expressed opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the other contributing authors.
Part 1: Know Your Farm
The ideal environmental farm would be managed to recognize the ecosystem within which it is located because the ecology of any area has developed according to the climatic and geological constraints specific to that area. The really tough part is knowing what the ecological rules are, how they can be stretched, and what will break them, causing long term harm.
Farming necessarily manipulates the inputs to a piece of land through water regime management, nutrient cycling, and soil composition to produce a desired crop output. It allows farmers to become experts in land management by observing the cycles and features of their land, adapting to climatic events and crop health issues season by season.
Today, some large-scale factory farming ignores this experience in order to produce higher crop yields, but in so doing, often pushes the farm outside of local ecological constraints. Excessive applications of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers keep some factory farms on track in the short term, but may end up damaging surrounding habitats and water quality. These practices compound over time to damage the farm land and surrounding areas. Ultimately, they reduce the land’s long-term productivity.
Ideally, a land manager will fit the farming operation into the surrounding ecological, geological and climatic constraints. Such constraints may consist of pests, competing species, unique nutrient soil profiles, drought or other climatic constraints, soil condition, and water availability. Potential threats need to be planned for prior to crop selection and crop placement.
If selected and placed on this basis, crops tend to fair well without significant inputs from fertilizer, pesticides and high irrigation.
Healthy ecosystems tend toward diversity, but the climatic and geologic constraints act to limit the extent of ecosystem diversity. It is generally understood that greater diversity results in greater ecosystem resilience.
Much like an ecosystem, a diverse crop system can add strength and resilience to an agricultural operation, but all crops must operate within the same limits as the local ecology.
Ecological thinking is being built into permaculture and agroforestry. In fact, permaculture designs farms and gardens based on these ecological principles of diversity and limitation. The definition of permaculture is a kind of agriculture that can be permanently undertaken because its design includes growing crops best suited to an area. Agroforesty is a kind of permaculture that combines trees, shrubs, cover crops and livestock in one system so that each component of the farm supports the other components. In this kind of farming, for example, a specific species of chicken is raised that favours the kind of insects that damages the main crop. In turn the chicken droppings help to fertilize the soil and the chickens themselves may become part of the farm’s operations.
As mentioned above, working within those constraints to build durable, manageable, and profitable systems depends on planning. New technologies can assist a farmer with planning and management decisions.
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) capture data that allow management decisions based on this data. By mapping results from soil testing the soil quality and deficiencies can be displayed. Moisture monitors can even activate irrigation systems. Such a system not only reduces water use (along with attendant costs like pumping), but can prevent over watering, excess run off, and erosion.
Another use would analyze the soil to review characteristics such as pH across a field. The farmer then decides what crops to plant based on the pH-map. Blueberries, for example, do better in lower acidic soils while peaches favour a higher pH.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) capture aerial photography, providing Normalized Differential Vegetation Index (NDVI) images for mapping localized plant vigour.
Analysis of the collected data will reveal areas of strong or poor plant health and correlate it to soil quality, water availability or other site attributes to determine trends and causal relationships concerning plant vigour.
In a way, this is finding the scientific knowledge that defines, and supports, the terroir of the land and its crops.
The trick then is to identify techniques that enhance the land, soil and water on an ongoing basis without needing to resort to ever-increasing inputs of poisons, fertilizers or labour.
The ideal environmental farm needs to move away from monoculture for short term gain and towards ecological diversity around the farm to achieve and sustain long term productivity. This diverse farm is more complex to manage, but more interesting to work with. With the application of some old world techniques and some new age tools, pockets of diversity can be constructed that will enable the farmer to make the most of a piece of land without asking too much of that land.
Matthew Davidson, P.Ag. is an Environmental Scientist with Valhalla Environmental Consulting Inc., an Okanagan based firm with expertise in environmental assessment, land management, forestry, photogrammetry and geomatics. Valhalla provides services across Western Canada to diverse clientele including industry, agriculture, government, and first nations. Call Valhalla at 250-275-1471 or by e-mail at: email@example.com. The website is
Part 2: Sustaining a Business
Farmers moving to a more sustainable approach face more challenges than ever before and must find new ways to succeed in an eons-old business. Knowing where to start from an accounting perspective can be even more challenging to farmers, as for most, accounting is not in their comfort zone.
Knowing your operation’s cash flow needs will be a key factor in the successful adoption of sustainable methods. In general, a move to more sustainable farming approaches will result in an increase in short term costs with the goal of improving long term productivity and therefore long term profitability. Accordingly, farmers that are making this fundament shift must ensure they have planned and prepared for any increases in their short term costs. The owner must ensure the farming operations have the resources available to finance the short term cash flow requirements or they will not be able to realize on the long term benefits of these sustainable approaches.
Many lenders offer flexible financing alternatives that can allow for skipped principle payments in months where cash flow is low or negative, or for deferred interest payments during the implementation phase of a new sustainable farming approach.
Keeping taxes to a minimum is vital for any business. Accordingly, farm operators should engage advisors with specialized knowledge to draw up specific tax plans that can reduce and defer taxes for their farm business. This plan should be monitored on a regular basis to help take advantage of any changes in legislation. Knowing when a deduction can be taken immediately for costs incurred to implement sustainable practices and when a deduction needs to be capitalized and taken over a longer term is an area that needs to be assessed on an item by item basis.
Sustainability often means a change in processes and testing of those processes.
If a farm is spending money trying to develop or improve the genetics and traits of its crops and livestock, or its farming technologies or processes, it may be eligible for Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax credits. It is critical the farm’s advisor has the knowledge to help it through the complex SR&ED program to ensure the return on investment is maximized. In fact, the SR&ED program’s tax incentives may apply to the activities and practices in which the farm is already taking part.
Building a successful sustainable farming operation takes time.
Farm operations are often family legacies that stretch back several generations. In the early stages of sustainability planning and implementation it is imperative farmers have a plan for their future. When it comes time to retire or sell the business, farm owners don’t want the transaction to burden their family members and need to ensure that the sustainability of the farm also meets their personal needs.
BDO Canada LLP works with farm families to develop cash flow, financing, succession and income tax strategies to help manage the farm’s resources and to reduce and defer taxes. If you require assistance with your farm’s sustainable operations, BDO’s team of professionals can help. The BDO Farm Services Team may be reached at
250-763-6700 or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Part 3: The Real Life Example
Stories of sustainability as excerpted from profiles by Farm Credit Canada
Sustainability. It’s a term that’s overused and under-appreciated. In fact, some cynics might call it a platitude, a little like motherhood and apple pie. After all, who isn’t in favour of making sure the way we meet our needs doesn’t compromise the ability of future generations to meet theirs? And how do you measure it, anyway?
Increasingly, various sustainability parameters are not only being measured, but those measurements are needed to ensure sales.
Farm organizations are taking the sustainability push seriously. In January 2011, Pulse Canada, the Canadian Canola Growers Association, Ducks Unlimited Canada, the Canadian Wheat Board, the Flax Council of Canada and General Mills initiated a project to measure sustainable agriculture metrics for the major Western Canadian crops.
The results were positive. Over the two decades from 1986 to 2006, each crop studied improved in all sustainability indicators – land use, soil loss, energy use and climate impact efficiencies. This was driven by a combination of yield improvements, reduced tillage, improved crop rotations and improved nutrient management. *
The Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC) is evaluating a new computer-based tool called Holos, which helps agricultural producers identify opportunities to calculate and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their operations. Holos has been designed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to analyze a range of on-farm conservation management scenarios and determine potential reductions. It’s currently being tested by teams across Canada. **
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has developed eco-efficiency indicators for soil, water and air quality, biodiversity and the food and beverage industry. Five issues have been identified for the food and beverage industry: energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, solid organic residue generation, packaging waste regeneration, and water use and waste water production. **
ON COMMUNITY SUPPORTED AGRICULTURE (CSA)
At Alderlea Farm on Vancouver Island, John and Katy Ehrlich are turning their passion for sustainable small-scale agriculture into a profitable business. The couple has developed a community supported agriculture program to market their certified organic and biodynamic vegetables. Now in their eighth season, they provide produce to 200 families in the Cowichan Valley.
The Ehrlichs farm the original 10 acres of Alderlea Farm plus an additional 30 acres leased from neighbours. This season, they have six acres in vegetable production and the rest in hay. In addition to vegetables, they raise 200 meat chickens, 50 turkeys and 10 Dexter cows.
John and Katy’s passion for biodynamic farming shapes Alderlea Farm’s approach to agriculture, business and the community. Biodynamic agriculture focuses on putting back what you take out, healing the land and creating a balanced and self-sufficient system.†
John Paul, owner of Transform Compost Systems in Abbotsford, British Columbia, understands the science of soil. His PhD in soil science and experience working with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada have provided him with the expertise to form profitable partnerships with other agribusinesses to capture the value of waste. By understanding what compost or manure is needed for each crop, Paul can provide tailored solutions that divert waste from landfills and turn it into valuable crop inputs. According to Paul, “Waste has value. It’s time to turn the negative effects of organic materials in landfills – odour, pollution, ammonia emissions and greenhouse gases – into positive value.”
In a 2009 Ipsos Reid survey commissioned by AAFC, a sample of 2,000 Canadian agriculture producers showed that:
• 54% are changing how they manage their farm businesses
• 50% are changing how they manage land and water resources
Concerns are being raised worldwide about water availability and cost. Water markets already exist in some regions, such as parts of Australia and Punjab, Pakistan, where water for agriculture is tradable. These farmers participate in water markets and can trade their water allocation with neighbours.
Water management programs already exist in Canada. In 2000, the South East Kelowna Irrigation District in British Columbia established a pricing program for water that has significantly decreased the demand for water per hectare. The South Nation Conservation team in Ontario piloted a water trading system to meet new municipal regulations to decrease high phosphorous levels. While the South East Kelowna program charges users for water, the South Nation program paid farmers for implementing best management practices to lower phosphorous levels. In both cases, environmental considerations became part of the bottom line of conducting business. **
As Canada’s leading agriculture lender, FCC is advancing the business of agriculture. With a healthy portfolio of $24 billion and 19 consecutive years of portfolio growth, FCC is strong and stable. FCC provides financing, insurance, software, learning programs and other business services to producers, agribusinesses and agri-food operations. To read the full articles, look at FCC’s publication, the Knowledge Insider at www.fcc.ca/insider.
Part 3: Trends in Sustainable Agriculture
Sustainable agriculture is no longer merely healthy, it is in demand in California. That is according to plant scientist and agriculturist Glen McGourty, who teaches at the University of California. He says when restaurants and other California food outlets choose a supplier, they often want the farm in question to be run sustainably. As proof, they look for a recognized certification. In California, there are a number of organizations that certify sustainable growers.
McGourty includes both organic and biodynamic farming as examples of sustainable farming. Biodynamic agriculture is a type of “super organic” farming that looks at a farm individually, focusing on enhancing the connections and healthy aspects of the natural processes occurring on the farm. This includes the people, plants, soil, birds, insects, wildlife and adjoining lands.
The Society for Biodynamic Farming and Gardening in Ontario (now part of the international Demeter certification process) reports a variety of sustainable farming techniques are used including crop rotation, composting, interplanting, careful treatment of livestock, seed saving and even astronomical influences.
From a California perspective, McGourty says the three most important trends in sustainable agriculture include: a growing interest in becoming more sustainable; a proliferation of organizations that promote and teach sustainability, and; a rise in the number of organizations that certify sustainable practices.
In the past few years, people have begun to view farming differently McGourty says. Farms are viewed as living systems.
Post-World War II, farms were thought of as food factories with inputs like fertilizer, seed and pesticides. The right inputs resulted in increased yields enhanced by economies of scale.
This view of farming has given way to a view of how the living systems on farms interact with each other. Farmers know that all creatures, from soil microbes to beneficial insects, and even people, are important for the long-term health of agriculture. Now farmers aim to create a self-regulating ecology less dependent on off-farm inputs.
Industry and science is starting to look at the “ecological services” provided by farms. These include creating habitat for biodiversity, sequestering carbon in the soil, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen and helping to store water in the earth’s aquifer. Good stewardship means protecting habitat along streams and water courses, conserving wild areas and making our planet healthier.
McGourty says California’s sustainable agriculture began in the 1980s and ‘90s in reaction to a crisis caused by phosphate runoff from farms, which was causing water pollution. One response was an effort to reduce petrochemicals, while still using some chemicals, such as sulfur. The practices of composting and initial deep tillage also sprang up. Some growers went further, exploring how plants respond to lunar and solar cycles.
“It sort of makes sense that when we take an interest in sustainability we apply this knowledge to farming,” says McGourty.
Here in B.C., Kelowna’s Summerhill Wines has received this province’s first biodynamic certification.
As part of the process, Summerhill makes its own compost. “We have large natural preserves for biodiversity, and manage our vineyard as a ‘vineyard ecosystem’ rather than a grapevine monoculture,” says Ezra Cipes, CEO of Summerhill Wines.
According to Cipes, some growers are avoiding being certified as organic.
Cipes explains that “…not everyone wants to get certified, which is too bad because, in my opinion, uncertified organic claims weaken the organic industry and the reputation of organics in general. I know more and more conventional growers are starting to use mechanical weeding rather than herbicides, which is a very good trend.”
Cipes says some things are done differently in California, where, as one example, they use sheep to crop the canopy, providing more light for the wine grapes.
‘It does look very different here than in California. I know sheep are big there, but here, while there is some opportunity to graze sheep in vineyards, there is less, as most of our vines fruit closer to the ground and are therefore more prone to damage from the sheep. Also we are a lot drier than in California, so do not have the opportunity for dry farming [farming without the use of irrigation] at this time.”
Some drought tolerant root stocks are being developed and tested for use in B.C., so maybe someday this will be an option for some grape growers. Meanwhile biodynamics is a trend just getting a foothold in B.C. but this is likely only the first step of many.