by BETTER FARMING STAFF
In a report to conference goers, outgoing Soil and Crop Improvement Association president Alan Kruszel noted significant change at the organization over 2015, including a shift to a tiered grant structure, initiation of the development of a five-year strategic plan and the signing of a three-year partnership agreement with the province.
He highlighted the organization’s lobbying activities with the provincial agricultural ministry. Efforts to encourage the ministry to replace many of the field staff positions were successful, he said. “We were very pleased that they have been able to refill most of these positions, and fill them with such bright and enthusiastic folks.”
Another success was ensuring all of Soil and Crop’s 11 regions had a representative from the ministry’s field crops unit assigned to help with project design, layout and analysis.
Efforts to persuade the province to rethink its strategy towards the regulation of neonicotinoid-treated seeds fell flat. “We still believe it was worth the effort to go through that stuff just so your voice was heard at the ministries, to make sure we voiced your opinions on these things,” Kruszel said.
Kruszel called the naming of a provincial soil to honour the international year of the soil a “great win” for the association. It would help sensitize people to the importance of soils, he explained.
Andrew Graham, the organization’s executive director, said there was a lot of excitement around the implementation of four three-year projects under the association’s new tiered-funding program. When agriculture ministry and Soil and Crop funding is combined, investment into the projects represented a $100,000 per year investment, he said. “It’s pretty significant.”
Soil and Crop’s staff numbers have reached an all-time high, he said, largely due to the organization’s involvement in Growing Forward 2 and environmental programming.
One program that won’t be operating this year is the organization’s long-running forage master program. Graham said it would be suspended this year for “retooling.”
The provincial government’s plans to develop a soil health and conservation strategy received mention; Graham noted it would be developed “over the next year or so to help guide policy and programming.” The working group, he said, is being led by the agriculture ministry, involves farm groups such as Ontario Soil and Crop, agri-business, conservation authorities, academia and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Graham highlighted the strides taken in recent years towards the acceptance of merit-based funding models, not only in the farm community but also in government. Applying funding to projects “that promise the greatest return on investment to society,” will continue to be the trend, he predicted, recommending that government funding no longer be regarded as a subsidy or cost share. “Government partners are investors in agriculture, and society is anxiously looking for return on that investment.”
Over the past year participation has more than doubled in workshops for the environmental farm plan and growing your farm profits. Graham said attendance is up, too, in Growing Forward 2-funded workshops on biosecurity, food safety and traceability.
He called the undertaking of the delivery of the Great Lakes Agricultural Stewardship Initiative (GLASI) programs on behalf of the province a “huge step” in programming that is creating, through partnerships, a network of “literally hundreds of skilled experts” to help combat on-farm phosphorus loss.
Recent research into the issue is a game-changer in terms of the way best management practices must now be evaluated, he said. “They (scientists) estimate that between 20 and 80 per cent of the phosphorus being removed from fields is now occurring in a soluble form, and mostly during the winter and spring months.”
Consultant Angela Leach updated delegates on the development of the organization’s five-year strategic plan and outlined the results of its 2015 membership survey.
Four key areas of focus have been identified for the next five years, she said: increasing the organization’s membership engagement by 10 per cent, improving internal communications, facilitating applied research and identifying strategic program opportunities.
Of the 251 people who responded to the membership survey, 79 per cent were over the age of 45 and 61 per cent had been a member for more than 10 years.
Respondents ranked learning opportunities and events as well as access to reports from on-farm research projects as the top two membership benefits.
When asked to comment what activities might be contributing to a negative perception of the organization and discourage new membership, respondents listed issues such as perceptions of the organization being too close to agri-business and to the federal/provincial Growing Forward 2 funding programming, being perceived as an “old boys club,” old-fashioned and not making its membership benefits clear. BF