Farmers fighting climate change

The ag industry knows it can be part of the solution. What support is needed to put climate change mitigation into practice?

By Jackie Clark

Agriculture and climate are inextricably linked.

That fact has been thoroughly debated, explored, and researched. We know that farming activities impact the environment, and the environment dictates the success and challenges of agricultural endeavours.

In August 2021, the International Panel on Climate Change released their latest report, indicating that climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying.”

“Scientists are observing changes in the Earth’s climate in every region and across the whole climate system,” says the report. “Many changes observed are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion – such as continued sea level rise – are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.”

However, the report also explained that strong, sustained reductions of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would limit climate change.

Farmers know they have a part to play in that effort. They just need support.

“The awareness of climate change has definitely gotten higher. You don’t have a normal growing season anymore, our weather is so extreme,” Chad Anderson, a farmer in Lambton County and president of the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, tells Better Farming.

In last month’s edition, when discussing long-term implications of the 2021 drought, Mary Robinson, Canadian Federation of Agriculture president, said that farmers are looking to the government to help facilitate their involvement as part of the climate change solution.

“There’s no industry that lives and dies more by weather than agriculture,” she said.

This month, Better Farming connected with farmers, researchers, and other industry experts to ask the question: what kinds of support do farmers need to be able to contribute to climate change mitigation?

Action is imperative

“Farmers have a huge role to play in the discussion around the environment and any improvement that’s made to it. In a lot of ways, we get out of the environment what we put into it, in terms of keeping our soils healthy,” says Drew Spoelstra, vice president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA). He farms in Binbrook, raising cash crops, dairy, and Clydesdale horses.

Scientists have worked to model the impact of climate change on agriculture, notes Dr. Ward Smith, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientist (AAFC).

“Generally, climate change impact with respect to the change in weather conditions, temperature, moisture and CO2 will generally result in increased productivity in Ontario,” says Smith. However, the modelling doesn’t include some extreme weather events or the impact of climate change on weeds and pests.

“There will probably be unpredictable, intense weather conditions which could do crop damage in terms of high or low water stress, and wind damage for some crops,” he explains.

Future seasonal weather pattens are uncertain. In 2021 we saw an anomalous drought, whereas “a lot of Ontario is actually seeing wetter conditions, but the increased precipitation is expected to come in smaller, intense doses, rather than spread out, causing flooded fields,” explains Dr. Jon Warland, the associate dean for Ontario Agricultural College. He studies weather impacts on crop production in Ontario.

“Our big field crops, corn and soy, they won’t mind the warmer weather that we’ve gotten so far, but if we get just a little bit warmer than we are now, we’ll start to see negative impacts of that heat,” he says. “Especially if it’s in conjunction with extended periods of dry weather between very intense precipitation.”

Not only will agriculture continue to be impacted by climate change, but without a shift in production practices, agriculture will continue to contribute to the causes of climate change.

Brent Preston
    Brent Preston advocates through Farmers for Climate Solutions. – Brent Preston photo

“Agriculture produces about 12 or 13 per cent of all the GHGs produced in Canada,” says Brent Preston. He farms near Creemore and is also president of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) and interim director of Farmers for Climate Solutions.

“Agriculture is the only sector in Canada that is not projected to significantly reduce emissions over the next 10 years. We need to change that trend,” he explains. “Emissions are going up in agriculture, and farmers don’t want to be the only sector in Canada that’s not contributing to the national solution for climate change.”

Luckily, “there are very cost-effective means of reducing GHGs in agriculture,” he adds. “In most cases, practices that reduce emissions also increase resilience, and have lots of other environmental and economic co-benefits that all Canadians benefit from.”

A trade argument also exists for reducing agriculture’s GHG contributions, Preston says.

“We’re seeing very rapid changes in the buying behaviour of consumers, from the largest international grain buyers to folks at the grocery store. Everybody’s increasingly looking for more sustainable products,” he explains. “The supply chains that Canadian farmers sell into, all of those large food companies are very actively looking for ways to reduce their own emissions, and their supply chains.”

Places “like U.S. and Europe are investing a lot more money in climate smart agriculture than Canada is. So, if we don’t start to really rapidly reduce our emissions, the people that buy our products are going to look elsewhere for the low GHG products that they’re increasingly demanding,” he adds. “All of our major trading partners are starting to talk about carbon tariffs. They’re going to impose duties on products that are high GHG. That’s a threat that we really need to address.”

Barriers to adoption

Diverse crop rotations including perennial forages, legumes, winter cereals and cover crops are positive practices, says Smith. Decreased tillage and using 4R practices for fertilizer application can also help reduce emissions and increase carbon inputs to the soil.

Farmers across Ontario are aware of those practices, and other tools, like precision agriculture, that make their operations more sustainable and efficient.

“A lot of farmers are adapting to the new technologies and picking up on innovation across Ontario to keep our soils healthy, build up organic matter and soil carbon, retain nutrients that we’re putting on our land, to keep the soils healthy and the water clean,” says Spoelstra. “I think that a lot of time costs are a barrier for folks trying to invest in these technologies.”

Recently, AAFC introduced a $200 million On-Farm Climate Action Fund to help with the cost of adopting climate change mitigating practices.

“There’s strong demand, I think, for folks trying to access that money,” Spoelstra explains. “Through the carbon tax, Ontario farmers are paying quite a few dollars into these programs every year, and we’d like to see some of that money come back to make on-the-ground improvements.”

On top of cost constraints, farmers also need opportunities for knowledge sharing and skills development to continue to adopt more sustainable practices that will help reduce agricultural GHG emissions, he adds.

Policy & support

“EFAO helped found a coalition called Farmers for Climate Solutions early last year,” Preston says. “The coalition has grown pretty rapidly and is made up of farming organizations that believe that agriculture has to be part of the solution to climate change and that there are good opportunities for GHG mitigation in agriculture and also a real imperative to increase resilience on Canadian farms to deal with the inevitable impacts of climate change.”

The focus of the organization is on policy, “as opposed to research or communication. Those things are important, but the climate crisis is on the level of urgency that we need to act right away. We don’t need to wait for more research to act,” he adds.

“We want to see government policies at the federal and provincial level that encourage and incentivise farmers to adopt climate-friendly practices on their farms. We’ve identified a whole suite of best management practices (BMPs) on farms that can reduce the emissions from Canadian agriculture, reduce the amount of GHG we produce, but also make farmers more resilient,” he says.

“We identified the opportunity in the 2021 budget to immediately start incentivising good practices on Canadian farms. We lobbied pretty hard for federal funding to support five practices that we identified off the bat,” he explains.

Beyond providing direct funding, governments can invest in systems that encourage climate change mitigation strategies on-farm indirectly.

Brett Israel
    Brett Israel is committed to sustainable farming. – Brett Israel photo

“I really think if we have policies that promote local food, circular food, and connecting folks to the origin of where their food is coming from, then there is going to be dialogue around how we can best manage the land and produce food,” Brett Israel says. He’s on the board of EFAO, and raises 1,000 acres of organic crops, farrow-to-finish swine, and pasture-raised laying hens.

“It’s all about resiliency, efficiency, and ultimately improving the land for the next generation to be able to farm it. If we are going to tackle climate change, we need to focus on building a food system that puts the power in the hands of producers and the general public to come together through smaller processors and have a more circular food economy.”

His operation includes direct-to-consumer marketing and working with smaller processors.

“That really helps keep us on track,” he says.

All farmers have the potential to increase the efficiency of fuel and fertilizer to reduce GHG emissions.

“That doesn’t have to come through a tax, but I think it should come through farmers understanding that the better they can do to manage these resources, the better it is for their bottom line,” Israel adds.

“Rather than just handing a cheque to farmers to do projects, let’s have a free-market approach where folks are able to voice their values and support production methods that they’re happy with,” he explains. Collaboration with consumers could promote a system where “producers are not being encouraged to follow these practices because the government is telling them to, but rather because they know it’s good for the land and they see it has the capacity to be profitable as well.”

To move toward that system, “we need to empower our producers by a real rejuvenation of smaller scale processing capacity,” he adds. “I think there’s a real interest in eating closer to home. And regardless of what farming techniques you’re using, the closer that one can be to the source of their food, the less GHG emissions there will be in the process.”

If farmers “can connect more closely to those communities that we’re feeding, I think we’re going to be in a much better position to have a system that is resilient in the face of climate change,” Israel says. “Rather than having one group dictate the terms to the other, it’s a collaborative process where everyone has a seat at the table, because we all are stakeholders in our food, and in our environment.”

Research & communication

One way that the agricultural industry has already made great strides toward being part of the climate change solution is focusing on soil health.

“People are putting more attention toward soil quality to try and build some resiliency,” says Anderson. “On our own farm we’re looking at more diverse rotations. We’ve introduced winter canola to have living crops all winter long.”

Soil health or quality is greatly dependant on organic matter content, or the amount of carbon stored in the soil, Warland says.

Organic matter can increase through “reduced tillage practices, diversifying crop rotations, cover cropping, and green manures,” he explains. “Soil that’s healthy with a lot of organic matter and a good biological ecosystem in it is more able to absorb heavy rain, hold more water through drought, and have more nutrients available for the crops.”

So, soil health involves carbon sequestration, a climate mitigation strategy, and helps farms be more resilient in the face of climate change impacts.

Organizations like EFAO and Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) contribute to share soil health knowledge.

Chad Anderson standing next to Soil Health Trailer
    Farmer-to-farmer collaboration and knowledge transfer is happening more than ever before, says Chad Anderson. - Chad Anderson photo

OSCIA “is very big on education and knowledge transfer,” says Anderson. Recently they developed a Mobile Soil Technology Suite, which is a trailer with “a range of different tools to measure soil health and LED screens so people can see a camera view of a soil pit.”

Inspired by field days to learn about compaction hosted by the Innovative Farmers of Ontario, other organizations continue to build on similar field days and collaborative learning opportunities, explains Anderson. Research on climate change mitigation strategies must continue to reach farmers in the field.

“I think there’s a lot of need for research and development,” says Spoelstra. “Farmers do a lot of research on their own farm, but there’s a role for all levels of government, private industry and for farm organizations too.”

AAFC’s Living Labs program “is designed to look at a lot of BMPs that can reduce GHG emissions and improve cropping systems resilience, in close cooperation with farmers,” says Smith. Scientists “work with farmers in local conditions to better understand methods which can work for these locations.”

More research is necessary to understand emissions from soils, fertilizer and pesticide production and transport, farm machinery use, he explains. “We need to look at these from a holistic standpoint to really understand which management practices are most beneficial for reducing GHG emissions.”

Other research priorities include developing improved crop varieties to increase carbon inputs to the soil and drought tolerance, enhanced efficiency fertilizers and better understanding agricultural practices like cover crops or growing perennials in strategic zones, he adds.

“I think our advances in crop breeding means that we will be able to breed new varieties quickly enough to keep up with how fast climate change is occurring,” Warland says. “Where it becomes more challenging is thinking about the whole infrastructure of the agricultural system. How can we shift to new crops if needed? Do we have the processing and storage facilities?”

Researchers and farmers “have all sorts of scientific tools, but then there’s the whole economic, social, political side of it all which is a harder system to change than just your management practices or the varieties of the plant,” he explains.

Farmers working together

“Peer-to-peer learning I think is absolutely essential,” Preston says. Much of the progress so far has been made through farmer-to-farmer mentoring.

“Farmers for Climate Solutions is just about to launch a national training program where we’re going to offer training for farmers in climate-friendly practices,” he adds.

Climate change mitigation “is not just going to be government policy and incentives that make changes, it’s also going to be farmers working together through their networks to spread information, share ideas, so everybody can start moving in a positive direction.”

Anderson agrees. “I think you see more collaboration today than ever before,” he says. “Everybody learning from everybody, helping demonstrate new technologies and better BMPs and creating that network between our members and all farmers to be able to deal with climate change.”

Whether farmers have already dedicated years to climate change mitigation practices, or they’re just looking to get started, everyone has the capacity to contribute, given the correct support.

“We’re constantly finding ways to improve our operation and almost all of that information is coming from other farmers,” Preston says.

“So, I think there’s a great opportunity to start moving the needle in a positive direction on every acre in Canada, whether they’re committed to these ideas now or not, everyone can do better.” BF

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