• Kate Ayers

The continuing evolution of Environmental Farm Plans

Canadian farmers depend on their land to support their livelihoods and continue their family legacies. As a result, producers keep environmental protection top of mind when making management decisions. Farmers make the sustainable production of safe food a priority and use provincial Environmental Farm Plans (EFPs) to help maintain this commitment.

Ontario was the first province in Canada to develop and use EFPs, says Mark Reusser, a Waterloo County farmer and vice-president of the OFA.

“Ontario’s EFP is a great example of a confidential, voluntary, farmer-designed program that attempts to address on-farm environmental issues in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner. It has been and continues to be a good model for adoption by other provinces, (territories) and states across North America,” he says.

Some of Ontario’s grassroots ag organizations helped develop the EFP, which launched in 1993. Other provinces and territories developed similar programs shortly thereafter.

“I think the EFP is a fantastic success story of peer-to-peer strategies,” Jennifer Doelman says to Better Farming. She is a certified crop adviser, a Renfrew County Soil and Crop Improvement Association director and a stewardship-focused producer.

Instead of using “top-down rules that may not be feasible or practical, the EFP has allowed for our industry to set goals and best management practices (BMPs),” she says. They “suit the needs of stakeholders while being receptive of, and accountable to, society’s expectations.”

Doelman and her husband Michael run a cash crop operation near Douglas.

While Ontario has set the standard for environmental protection programs across the country, the province’s ag stakeholders want to continuously improve. So, officials seek to enhance the EFP and develop a national program.

This month, Better Farming speaks with farmers, sustainability specialists and other EFP experts to learn more about the plan’s objectives and changes that could better support motivated environmental stewards.

What is an EFP?

Ontario’s EFP is a “self-evaluation process for risk assessment of up to 23 different environmental areas on a farm,” says Christa Roettele, OMAFRA’s spokesperson. These areas include soil health, water quality, deadstock management, nutrient management and pesticide use.

Stakeholders established the original plan nearly 30 years ago through the Ontario Farm Environmental Coalition. It involved the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, AGCare and the Ontario Farm Animal Council, says Terry Daynard. He is a commercial grain farmer near Guelph, and he served on an ad hoc committee that helped create the Ontario Farm Environmental Coalition.

In 2012, AGCare and the Ontario Farm Animal Council joined to form Farm & Food Care Ontario.

Coalition decision-makers selected the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) to spearhead the program since coalition members released the first workbook, Daynard adds.

“To complete an EFP, farmers participate in an in-person workshop delivered by OSCIA staff. The workshop gives farmers an opportunity to increase their awareness about environmental risks, complete their EFP workbooks and set realistic action plans to improve environmental conditions,” Roettele says.

“Through the EFP process, farmers highlight their farms’ environmental strengths and identify areas of environmental concern,” she says.

“All EFP questions encourage producers to go beyond the provincial and federal legislation, and adopt a broad suite of environmental BMPs,” Roettele adds.

Farmers who complete EFPs may apply for cost-share programs to support their action plans. Funding programs include the Canadian Agricultural Partnership and the Lake Erie Agriculture Demonstrating Sustainability program.

In June 2019, the OSCIA “upgraded the electronic EFP workbook (eEFP), making it easier for farmers to continue using this tool and to renew their EFPs,” Roettele says.

“The updated eEFP provides a more user-friendly interface and will allow for better integration of other digital tools and resources,” she says.

Program administrators encourage farmers to renew their plans every five years.

Addressing limitations

Ontario’s EFP “is an integral part of good production practices in modern agriculture, including livestock production,” says Brent Cavell. He is with the Ontario Cattle Feeders’ Association and is the quality assurance manager of the Ontario Corn Fed Beef program.

While producers have used the EFP to improve environmental sustainability on their farms and administrators have developed the program to meet producer and industry needs, more work could be done, some stakeholders say.

The EFP “is really good at pointing out pieces from an environmental perspective,” says Nick Betts. He is the Americas’ director for the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform. “But there are economic and social elements of sustainability that need to be considered as well.”

The SAI Platform is a global non-profit network of more than 100 members, the organization’s website says. The group’s mission is to harness the collaborative power of its members to accelerate the widespread adoption of sustainable agricultural practices.

Paul De Jong thinks that the program should go beyond the basics. He’s the owner and operator of the Charlton Angus Cattle Co., which is in Timiskaming District. De Jong is also the 2020 recipient of the Beef Farmer of Ontario’s Environmental Stewardship Award.

EFPs identify “high-risk areas on your farm and outline basic management practices to sustain your operation. But I don’t think the program goes far enough to educate producers about how to rebuild soils on the farm,” he says.

The online version “could include links to producer testimonies of changes and improvements that worked on their farms,” he says. “That way, farmers can learn from each other.”

De Jong has completed five EFP renewals over his 30-year farming career.

Cost-share funding, a valuable component of this program, can reduce the costs that farmers incur when they complete environmental projects, says Reusser.

However, farmers are often responsible for most of the investment, and funding applications can be cumbersome.

The application process takes valuable time away from the planning and construction of on-farm projects, Doelman says.

“I find it’s more of a ‘square peg, round hole’ kind of thing,” she says. “We want to try to improve soil health, and Product A looks like the best way to accomplish this goal. Unfortunately, Product A doesn’t qualify for funding, so we’ll go with Product B instead, even though it’s not going to accomplish our goal as well.”

Completing funding applications can be time-consuming and frustrating for producers, Doelman adds.

“Unless it’s a big project, I don’t bother applying for funding because I’m not going to get my time invested back,” she says. The time that she spends on the application and the submission of paperwork isn’t worth the money that she’ll get back from the program if the project is approved, she says.

For smaller projects, “we invest our time in project completion (instead of) paperwork.”

De Jong agrees.

“Environmental stewardship is in the farmer’s best interest, but returns are slow or are not noticeable in the short term,” he says.

“Income generated on farms does not always allow for improvements,” he says. “And farmers should not have to compete against their neighbours for funding.”

Farmers who consistently take care of their land and want to make further improvements should be rewarded, not be put at a disadvantage for access to funding, De Jong says.

Cost-share programs only fund “projects that lead to improvements,” he says.

“If you are already doing the right things, you aren’t eligible for funding or you get a smaller portion of costs shared,” De Jong says. The approach is “more reactive than proactive.”

He adds: “Farmers are being penalized for doing a good job.”

“It is recommended that all farm operations complete an EFP and, for some (farmers, an EFP) is mandated,” De Jong says.

“Completion of an EFP is based on the honour system. There is no follow up to the accuracy and there is no requirement to improve on poor ratings.”

Fortunately, industry stakeholders are constantly developing the EFP to meet producers’ needs.

A national EFP

Farmers are familiar with their provincial EFPs, and many producers participate in workshops and plan renewals. In total, 35 per cent of Canadian farmers and ranchers have completed an EFP, the National Environmental Farm Plan’s website says. This level of participation makes the EFP the most extensively used environmental program in the ag industry.

Now, stakeholders want to create a harmonized program that would build on the provincial and territorial EFPs’ credibility, the website says. This new program could help farmers improve the marketability of their products as some major buyers shift to using EFPs as a marketing tool to show consumers their supply chains’ commitment to sustainability.

A national standard could make purchasing more streamlined for companies that buy products from multiple Canadian regions, the website says.

Reusser agrees.

“There is a good chance that many of our purchasers such as Loblaws, Costco and Walmart will require that farmers prove they are looking after the environment and producing sustainable products,” he says.

“Farmers would prefer that ag stakeholders develop a program that proves our environmental sustainability rather than have these companies develop a program for us.”

As part of this movement, the “OSCIA has been contributing over the last several years to a national harmonization effort involving all 10 provinces,” Andrew Graham, OSCIA’s executive director, says in a statement.

“EFPs have the potential to play an important role in supporting the global movement toward more sustainably sourced ingredients and products. Currently, six provinces (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia) have independently started or have completed benchmarking their EFP content against the SAI Farm Sustainability Assessment (FSA) 2.0,” Carlene Schneider, the agricultural communications consultant for the Alberta EFP, says in a statement. She prepared this statement in spring 2019 on behalf of the national EFP group.

The SAI Platform FSA assesses a farm’s level of sustainability by asking farmers a set of questions. The answers help the SAI Platform standardize farm assessments, the SAI Platform’s website says.

“Through this (benchmarking) process, provinces will identify how their EFPs could help meet the international sustainable sourcing requirements and environmental sustainability benchmarks laid out in the SAI Platform FSA 2.0. These provinces have all chosen to work toward the FSA 2.0 standard at the silver level, as it is widely used and benchmarked internationally,” Schneider says.

The FSA contains 112 questions about the social, environmental and economic pillars of sustainability, says Betts.

“Provinces are looking to integrate or partner with other programs to include some of those social and economic pieces that are not present in their respective EFPs,” he says.

To achieve “silver level verification, farmers need to answer 100 per cent of the essential questions, 80 per cent of the basic questions and 50 per cent of the advanced questions.”

Any farmer can complete the free assessment online.

While farmers use provincial EFPs to demonstrate sustainability, a nationwide approach to this program could improve planning and delivery, Betts says.

“Collaboration is always better than doing things independently and spreads costs over multiple parties,” he says. “You also gain multiple sides of insight and resources to solve problems.”

Farmer benefits

“Sitting down for a day and going through the whole EFP workbook is a good reminder about BMPs and continuously improving your practices on the farm,” says Reusser.

Doelman agrees and comments on risk management.

“The EFP has benefited our farm by creating a formalized structure for due diligence, especially regarding wells, and fertilizer, pesticide and fuel storage,” she says.

Risks “are often overlooked on a busy farm operation until there is a big problem,” she says. “And then it's too little, too late.”

The benefits of completing an EFP extend beyond the fence rows of farms and protecting the environment. For example, farmers can use their EFPs to keep themselves accountable.

Completing an EFP “is also a great way to get into the habit of good record-keeping. I now update the site plan for our insurance company and our emergency response plan binder when I send in my EFP information,” Doelman says.

Most importantly, the EFP boosts the credibility of local farmers, she adds. “The OSCIA provides a driveway sign for us to proudly show when an EFP is done. I wouldn't say people actively seek these signs out, but they still let us say to our neighbours, ‘I prioritize environmental stewardship and here is proof.’”

Promoting participation

While they want to do what is best for the environment and improve the sustainability of their operations, farmers also have bottom lines. Incentives can encourage producers to complete farm upgrades.

For example, farmers could receive “tax credits for having current EFPs,” Doelman says. This commitment “would be a great start to reward good stewardship.”

A better support program for farmers who want to apply for funding could also help.

“There would be great value in engaging the services of people familiar with the program to help us complete our applications,” Doelman says.

She imagines having a coach or program liaison who could proofread applications and suggest improvements. When the application meets certain criteria, the program lead could submit the document on the farmer’s behalf.

“I think this service would greatly improve overall program efficiency and uptake by having better planned and completed applications,” she says. “And the odds of project completion would increase greatly.”

Increased promotion of participating farmers’ successes could encourage other producers to complete EFPs for their operations.

“Economic drivers are key but, as we increasingly understand the importance of soil health and the impact of integrated biological systems on farms and crop production, producers will want to use more BMPs on their farms to ensure their viability for future generations,” Betts says. BF

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