4R Certification is making waves by helping ag retailers demonstrate Great Lakes Stewardship.

CAAR’s executive director Mitch Rezansoff says the safe handling of anhydrous ammonia shouldn’t end with the delivery to the customer, and retailers who sell the product should take the next step to see it through its lifecycle, even after the sale has been completed.

As of this spring, the Cottam, Ont. branch of Setterington’s Fertilizer has become the third ag retailer in Ontario to achieve 4R Certification through the provincial 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program.

Completing and maintaining 4R Certification is something of a personal mission for Jenna Laramie, an agronomist with Setterington’s Cottam location. Laramie helped spearhead Setterington’s early certification efforts and currently serves as the company’s 4R nutrient management specialist.

Laramie knew that 4R Certification could be good for business, but her primary motivation for taking on a leadership role came from the program’s potential to protect the local environment. And, when issues come up about the Lake Erie watershed, the certification would enable Setterington’s to stand up for their customers, and their industry.

“Because of our close proximity to Lake Erie, this is something I really care about,” says Laramie. “There has been a lot of negative attention in the media towards farmers in this area. When there’s an algae bloom in Lake Erie, people in the city may point a finger at the farmers, but farmers care just as much about the environment as they do.”

This voluntary, Ontario-specific program, administered by Fertilizer Canada, was created for ag retailers and other nutrient service providers to help improve the long-term water quality of Lake Erie and surrounding watersheds through 4R Nutrient Stewardship; using the right source of nutrients, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place.

Ontario’s 4R Certification program aligns with the 4R Designation program that Fertilizer Canada administers nationally, but differs by translating 4R Nutrient Stewardship into a set of criteria that can be audited by a third party. Ontario 4R Certification is comprised of 37 specific standards on training, recommendations, application and documentation requirements that ag retailers must meet, and provide evidence of their compliance, in a site audit which is conducted by a third party on a two-year audit cycle.

A Voice for Farmers

Jenna Laramie
Jenna Laramie

By undergoing the audit and documenting the best practices they are using with customers to reduce nutrient run-off into Lake Erie, Laramie says 4R Certification gives Setterington’s a leg to stand on when it comes to communicating with skeptics and those who are critical of farmers and the bigger agriculture industry.

“This program is a way of sticking up for farmers and letting people know that our farmers and retailers are doing their part to keep our waters clean,” she says. “We need to be that voice for farmers.”

Laramie says 4R Certification has garnered significant media attention across Ontario in agriculture publications over the last few years. She thinks this level of exposure has created a base awareness that supports the efforts Setterington’s is making to elevate conversations about nutrient stewardship with their customers.

This program is a way of sticking up for farmers and letting people know that our farmers and retailers are doing their part to keep our waters clean.
Jenna Laramie

“The conversations with customers have just become more advanced agronomically. They care. They’re saying they’ve heard of 4R and want to know what they can do on their farm,” says Laramie. “There are definitely customers who are interested in it, and who know that some retailers are certified and want to know more about that.”

Getting Started With 4R

The 4R Certification program officially launched in Ontario in 2018, but its development began three years earlier in 2015 with a memorandum of cooperation (MOC) between Fertilizer Canada, Ontario’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs and the Ontario Agri-Business Association. The MOC committed all parties to sustainable agriculture practices in the province.

Setterington’s has been involved in the 4R movement since shortly after that document was signed, participating in a pilot program prior to the 2018 launch. Through the pilot program, Setterington’s took part in a mock audit to learn the process and requirements they would need to meet.

Since then, Laramie says that Setterington’s adoption of the 4R principles has delivered positive results without any significant cost increases to the company – although there was a learning curve for company staff and management as they learned the requirements of the program.

One example of a challenge Setterington’s has faced with the 4R program has been on the documentation side of things. Under 4R Certification, ag retailers must maintain confidential records of all activities related to nutrient and application recommendations, including number of acres by type of customer (full service, application only, etc.) and soil sample records of individual fields.

As a result of this, the company recently purchased new data management software to ensure all relevant information is stored online and is readily available in case of an audit. Some growing pains aside, Laramie says most employees have embraced the 4R program and its goals.

“It’s been very positive so far,” Laramie says of employees’ reactions to the program’s implementation. “We all care about these issues to begin with. It’s not something that we’re forcing people to care about.”

More Detailed Conversations

It’s been a similar story for AGRIS Co-operative, which also participated in the pilot program. In fact, the company and senior agronomist Dale Cowan were part of the initial group that became the 4R Ontario Steering Committee which oversaw the program’s implementation and helped establish technical standards for certification, based on standards from a similar 4R program in Ohio.

Cowan’s role now includes coaching staff at all of the co-op’s 10 retail locations to make sure their programs and recommendations fall in line with 4R Certification requirements. From the Board of Directors that endorsed a 4R Stewardship pledge, to general manager Jim Campbell, through the entire co-op, he says all employees are avid supporters of what 4R is trying to achieve, and the 4R objectives have now become part of the company’s corporate culture.

“It’s just become embedded in our business philosophy and strategy. We don’t want it to be an add-on or an extra. When you look at sustainability, you have to look at all three pillars: economic, environmental and social,” says Cowan. “You can’t be all about production and say, ‘to heck with the environment,’ and you can’t be all environment and no production.”

It’s just become embedded in our business philosophy and strategy. We don’t want it to be an add-on or an extra.
Dale Cowan

Cowan sees that conversations between AGRIS staff and customers have changed since the company became 4R certified, becoming far more detailed in many cases. He says one of the most common points of discussion has been about the importance of up-to-date soil sampling – 4R certification standards require that a soil sample must be no more than four years old to stay in compliance.

“That’s probably been the dominating conversation here from the beginning – getting your soil sampling into a current position. If you’re making recommendations based on soil reports that are older than four years, you just flat out fail the audit,” he says.

Demonstrating Leadership

McKenzie Smith, director of nutrient stewardship for Fertilizer Canada, says achieving 4R Certification creates a unique opportunity for Ontario ag retailers to become industry leaders. She echoes Laramie’s comments about demonstrating the sustainability of Ontario’s agriculture sector to the non-farming public.

“4R Certification is a standardized way to communicate the actions Ontario agri-retailers and their grower customers take to optimize nutrient uptake and reduce nutrient loss from agricultural land,” says Smith. “4R Certified retailers can provide a value-added service for their grower customers while communicating these efforts to the public and other stakeholders.”

Along with the three retailers who have initially achieved certification – Setterington’s, AGRIS and Thompson’s Limited – another 16 sites have completed a 4R Certification pre-audit and plan to become fully 4R Certified by 2020.

Cowan encourages retailers who are currently working toward certification (or considering it) to fully support their staff with any necessary resources for a seamless adoption process. He cites proper training as one key resource to help all staff fully understand what the program embodies.

“It’s absolutely important. First of all, it’s an audit point. It’s also just good business practice,” says Cowan. “Your customers want to have a good experience and deal with knowledgeable people.”


Click here to learn more about using the 4R principles with grower customers.

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