Agri-retailers can play a more prominent role in sustainability.

Western Canadian organizations dedicated to promoting sustainable farming practices are struggling to survive, due to a significant decline in memberships, event attendance and overall interest.

These challenges have recently forced organizations like the Northern Prairies Ag Innovation Alliance (NPAIA) to fold due to lack of funding from membership and government sources.

NPAIA had been a farmer-directed organization that promoted conservation and sustainability on farms, with representation in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and North Dakota.

The organization provided producers with an important communication channel through which to share information and ideas on sustainable practices, and opportunities to learn from experts who spoke at the annual conference.

Brooks White, former board member of NPAIA, says he witnessed first-hand the result of the lack of interest and support in agriculture sustainability efforts.

“In recent years, there was a steady decline in attendance at the annual convention NPAIA held, which was the primary income source for the organization,” he says.

“Due to decreasing attendance and lack of government grants to assist the organization, last year the board was forced to make the difficult decision to cancel the conference planned for January and dissolve the organization.”

As organizations like the NPAIA fade from view, opportunity for agri-retailers to fill the gap in promoting sustainability is emerging.

Room for Retailers

“Agri-retailers play a vital role in sustainability moving forward,” says Reagan Wildeman, the Canada lead for ‘Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN,’ a program in the pilot stage that focuses on helping farmers improve efficiencies and environmental outcomes.

“Retailers have access to external experts, and they can reference their own experience from working with customers year after year to determine what works best in their local area,” she says, adding that having a knowledgeable retailer they can rely on can help reduce some of the risks farmers face when implementing new technologies, practices and products on their farms.

“Agri-retailers will benefit from this knowledge-sharing by securing their positions as experts in the field, and creating loyal customers who trust their expertise,” she says.

Stu Rasmussen, general sales manager at Blair’s Family of Companies, which provides crop input solutions, says that Blair’s has been involved in the Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN program for the past two years. In that time, he has seen positive benefits for Blair’s and their customers.

“All Blair’s staff took two days of training to become SUSTAIN certified,” Rasmussen says. “SUSTAIN allows us to build stronger relationships with our customers and have deeper conversations about their farms, agronomy and the environment.”

Looking Forward

What we’ve seen working with a couple of agri-retailers in Western Canada and their clients is that, in fact, sustainable practices and conservation efforts are a multiplier to performance and yield. Reagan Wildeman

According to Wildeman, when it comes to promoting sustainable farming practices, one of the biggest challenges facing the entire industry is the large disconnect between how farmers, industry groups and companies define sustainability.

“Not only does ‘sustainability’ seem to mean something different to individual companies, but also to each individual farmer and stakeholder,” she says. “We have an opportunity and a challenge in the agriculture industry to align on what sustainability means. Ultimately, it happens acre by acre, field by field, so I think that’s where you get this confusion and some fragmentation.”

Other challenges can compound the problem, says Wildeman, making it difficult for agri-retailers to pitch sustainable options to their customers.

“Perception is another big challenge. Sustainable practices or conservation can sometimes have a negative connotation, where (sustainability) is the adversary to yield and performance,” she says. “But, what we’ve seen working with a couple of agri-retailers in Western Canada and their clients is that, in fact, sustainable practices and conservation efforts are a multiplier to performance and yield.”

According to White, beyond sharing expertise with their own customers, another important way agri-retailers can contribute to sustainability is by supporting organizations like the now-defunct NPAIA.

“While it may be difficult for smaller retailers to make a large monetary sponsorship to these organizations, they can still provide support by attending conferences and meetings, which all help to keep them going,” he says.

White also says retailers can help spread sustainability messaging to producers by getting involved with sustainability groups by sitting on their boards as advisors and by networking with producers at events.

“When it comes down to it, sustainable farming practices aren’t just the responsibility of producers, but also that of the various industries involved from start to finish,” says Wildeman. “As we look to the future, there’s a great opportunity for agri-retailers in terms of how farmers are going to be making decisions, which includes purchase decisions for products and technical advice.”

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