Ask a room full of people what sustainability means, and you’ll get a room full of answers. In this Perspectives discussion, three members of Canadian ag share their views on sustainability, and how we can get on the same page.

Ask a room full of people what sustainability means, and you’ll get a room full of answers. In this Perspectives discussion, three members of Canadian ag share their views on sustainability, and how we can get on the same page.

From left to right:

Dan Owen
Product Innovation Manager, ATP Nutrition
As product innovation manager with ATP Nutrition, Owen is responsible for the commercialization of new products and formulations. In his previous role as an agronomist with an independent retailer, Owen was recognized as CAAR’s Agronomist of the Year for 2013.

Robyn Kary
Agronomist, Arrow Crop Management
Robyn Kary is an agronomic consultant for Arrow Crop Management, an independent agronomy company working closely with Core Ag Inputs, an independent retailer in Pilot Butte, Sask. Robyn also has an active role with her family’s grain and cattle farm near Virbank, Sask.

Jeff Carlson
Producer, Carlson Ag
Jeff Carlson is a fourth-generation producer from Trochu, Alta., where has family has been farming since 1904. Family owned and operated, Carlson Ag's mantra is “Heritage. Stewardship. Progress.” and Carlson takes pride in his farm's continued dedication to sustainable agriculture throughout the years.

The Communicator: What does “sustainability” mean to you?

Robyn Kary: Robyn Kary: Sustainability means that I want the land to be as productive, or more productive, than it currently is in 100 years from now, 200 years from now, or 300 years from now. I want the land to be able to produce equal yields, or hopefully greater yields, that far into the future.

Jeff Carlson: I like the word sustainability because I think it has the room for a balanced approach in agriculture. Sustainability means to me that the soil is sustainable, and we’ve kept the proper nutrients in the soil for future generations. It also means that the market is sustainable for farmers and farm families to make a living, to have good lives, and for all of the participants in the farming process to do well and have the opportunity to make a decent return.

Dan Owen: There’s a couple ways to look at sustainability – I think that’s where there’s some confusion. The first way to look at it is, does sustainability mean we’re looking for a sustainable food source to feed the population? The second way to look at sustainability is, are we looking at sustainable means so that we’re actually protecting the environment that we grow our crops in; making sure soils are healthy, making sure we’re not depleting nutritional supplies and making sure we’re mindful of what chemistries we’re using so we’re not inhibiting beneficial insects or other beneficial populations to the crop.

The Communicator: Do you agree with the statement: “Sustainability happens acre-by-acre, field-by field?” Is there value in looking at sustainability from a broader standpoint?

RK: Absolutely. I think we need to be thinking about profitability for producers on each acre in each field. If they’re not profitable, they’re going to be inhibited on the kind of practices they can use. They need to be making money to put money back into the land and keep doing the right thing. So, as an agronomist, acre-by-acre is the way that we manage land. We treat every acre, every field, individually.

So, things like crop protection products are treated individually. Like Dan said, we need to be using the right products, not harming beneficial organisms or beneficial insects. But I think it’s also important to look at sustainability from a broader standpoint – because the public sees it that way. When they look at the agriculture industry, they’re seeing all producers as a whole. We need to be very aware how we portray what we’re doing from a broader standpoint.

JC: Yes, I agree with that statement. As land managers, we do not treat every acre the same way. We assess its productivity and we fertilize it appropriately. We use different techniques to determine the best management techniques for that individual acre, and we look at the highest value uses for each individual acre.

And yes, I think we can also look at it more broadly. In that case, I think long-term sustainability of all practices should be the test. We have a lot of people that need to eat in the world.

DO: Yeah, I agree with the statement that sustainability happens acre-by-acre, field-by-field. We have to look at every field differently, every field has its own little microcosm that we have to treat accordingly. I think also, we have to look at it on a broader standpoint though because we need to make sure that we can trace the food back to that field.

In the UK, where I was an agronomist for about 12 years, every farmer was audited
before he could sell his cereals. His grain storage was checked, his soil tests were checked, the farm’s cropping program was checked. That gave the customer the benefit of understanding where the crop came from and how it was being grown.

The Communicator: How do you consider sustainability on a day-to-day basis?

RK: For me, the biggest thing is efficiency. Any crop input that we put in, we want to be used as efficiently as possible to create the most yield out of that product. With fuel – the fewer passes we do in the field, the less fuel we use. When we’re putting down fertilizer, we want each pound of N to be used for yield and not wasted. So, that the money we put in is used for yield, and excess fertilizer and excess crop protection products don’t end up in the environment. We don’t want to waste any those resources.

And, obviously, every decision we make is weighed on pros and cons. We don’t spray insecticide just because we see a couple bugs. We count how many insects we have per square metre and we decide whether it’s worth spraying an insecticide – knowing that we’re going to hurt beneficials in the process. We always keep soil health in mind when we’re making those decisions. Soil health is everything to agriculture, soil health is what we base everything on.

JC: We’re looking at sustainability every day. We make decisions every day based on the products we use and what sort of environmental cost or risks they may have. We also look at what sort of economic costs or risks they might have and compare that to our bottom line as a business and we try to make the best decisions. We are trying not to hinder any long-term sustainability and trying not to do damage to the environment in any way, while still making prudent economic decisions about our farming practices.

We are trying not to hinder any long-term sustainability and trying not to do damage to the environment in any way, while still making prudent economic decisions on our farming practices. Jeff Carlson

DO: On a day-to-day basis, I’m looking to ensure whatever crop I’m growing is going to meet its maximum genetic potential. We’re going to use everything in our toolbox to do that. But, we’re not going to use blanket solutions, we’re going to use a lot of data and analyze what needs to be done. Whether that is through tissue testing, through soil testing earlier in the season or through fungicides and insecticides, we make sure that crop isn’t threatened, and can reach all of the nutrients it requires. On a day-to-day basis, we’ve got to extract the maximum genetic potential out of the crop. One, because we have an increasing population to feed, and two, if we don’t give a profit back to the grower, the grower won’t be able to continuously improve and sustain the cropping through the next few years.

The Communicator: If each part of the industry works on sustainability within their own sphere, do you think overall sustainability of Canadian ag will come together naturally, or is a dedicated effort needed to make sure everybody is on the same page in regard to sustainability?

RK: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think most of the ag industry seems to be on the same page with what sustainability is: they want to have healthy soil, they want to grow healthy food. But, I think there’s a lot of disagreement on how to get there. So, I think that it’s a little bit of both. Everybody has the same goal in mind, and that’s a great start, but a dedicated effort needs to make sure that everyone is on the same page on how to get there. I think we’re on our way, but there’s still a lot of work to do. The approach to sustainability needs to be based on science and it also needs to be profitable. Farmers aren’t going to adopt a practice unless it helps them have a profit, have healthy soil and a better farm overall.

Farmers aren't going to adopt a practice unless it helps them have a profit, have healthy soil and a better farm overall. Robyn Kary

DO: When it comes to sustainability within the industry I think we’re getting there slowly. I think one of the biggest things the industry will hopefully move toward is taking on more of a whole agronomic outlook to grow and produce a good crop. There’s lot of people that specialize in different parts of the industry, whether it be precision, soil science, plant physiology, chemistry, etc. If we want to grow the biggest crop we can and have a sustainable food supply for the public, we need to ensure that we’re using all the technology together to make sure that crop is meeting its genetic potential. I think we’re getting there slowly. I think a lot of the agronomists out there in Western Canada today are fantastic and pulling all of it together. I think that will be the key to sustainability, making sure that we don’t pigeon hole ourselves into either being a soil scientist, a chemist, etc. We need look at that crop from that whole agronomic production.

JC: It would be nice to see a dedicated effort for everybody to align themselves together with respect to sustainability. I think that it does mean different things to different people and I don’t believe it will all come together naturally – the market will drive it.

The Communicator: With such a diverse agriculture industry across the country, do you think a single, cohesive definition of sustainability in Canadian agriculture is possible?

RK: I think this definitely ties into my answer to the last question, that we’re really working toward a single definition. In fact, I think there is single definition of sustainability. Everybody wants to leave healthy soil to their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. But, individual ways of achieving sustainability are changing all the time, and the industry’s way is changing all the time. For example, we used to think that summer fallow was the best for the land and now we know it’s not. Those kinds of things are changing.

Everybody has the same goal, but different ways of getting there. I absolutely think a single definition of sustainability in Canada is possible. We’ll just have to work on getting everybody on the same page. And also, the general public needs to agree, and they have to understand that what producers are doing is based on science and is based on what they think is best.

DO: With diverse agriculture across the country, at the end of the day, it is possible to get cohesion on sustainability, because production is very similar across all of crops. You put seed in the ground, grow and manage the crop through the season and take on the harvest in order to supply it to the public. It’s different to grow a wheat crop than to grow a canola crop, but when we look at sustainability what we’re actually saying is, “How do we make sure we’re using our land efficiently and that we’re producing the best quality food supply that isn’t going to run out for the public?”

When we look at sustainability what we’re actually saying is, ‘How do we make sure that we’re using our land efficiently and that we’re producing the best quality food supply that isn’t going to run out for the public?’ Dan Owen

I also think we’ve got to recognize that the grower is a steward of the land. The grower is the person who needs to have viable land that we’re going to put these crops on. I think the industry needs to work very closely with growers to ensure they have everything in their toolbox to grow the biggest crop possible and keep their soil as healthy as possible.

JC: Yes, I do think it’s possible. I think you have to start by looking at environmental risks and balancing those risks with the economic realities of farming and the returns for farmers. Then I think you can have a generalized definition of sustainability. From that, there would be certain applications of that definition that would apply to different segments of the industry. Obviously, somebody who is growing blueberries is going to have different concerns than someone who is growing wheat. But, I think the overall approach can be replicated.

The Communicator: What are the core things you think industry suppliers and ag retailers should be doing to support Canadian growers in the production of sustainable crops?

JC: I’d like to see industry suppliers and retailers taking a longer-term approach to their business, rather than just the short-term, financial approach. I think they need to be considering the overall affects of the use of their products on the land and on their customers. I think they should be trying to make sure their customers are healthy. If the farmers have healthy farms, then industry will have a healthy business.

RK: As agronomists working closely with the retailers, what we try to do is mostly provide knowledge. Provide up-to-date practices, up-to-date research and products that we know are good products in the right place. We use our time to research these things for farmers, so they don’t have to worry about it. We take on the responsibility of doing the research and assisting them on their farm in any way we need to. If our growers are maximizing profit and have a really good year, that benefits everybody in the industry – from a retail to a supplier. Everybody gains income from that grower maximizing the profit and growing the best crop they can. That also comes with field-by-field decisions. It’s the responsibility of an agronomist, of a retailer, to know the grower’s fields, to look at them and recommend the best product or best practice that is going to be profitable for the grower, and that also leads toward a more sustainable farm.

DO: What suppliers and retailers should be doing for Canadian growers is making sure they’re well informed. We’re not offering products, we’re offering solutions to growers. We want to make sure that we understand the grower’s business, so we understand what they’re trying to strive for. We need to give that grower as much information as possible to make informed decisions on how he’s going to grow and manage his crop. I think we also need to make sure the public understands that we’re doing everything within our means to grow biggest crops possible under the best stewardship conditions we can. We need to make sure that the public understands that we’re not just popping fertilizer into the ground, we’re not just popping chemistries onto the crop. We need to show the public that, actually, what we’re doing is stewarding our land, which is a finite resource, and that we’re trying to grow the biggest crops that we can, while making a profit for the grower. Because at the end of the day, if the grower doesn’t make a profit, why would he grow that food for the public?

The Communicator: Throughout this discussion, it’s clear that overall sustainability of agriculture needs to include an environmental aspect, as well as an economic one. How can we make sure that economic sustainability and environmental sustainability can coexist?

RK: I believe that environmental and economic sustainability must coexist and that one cannot survive without the other. However, this concept is often the source of tension in the agriculture industry. Often, environmental sustainability makes demands that are not economically viable and good economics are usually required to make the best environmental decisions.

Many perspectives within the industry, and outside of it, are very one-sided regarding this issue. I believe that all those involved should be more aware of how those two things affect each other and make decisions with both in mind. There is always a balance between environmental and economical sustainability allowing the two to coexist.

JC: While seemingly at odds, the balance between economic and environmental stability can be reconciled through the lens of a multigenerational family. I see myself as a steward of the land for a time. A farmer may be blessed to put 50 crops in but then the land gets passed on to someone else. As the fourth generation farming the same lands, I have benefitted from the environmental stewardship of those before me and I intend on leaving the land in better condition for those who follow.

If the environmental conservation aspect overrides the economic one, then the farmer practicing good stewardship gets replaced. If the economic model always rules, then the land will not allow the next generation to sustain an economic base. Both perspectives must be balanced as either extreme ends the stewardship. I believe the problem with achieving this balance resides in selfishness and short-term thinking.

DO: I think if we look after the land we have available, ensuring both good soil and crop health with the correct use of crop inputs targeted at the yields we want to achieve, we can balance both the environmental and economic cost of food production.

To do this, we will need to have a firm understanding of our own farming systems. To do this, we will need to use a mixture of analytical and data management tools to quantify and justify what actions need to be taken to ensure that our crops can achieve their maximum genetic potential. This will help to feed our growing population whilst ensuring that we steward our environment and manage our soils to ensure they remain healthy.

Email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to share your topic ideas for future Perspectives discussions.

Read "Stepping Up to the Plate" from the April 2018 edition of the Communicator for more on how retailers can take on active roles promoting sustainability.

Editor’s Note: This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

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