Slider for Quantifying Sustainable Practices
Photo: Co-operative Retailing System / Federated Cooperatives Limited

Innovative program helps improve and measure farm sustainability.

The Co-operative Retailing System (CRS) is helping their farmer customers identify attainable improvements in their operations that will contribute to overall improved farm sustainability and documenting these improvements in a meaningful way through their Grown With Purpose (GWP) program.

GWP was developed by Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL) and rolled out to individual Co-op retail locations beginning in January 2019. In addition to helping Western Canadian farmers make incremental improvements on overall farm sustainability, the goal of the program is also to allow grain buyers and end customers to see documented evidence that Canadian grain is being produced to world-class standards.

“Farmers have been environmental stewards for generations. We’d like to help them tell the story to meet consumer demands on how crops are grown with health, affordability, and the environment in mind,” says Mike Hilhorst, Grow Team advisor with FCL. “This program allows our Grow Team to focus on nutrient and environmental stewardship on an individual farm level.”

Programming Innovation

The first step for farmers participating in GWP is to fill out an online assessment tool. This tool measures the practices a grower is already using on their farm to help identify those areas where improvements can be made to boost their overall sustainability.

In a promotional video for the program, Hilhorst says the tool gives growers an appraisal of “basic,” “intermediate,” or “advanced” based on their current sustainability activities. This baseline assessment then allows an agronomist to tailor that customer’s cropping plan to include small improvements – Hilhorst gives examples like incorporating less tillage and using enhanced-efficiency fertilizers.

Small improvements may also come in the form of tweaks to a farmer’s sprayer cleanout practices, product application or diversifying crop rotations – whatever will be actionable and attainable for that customer.

“Working together with farmers to this level of detail enables Grow Team members and farmers to create a very close working relationship,” he says. “This helps the farmer, along with that Grow Team agronomist’s retail location, to be as successful as possible.”

Putting Sustainability First

4R Nutrient Stewardship is a key tenet of the program, which means that ensuring a customer’s on-farm practices either already line up with 4R Nutrient Stewardship or helping the customer make changes to ensure they are using 4R principles, is a consistent piece of the program for all customers. Validating and reporting 4R acres, is also a significant focus for Grow Team agronomists as they go through the program with their customers.

CRS was named CAAR’s 4R Nutrient Stewardship Retailer of the Year for 2017, at which time there were 25 4R designated agronomists within CRS. Now, close to 80 CRS agronomists have achieved 4R designation.

“CRS has witnessed incredible uptake of the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Designation offered through Fertilizer Canada,” says Trish Meyers, director, ag solutions with FCL. “4R provides our industry with the ability to demonstrate our proactive commitment to sustainable nutrient management and environmental stewardship.”

Meyers says CRS has worked with 148 farms through GWP since launching the program in 2019. In its first year, about 125,000 acres were assessed by the program, and in 2020 that number has risen to approximately 400,000 acres as more customers have become aware of, and chosen to engage with, the program.

Farmers have been environmental stewards for generations. We’d like to help them tell the story to meet consumer demands on how crops are grown with health, affordability, and the environment in mind.
Mike Hilhorst

She says as the fall and winter planning season gets underway and Grow Team agronomists develop cropping plans with their customers and GWP has made those conversations with customers, particularly those about 4R Nutrient Stewardship, more structured and methodical.

“Through GWP, we’ve formalized the way our local Co-ops can discuss nutrient management with their customers, making sure these discussions are part of a regular planning conversation,” says Meyers. “Nutrient management according to the 4Rs must be considered when making on-farm sustainability claims.”

Opportunities for Canadian Crops

But, like all things, this great success does not come without first overcoming some challenges.

Hilhorst says that fundamentally, most customers understand the value of reporting 4R acres to quantify the sustainability of Western Canadian agriculture. However, he says getting farmers to fill out the assessment tool for the first time and share data about their on-farm practices can be a challenge.

“One question growers intuitively ask is ‘Why should I participate? What’s in it for me?’” he says.

According to Meyers, consumer trust comes through validation and transparency on how their food is produced or raised. This level of information is becoming more crucial to growing market access and market share for Canadian crops, as importing countries are factoring in environmental and social considerations into their national trade policies. As well, food companies are looking at sustainability as they develop product sourcing specifications.

“In some cases, participants along agriculture-based value chains are being, or will soon be, asked to demonstrate compliance with pre-determined sustainability requirements in order to gain access to a particular international market,” she says.

As a Grow Team advisor, Hilhorst says a significant part of his role in the GWP program is helping the agronomy team gain the confidence to get farmers started with the assessment tool. A large part of the coaching is ensuring the team is very knowledgeable and comfortable with the tool themselves and ensuring the agronomy team can communicate the importance of the big picture to farmers.

“My hope is that Grown With Purpose can be a gateway to more value-added opportunities for the farm,” he says. “Once a grower understands the opportunities this will open up, that answers a big part of the ‘why.’ There are going to be more and more end-use or market opportunities for grain that is validated through this type of assessment tool.”

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