Alberta producers don’t know much about sustainability certification programs — but they don’t think it matters much anyway.
Those were the key findings of a survey of 400 Alberta producers who were asked about sustainability practices on their farms. While producers are making headway on adopting sustainable production practices, they’re not yet sold on the need to prove it through certifications like the Environmental Farm Plan or Verified Beef Production programs.
“Customer standards and certification programs rank low on the list of producer concerns,” said Colin Siren, research director at Kynetec, the agri-food market research firm that conducted the survey on behalf of Alberta Wheat, Alberta Canola, Alberta Barley, and Alberta Pulse Growers.
“Only 30 per cent of farmers believe that these programs will be a normal part of doing business in the next three to five years. If other issues are more important, then commitment to these types of programs is quite low.”
Producers from across the province — from all age groups and farm sizes — were asked about the issues that would impact them most over the next five years. Cost of inputs topped the list, but after that, the key concerns were environmental regulation, changing weather patterns, animal care requirements, trade barriers, and biosecurity.
Customer on-farm standards — the driving force behind sustainability certification — was “way down at the bottom of the list.”
“On the surface, this seems to be a pretty low-level concern at this time — until you really look at what’s at the top of the list,” said Siren, who presented these findings at the All Crops Breakfast earlier this month.
“When you look at the things that are keeping farmers up at night, five of the things on the list relate to certification standards.”
Still, more than half of Alberta producers haven’t even considered applying for these programs.
“There’s some openness within the industry at this time for these types of programs, but most of them are in the mushy middle of ‘wait and see,’” said Siren, adding younger farmers and larger farms have higher adoption rates for sustainability certification programs.
Forty per cent said they would only undergo sustainability certification if required, and three-quarters said they need additional training to be better prepared for sustainability certification. Only 22 per cent indicated that they want to learn more about sustainability certification.
The good news is nearly everyone had heard about the programs.
Benefits to producers
The industry will need to link certification programs to key producer concerns if it hopes to increase buy-in, said Siren.
“It’s one thing to show farmers that, theoretically, these practices do pay,” said Siren. “Increasingly, we’re being challenged to demonstrate that. A significant proportion of farmers acknowledges the importance of consumer benefits, but only one in five acknowledges that there are farmer benefits as well.”
For producers, the benefits of participating largely come down to meeting changing consumer demands.
“Sustainability is a word we’re hearing more and more, and it holds a lot of clout with consumers — the end-users who are buying our products,” said Jolene Noble, extension co-ordinator for the Farm Sustainability Extension Working Group. “We’re dealing with misperceptions and misinformation, and one of the ways we can deal with that is by having a certified product in one of the sustainability standards.”
Certification programs help “balance the debate for agriculture” when “strong emotional sentiments” trump science-based discussions with consumers, Siren added.
“One of the ways we can demonstrate to society that we have a high degree of standards is to be compliant with certification programs,” he said.
“This is something that’s of growing importance. It’s a priority. And if there are indicators that these types of certification programs are going to become mandated in the future, the best time to start building that infrastructure is now.”
Alberta producers have already adopted various sustainable production practices, but the industry “needs to measure that,” said Noble.
“We want to be able to say, ‘Alberta producers are already doing this, and they’re doing a heck of a good job,’” said Noble.
Certification is one way of doing that, but “whether that brings value to your operation is a decision that needs to be made at the farm level,” said Noble.
“As we look at other commodities and see the writing on the wall there, our group wants to bring information to Alberta producers so that if and when you ever decide to enter into one of these sustainability standards, it’s not a monumental leap. It’s more of a small step.”
In many cases, Alberta producers are already meeting recognized production standards — particularly with practices like low tillage and soil testing — but there’s still room for improvement, “even in the low-hanging fruit, those things where you have 90 per cent adoption,” said Siren.
“It’s those 10 per cent of producers who are going to sink the industry because they break social licence,” said Siren.
“The one in 10 who’s not adopting or following regulations that 90 per cent of the industry has adopted — those guys are a real weakness.”