Tia Schram, 20, of Bruderheim, was the senior winner in the Alberta Young Speakers for Agriculture competition (which was held as a virtual event this year). Her topic was: Lessons learned over the last 25 years of agriculture — and how we can apply it to the next 25.
Sustainability is the balance between meeting the current needs of society while securing resources for future generations to operate.
The word sustainability is often overused, but is a concept we must consider when thinking about the future of agriculture.
Sustainability is built on three pillars: Economic viability, social equity, and environmental protection. Over the past 25 years, the agriculture industry’s sustainability has been challenged by disease, weather, market fluctuations, and social factors. Although farmers are said to be eternal optimists, I would like to highlight some of the most devastating and impactful moments in farming history (since 1995) that shaped the way we operate today.
Farming is more than a lifestyle, it’s a livelihood. Livestock producers believe it is their responsibility to maintain strong herd health, however, sometimes disease can take over and leave little to the farmer’s control. Evidence of this can be shown with the BSE scare of 2003; the bovine tuberculosis outbreak that caused entire herds to be slaughtered for the sake of the industry; African swine fever: transmissible gastroenteritis virus; and many other instances.
Of all the disease outbreaks we have seen in the past 25 years, avian influenza was arguably the most terrifying for farmers and their families. It impacted poultry producers the most, but being a disease that can be contracted by humans made it all the more frightening and it was spread by migratory birds, thus impacting fowl worldwide. From large-scale farming operations to backyard bird lovers, no flock was safe. The only way to truly regain control over the poultry industry was to eliminate any potential for the influenza to spread by eliminating entire flocks of birds. Years later, avian influenza is not a major concern, but getting to this place was not an easy or enjoyable feat.
Weather is one of those factors that never seems to co-operate.
Since 1995, we have seen almost every condition imaginable. Despite the flooding we have been experiencing this year, the 2002 drought was detrimental to grain producers across the province. Although there are drought-tolerant crops and sustainability measures that can be taken, in Alberta the weather fluctuates too much to act on it. Drought is as common to central Alberta as flooding is, which means if we prepare for drought, we are unprepared for flooding. Despite the devastation and dust bowls, we recovered from 2002, and have not faced as severe a drought since.
Markets are always fluctuating, and have experienced significant drops. After a Cargill slaughterhouse in Kansas burnt down, the local and global market took a hit. When XL Foods in Brooks recalled beef after an E. coli outbreak, the market fell.
But BSE was the hardest incident for the beef market to recover from. Cows were selling for $300 in 2003, and farmers felt the devastation across the continent. BSE is also known as mad cow disease. In order for a cow to contract BSE, it must eat material from the spinal cord or brain of an infected bovine, hence the number of cases were low. However, the scare was enough to send the beef market into one of the biggest crises of the century. Borders closed and consumers turned away because they were scared of contracting the disease themselves.
The recovery from BSE was largely structured on education. It began by proving on a local and global scale that our beef was safe to consume, trade, and breed. Once consumers began opening up to the idea that Canadian beef was safe for human consumption, borders began to reopen, and trading of beef commenced once again.
BSE taught us a lot of things, but the importance of consumer education is one of the largest lessons we walked away with.
Social factors are some of the hardest for farmers to understand, and even tolerate. The agriculture industry is one that continues to be under the microscope of society. COVID-19 has had a large impact on the social elements surrounding agriculture. However, I would like to highlight the spike in plant-based products as one of the largest factors we have been battling over the last 25 years.
The consumption of plant-based goods is at an all-time high, and it is my belief that this is a result of a lack of education. If we can recover from BSE, and convince the entire world that our beef is safe to consume, how are we continuing to lose consumers? The answer is education.
Integrating agriculture lessons into the grade school curriculum could have a high return in future years by making them aware of how much farmers do for the world, the benefits of the different production industries, and making farming practices more transparent in the process.
Farmers’ markets are becoming so appealing because they give consumers the opportunity to meet the producer. So if we make consumers more aware of where their food comes from, they may be more comfortable with purchasing and consuming beef on a more commercial level.
Whether it be disease like avian influenza, droughts, BSE scares, or lack of consumer education, the No. 1 thing farmers have learned that can be applied to the future of agriculture is how to respond.
How to respond to devastation and disappointment. How to respond to tough financial situations and loss. How to respond to animal activists, and society’s mighty magnifying glass.
Farmers are not just producers. They are politicians, mechanics, vet assistants, economists, nutritionists, advocates, and so much more. We may not be able to control everything that happens, but we can choose how we respond.
Over the last 25 years, the farming industry has been through a lot. Structured around continuous improvement, the agriculture industry grew from the events that remodelled our industry since 1995. Disease, weather, markets, and social factors are just a few of the elements shaping our past and our future as producers.
As we look towards the future, and the next 25 years, we know we cannot anticipate what is in store for us. But we can think about our responses, and the decisions we make, because it is those decisions that determine the future of this industry, and the sustainability for future generations like myself.