Having an official stewardship plan comes with benefits

Access to grants and the ‘sustainable sourcing’ trend are key reasons for an environmental farm plan

A lot of Alberta farmers have an environmental farm plan, but many are gathering dust on a shelf and are no longer valid.

But having a valid environmental farm plan (EFP) has several benefits and renewing one has become easier, say officials who run the program.

A constant in Alberta since 2003, there are 4,500 current EFPs and at least 9,000 which haven’t been upgraded. However, the program now requires any plan older than 10 years to be renewed. Having a valid EFP is a requirement for several popular cost-share programs under the Canadian Agriculture Partnership (CAP).

Qualification for CAP programs, such as Efficient Grain Dryer and Improved Pesticide Management, is still the No. 1 reason for starting or renewing an EFP, said program manager Lisa Nadeau.

Lisa Nadeau.
photo: Supplied

“Many people sign up because it’s a prerequisite for CAP and then once they have completed their EFP they reflect back on all of those other benefits,” said Nadeau, who works for the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA), which administers the program.

“Once they have completed it they feel like they’ve really learned something.”

Plans are created by going through a workbook that identifies environmental risks and helps develop action plans to tackle them. Going through a process that documents stewardship efforts is increasingly important as more food companies embrace ‘sustainable sourcing.’ For example, McCain’s Foods only buys from farms with a completed EFP, a move that prompted the Potato Growers of Alberta to make a valid EFP a membership requirement.

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“We have heard anecdotally from, for example, canola producers who say those who have a farm plan have a much easier time doing their ISCC certification for export into Europe,” said Paul Watson, director of the EFP program in Alberta. (International Sustainability and Carbon Certification helps canola producers access EU markets.)

As well, when combined with federal and provincial regulations, the program’s content is considered equal to the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform’s Farm Sustainability Assessment version 2.1 (FSA 2.1) at the silver level. That’s a mouthful, but it essentially means that the Alberta EFP is meeting the standards of this major global initiative for sustainable agriculture.

As well, a slightly modified version of the EFP is due to be released in September, which will make it easier for producers to achieve FSA certification, said Watson. There are plans to merge this modified ‘EFP+’ with the current one in a future version of the EFP WebBook.

Paul Watson.
photo: Supplied

“Not all of our (current) questions and rankings with the questions hit the nail on the head, so to speak, so we will clarify language and ratings in such a way that they meet the FSA requirements more directly without substantively changing the questions,” he said.

This will make completing an EFP more attractive and may also bring former participants back into the fold, said Watson.

“We anticipate additional programs will require an EFP to access funding. More importantly, as the marketplace increasingly demands documentation of sustainability practices, we anticipate producers using EFP and EFP+ for this purpose and as a preparatory tool.”

Completing a plan

The WebBook, the online version of the workbook, was designed to streamline and simplify the process.

“We still offer the binder as an option but we have maybe one per cent of producers in the end decide to do the binder over online,” said Nadeau.

Once registered (either for a new plan or a renewal), producers are assigned an EFP technician from their area who can help if they have questions. The plan comes with a confidentiality agreement.

“We assure (participants) that only the producer, their assigned technician and the EFP admin team have access to their account,” Nadeau said.

“The government never sees their workbook. The only thing producers send to the provincial government is — if they’re applying for funding — their certificate saying they’ve completed an EFP. The government never sees any of the information inside.”

It is likely the program will someday aggregate EFP data to measure trends and progress in stewardship practices, but that would not jeopardize confidentiality in any way, said Watson.

“It’s not about what an individual does. For the most part people just don’t care about that,” he said. “What they do care about is whether or not we’re making progress on some of the bigger environmental concerns such as greenhouse gases and water stewardship. It’s at a bulk level rather than an individual level.”

Upcoming changes

A new version of the EFP WebBook and binder slated to be released later this year will include a section on habitat management.

“It’s going to be a fairly straightforward piece for producers to run through our habitat management tools. It will include a very small number of questions,” said Watson.

“It will take about 10 to 15 minutes or so. We don’t look at specific species you have or anything like that. We just talk about the kind of land you have and what kind of features you have on your land and then offer some suggestions for management that would be beneficial for large swaths of species.”

Future versions will emphasize carbon capture and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, said Watson.

“The other big piece that we are looking at is going to be water stewardship. This has become a major concern for lots of international players. It’s an issue in some parts of Canada as well.”

For more info, see albertaefp.com and cap.alberta.ca.

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