McCain Foods launches aggressive regenerative ag strategy

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Global french fry giant will work with its potato growers to adopt regenerative ag practices over the next decade

Global french fry giant will work with its potato growers to adopt regenerative ag practices over the next decade

One of the world’s largest suppliers of frozen potato products has set aggressive sustainability targets for the next 10 years — and regenerative agriculture is at the centre of this new strategy.

Regenerative ag — which covers a range of practices from no-till and rotational grazing to cover crops and permaculture — is “a more nature-based solution,” said McCain Foods CEO Max Koeune.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Koeune said on a webinar. “We’re aligning some metrics there so that we can, over time, help our farmers transition to these practices and monitor our progress.”

Earlier this month, McCain Foods announced regenerative farming practices will be used on all of the potato acres it contracts — around 370,000 acres across the globe — by 2030. The company contracts potatoes from 130 farms in Canada, of which 30 are in Alberta. (Another 36 are in Manitoba and the rest in New Brunswick.) The Alberta producers supply McCain’s processing plant at Coaldale, which it built in 2000 and expanded four years ago.

There will be a “transition phase” in adopting regenerative ag principles, including protecting soil health and reducing water and input use, said Koeune.

“We’re certainly seeing those who have embraced regenerative agriculture as being able to use the sustainable practices, transform the quality of the soil, and have a viable (business) model,” he said. “But it’s clear that there’s still a certain amount of uncertainty remaining for many.

“So one of the key things we’re doing is making sure that, in the way we contract, we’re able to help our growers go through this transition phase where yields might be dropping and where crops might be changing, until we see that realization of lower input costs and higher yields.”

But for many potato growers in Alberta, these practices are “business as usual,” said Terence Hochstein, executive director of the Potato Growers of Alberta.

“It’s nothing new to our growers,” said Hochstein. “What they’ve announced and what they’re hoping to do in the next 10 years is something we’ve been doing for many, many years. Now it’s just being recognized as some of the practices that we’ve been doing.”

Alberta potato growers are well aware of the environment they’re working in southern Alberta, where land and water can be limited, he added.

“We’re constantly looking for new ways to use less chemicals and less fertilizer and to preserve our soil and water,” he said. “We do it because it’s the right thing to do. So as far as these alternative practices go, we’ve done them on our own and we’re going to continue to do them.”

Farms of the Future

Some of the regenerative practices and precision ag technologies will be new to some potato growers, but McCain’s commitment to work with producers through the transition will help, Hochstein added.

To test new practices and assist producers in adopting them, the company is opening three ‘Farms of the Future’ by 2025, the first of which has already opened in Florenceville, N.B.

“We actually purchased a farm in New Brunswick and have put in the first crop this year,” said Koeune. “We’re working with farmers in that area, with academia, and with other experts to really bring all the know-how and all the technological innovation to help establish the metrics and the knowledge so that we can scale it up.

“For us, the key is to be able to scale up so that, within 10 years, we can get to our target of having 100 per cent of our potatoes sourced from regenerative agriculture.”

But potatoes are only one crop in the rotation, he added. As part of its strategy, McCain is also working with other food processors to build a coalition of companies with a similar approach to sustainability and to create long-term cropping plans focusing on regenerative ag principles.

“That, of course, takes time, because it takes aligning a number of companies, but we’re sure that’s the way to build scale and accelerate,” said Koeune.

McCain is also advocating to move regenerative agriculture forward in Canada. The federal government’s recent announcement of $200 million over two years for on-farm climate change solutions is “a very good step in the right direction,” but other investments are required for research and development, said Koeune.

“There are a number of elements that are required to have the toolbox to transition to regenerative agriculture,” he said. “There’s not one party that will solve this. For sure it’s not going to be the farmer on their own. It has to be the whole value chain of food and with the support of financing and the public sector.”

But ultimately, the farmer is at the heart of the conversation, and McCain will continue to work with its farmers to develop the tools and strategies that will work for them, he said.

“We’ve been working alongside our farmers since day one,” said Koeune. “At the end of the day, our business started in agriculture, our roots are in agriculture, and we see the relationship with farmers as one of the key elements of success for our business. We’re really vested in that relationship.”

And that’s good news for the southern Alberta potato farmers who have been working all along to build a more sustainable potato industry, said Hochstein.

“By doing a lot of these practices, it allows this industry to continue doing what it does best — growing some of the best potatoes in the world,” he said. “We have to continue to produce safe food. We’ve got to take care of what’s in front of us, not only for ourselves but for future generations.”

As part of its plan, McCain has set several specific targets. These include reducing carbon emissions from potato farming, storage and freight by 25 per cent by 2030, and improving water-use efficiency by 15 per cent “in water-stressed regions” by 2025. The company, which has 49 production plants around the world (including seven in Canada) also plans to move to 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2030.

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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