OTTAWA — A farm isn’t “sustainable” — to use the current buzzword — if that farm is unprofitable. That was one of the key takeaways from an agricultural panel discussion at the 2023 Ottawa Valley Farm Show on March 16.
Contrary to popular belief, the trendy term means more than “environmental sustainability,” according to the panelists who highlighted the equal importance of a farm’s financial viability, as well as its ability to more generally sustain a farm family in a healthy life pursuit.
“It’s a three-legged stool — profit, planet, people, not necessarily in that order, but each one is important,” Ontario Federation of Agriculture President Peggy Brekveld said, describing the “three P’s” of agricultural sustainability. The “people” aspect includes sustaining a farmer’s mental health, Brekveld also pointed out.
Event moderator and member of parliament Francis Drouin (LIB – Glengarry-Prescott-Russell), raised the topic: “Consumers are demanding more and more sustainable foods. They don’t really have a definition of what that means, but they’re demanding more sustainable food. They want to know that there’s no impact — barely any impact — on the environment,” Drouin said.
Farm and Food Care Ontario Executive Director Kelly Daynard vigorously challenged that assumption, noting that “farming is already one of the most sustainable industries I know, but that message doesn’t get out.” Daynard highlighted how her dairy-farming cousins in Prince Edward County are now in their 8th generation at the operation, adding, “You don’t farm for 205 years on one property without being sustainable.”
Farm Management Canada Executive Director Heather Watson lamented how “every conversation about sustainability trends to (the) environment…. We’re constantly pushing for sustainability to be about more than environmental.”
Watson also reflected on the three (people, profit, planet) legs of the sustainability stool. “We can do all the things in the world for the environmental side, but if it doesn’t make business sense — if we go broke doing it — then we’re no further ahead,” she said. “Or if we work ourselves to death, literally, then it doesn’t make sense, either.”
Government policy, including the longstanding Canada-Ontario Environmental Farm Plan program, must “recognize this triple bottom line” or those programs won’t work, Watson argued. “It’s a constant struggle.”
Social media also came up both as a tool farmers can use to get their message out, and as a disinformation weapon used against them.
Daynard said that farmers must tell their stories in a variety of ways, including person-to-person when the opportunity presents, to counter “horrible” online memes “about how agriculture is ruining the planet.” Such memes — snappy online images and text with anti-agriculture propaganda — “just drive me insane,” she said.
Daynard related it to the disconnect between agriculture and a society where only about 2 % of people live on farms, down from about 33 % in the 1930s. She joked that farmers have become “a bit like leprechauns and unicorns. People want to know that you exist, but they don’t know where to find you.”
Daynard also expressed sympathy with farmers reluctant to speak up in defence of their industry, noting there are “an awful lot of animal activists, including right here in the city of Ottawa.” Farmers are often “afraid to put up their heads for fear they’re the next target of the whack-a-mole attacks,” she added.
It can be so bad, she knows of one livestock producer who tells people he works for Canada Post, rather than admit to being a farmer. “And that hurts my heart because he’s got an amazing livestock story to tell. He doesn’t like to tell it.”
Daynard advised ignoring the anti-agriculture factions and not engaging in dialogue with them directly.
The panel discussion was organized by county Federation of Agriculture chapters in Eastern Ontario.