Great Lakes pollution has become a critical issue in the past five years. In 2011, parts of Lake Erie were mired in a serious algal bloom, prompting the International Joint Commission (IJC) to establish Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority (LEEP).
The IJC issued a report in February 2014 identifying agriculture as the leading contributor to the pollution problem, and calling for stricter measures to monitor and reduce phosphorus levels entering the lake.
Other reports pointed at hog farming in the Maumee River basin in northwestern Ohio as the greatest contributor to Lake Erie pollution, although others have blamed cities including London, Ont. for its release of nutrients.
Yet proponents of change in farming practices say it doesn’t help anyone to point fingers. Instead, they insist that agriculture needs to get itself ahead of the curve to avoid unrealistic or punitive regulations.
In February 2015, the Great Lakes Agricultural Stewardship Initiative (GLASI) was launched at the annual meeting of the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA). There was little fanfare and some aspects had to be finalized before it could be completely rolled out for producers.
The program was developed and is now funded jointly through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). The money comes from the federal Growing Forward 2 initiative and is delivered by OSCIA. It also has two distinct components: the Farmland Health Check-Up and the Farmland Health Incentive Program (FHIP). GLASI is a multi-layered program, with intakes to fund dust deflectors and upgrades for custom manure applicators.
The Farmland Health Check-Up pertains primarily to soil and pollinator health. A workbook is included in the program, and a farmer and a participating Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) can work together to conduct an in-depth review of select fields based on soil types, nutrient levels, risk of erosion and land management practices, among other aspects. Once the review is complete, Check-Up identifies what are known as Farmland Health Challenges and makes recommendations on best management practices (BMPs) to improve overall farm health.
The Farmland Health Incentive Program was introduced just before the 2015 edition of Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show, and offers financial support to implement specific BMPs. In particular, it supports those with the greatest potential to impact the landscape, including improving soil health and reducing phosphorus loss from the edges of fields. Its coverage area extends from Windsor to Tobermory, down through Halton and along the lakeshore to Fort Erie, essentially encompassing all waterways affecting Lake Erie. The combined effect of these projects is supposed to improve the health of the Great Lakes, and in particular, Lake Erie.
To participate in FHIP, a farmer must have a peer-reviewed third edition Environmental Farm Plan or a verified complete fourth edition EFP conducted in the past five years.
In terms of available funding, a lot depends on the needs assessed by Check-Up and the Farmland Health Improvement recommendations. If it’s defined as a high priority, 60 per cent cost sharing is available up to a cap of $25,000 per project. “Recommended” measures are eligible for 50 per cent cost share up to a cap of $15,000 and “general” BMPs could earn 35 per cent cost share up to a cap of $10,000 per project. There are also limitations on what is eligible for funding (e.g. red clover is not eligible under cover crops; anything that can be harvest for seed is ineligible, and has been for years).
Not surprisingly, the winter of 2015-16 turned out to be a busy one for Margaret May, who teaches environmental workshops for farmers. Most years, she might expect 20 or 25 growers. Last winter, meetings were packed with 50 to 80 people.
The timing of the rollout of both programs meant there was little time to put them into place and have them ready for the 2016 growing season. By the time the Farmland Health Check-Up was introduced early in the summer of 2015, we were just heading into harvest. Once December arrived, May and her counterparts with OSCIA were off and running, spreading the news about the program’s directives and opportunities.
“The program’s been very well responded to — demand has greatly outstripped the funding available, which is disappointing, but it’s a reality,” says May, regional program lead with the OSCIA for much of southern Ontario.
In spite of early cost sharing that was relatively limited, the program quickly took off. May concedes that costs are always an issue, and that this seemed to be an initial stumbling block.
“That tide is starting to turn,” says May, noting there have been considerable cost-share opportunities for farmers to generate five-year crop plans based on a series of soil tests. “Those are both eligible under Growing Forward 2 and under GLASI, so there are some opportunities to get those kinds of things subsidized. And part of what the Farmland Health Check-Up does is help producers realize the benefits of doing it.”
The program has proved so popular that its applications had to be turned down when the Farmland Health Check-Up had reached its full budgetary allocation. That occurred in late spring 2016 and was noted on the OSCIA website. May confirms that the program will be available for 2017, but questions remain regarding what the cost-share opportunities will look like (the budget for the FHIP 2017 is already set). At this point, May is still encouraging growers to go ahead with the process of consulting with their CCAs, not only to learn more about their own farms, but as a means of enhancing their relationships with them. Another benefit to the program is the listing of CCAs who are trained and certified to conduct the checkups; it was a rather short list at the start but has expanded considerably since.
“We’re still encouraging people to go ahead with that process,” says May. “You’re still going to have to have a Farmland Health Check-Up and an Environmental Farm Plan done to access those dollars. Some didn’t see the benefit to keeping the environmental farm plan current. Now they’re seeing that they have to keep doing it every five years, so if nothing else, they’ve had a look at their business again, and it gets them ready if there are programs announced on relatively short notice.”
In early 2016, once tangible components were deemed eligible for cost share, particularly with regards to equipment, the response was significant, and more farmers realized they needed to get their EFPs up to date. At the same time, one thing May urges producers to consider is a “take it slow” approach with this initiative: avoid doing 200 or 300 acres at a time. Instead, try a little bit to see if it works. She adds that there are local Soil & Crop chapters that are engaged in some projects in an effort to collect data and get more information as a resource.
In addition to an updated environmental farm plan, producers also need to be fully prepared when meeting with a CCA.
“The time spent with the CCA is covered under the cost of the program, so it’s two or three hours, sitting at the table with your soil test, with your cropping history, with your yields, with your herbicide program,” says May. “You can’t walk into this without being prepared — you have to have some information ready. ”
It’s not just cover crops or manure applications that are part of the program. Some growers are asking about erosion control or planting trees. Others are learning more about taking a parcel of less productive land out of production, planting grass or pollinator habitats, all in an effort to make the land a producer does farm more productive and profitable.
“No one is going to access all of those components through the Farmland Health Check-Up, because you just can’t do that,” says May. “You decide which ones are going to work for you and you go there.”
Soil health the key
Chad Anderson keeps repeating the same two words: soil health. Whether it’s through their fertility programs, cover crops, or soil analysis, he says more producers are reconsidering the importance of healthy soils, and that this is why they understand the need to preserve water quality.
“There’s a big appetite today in agricultural circles to improve soil health, and the program focuses on this component and draws people in,” says Anderson, an independent CCA from Brigden, Ont., south of Sarnia.
Anderson was part of a small group of CCAs who took part in the pilot to test the original Farmland Health Check-Up, with revisions made based on their feedback. “People want to explore different options, whether it’s from a nutrient management perspective or introducing new cover crops.”
Anderson — like May — has heard little opposition to GLASI and its components. He believes farmers have always been good stewards of the land and that they’re always interested in improving how they farm.
“It allows a person to look at their farm from a different perspective,” Anderson says of GLASI. “Instead of focusing on yield and the bottom line, it makes you think more about how you farm and what impact that has long term. The analysis is done with recommendations made by the CCA and helps give some direction and actions, rather than just chatting about it.”
In his dealings with producers participating in GLASI and the Farmland Health Check-Up, Anderson has found it’s less about “getting your own environmental house in order” and than in enhancing soil quality.
“There is nothing else like the (Farmland Health) Check-Up in the world,” he says, noting the EFP was created and developed in Ontario by people with great wisdom and foresight. “The Farmland Check-Up follows closely in the EFP’s shoes, and I fully expect one day to see this adapted in other parts of the country as well as in other countries.”