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4R comes to Ontario agri-retail

New certification program will even mean some third-party auditing for farmers

If the agri-food industry wasn’t already keenly aware of a change in attitudes, the past three years have dramatically shown that the eyes of the world are upon us, particularly when it comes to environmental stewardship. A recent court ruling against Monsanto has only served to add fuel to a fire that includes nutrient run-off from farms leading to algal blooms in Lake Erie — all of which implicate farmers and the agri-food sector.

It’s a delicate balance between doing what makes scientific sense, on the one hand, and a consumer base that doesn’t seem to want to listen on the other, with a mainstream media sector in the middle that seldom conveys the complete picture of modern agriculture.

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Still, the need to drive forward with initiatives that show farmers and stakeholders operating above board and creating greater transparency has never been greater.

That’s the backdrop for the new Ontario 4R Certification program, which will be implemented among agri-retailers this fall. The program actually has two primary components. A national program boasts participation from all provinces except British Columbia, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, is voluntary for implementation among agri-retailers, and carries more of a pledge or attestation to show compliance. (Fertilizer Canada announced near the end of August that Quebec had joined the national program.)

The second is the voluntary Ontario program, which is far more focused with 37 standards addressed by third-party audit and written documentation to prove compliance. The goal is to have 20 locations audited by the end of 2018.

The 4R Ontario program comes through a memorandum of co-operation (MOC) between Fertilizer Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) and the Ontario Agri Business Association (OABA). The Grain Farmers of Ontario, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario are also involved, as are Conservation Ontario, the Nature Conservancy (Ohio), the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI), the Ontario Certified Crop Advisor (CCA-Ont) board and Ontario agri-retailers.

Interestingly, the Ontario standards come from those developed by the Nature Stewardship Council in Ohio, where the group developed its own proactive guidelines to avoid state legislation and restrictions being applied from outside of agriculture. That might be one of the larger incentives for implementing such a plan, i.e. being proactive and showing the non-farming public that agriculture is accountable and transparent.

For Dave Buttenham, the 4R certification program for retailers creates a framework that not only helps convey that environmental stewardship approach, it can also help a grower’s bottom line.

“It’s a science-based approach that implements best management practices (BMPs) and it’s pretty straightforward — applying the right nutrient, in the right amount, at the right time and in the right place,” says Buttenham, chief executive officer of OABA. “There are both environmental and economic benefits of implementing 4R at the farm level, and the focus of what we’re doing is to address water quality issues arising from phosphorus loading in Lake Erie — that’s the focal point of bringing 4Rs to Ontario.”

Buttenham contends there is a value to be realized through proper placement and utilization of nutrients on Ontario soils.

“The bulk of the return on investment of 4R nutrient stewardship is going to be at the farm level,” he says. “However, to become 4R certified, an agri-retailer is going to have to invest in staff education and training, as well as documentation.”

Fertilizer Canada left individual provincial jurisdictions to implement the program that best suits them. For Ontario, a key consideration became the proximity of the Great Lakes and dealing with algal blooms.

“We had to up our game through more of a due diligence and accountability system,” Buttenham says. “It is very clear that through the audit process you will either fail or pass, and we believe that this approach is what’s needed in Ontario.”

The certification process is based on a retailer saying what they do, doing what they say, and having the paper to prove it. The return on investment comes from a retailer being a trusted supplier of products, knowledge and services to the farm community. When the farmer deals with a certified retailer, they’re dealing with someone who looks at both the environmental and economic aspects of nutrient application.

“4R best management practice can improve your bottom line — and for some growers it will,” says Buttenham.

Soil sampling a key

A focal point of the new certification program is soil sampling, admittedly a thorny issue for some. Among other conditions, the Ontario requirements stipulate that soil sample zones cannot be larger than 25 acres (something that most certified crop advisers state should be a standard anyway).

Other practices which will change — albeit slightly — will focus on fall applications of phosphorus, which will not be allowed without a living cover crop or wheat crop in place. Again, it’s not contrary to what most growers understand already, according to Steph Kowalski from the Agromart Group.

“The preferred phosphorus placement method is in the ground and GLASI (the Great Lakes Agriculture Stewardship Initiative) was pushing for that anyway,” says Kowalski, a CCA who’s based at Belton, Ont.

The notion that farmers have been doing many of the things set out in the directives is something that caught Kowalski’s eye from the beginning. Once the working group saw the regulations being developed by Ohio, its members quickly realized that much of Ontario agriculture is already carrying out many of the same practices. In many ways, it comes down to “telling the story” about what’s being done on a day-to-day basis, and being able to prove it.

Another audit requirement in Ontario calls for the co-ordination of fertilizer applications with weather forecasts to avoid field run-off following heavier rain events. Precision ag implementation is also part of the stewardship recommendation, as is calibrating spreaders and documenting that calibration.

“That’s something that’s the retailer’s cost anyway, so in terms of passing that on to the farmer, I don’t see it,” says Kowalski. “As a whole, it’s something that the retailer should have built into their business. But to be more proactive, there needs to be more messaging.”

Tell the story

That messaging aspect is also important to Mark Hunt. Like Kowalski, he believes much of what’s contained in the 4R BMPs is simple verification of what most farmers are doing on their fields.

“The 4R program is a step in the right direction to both demonstrate and allow non-agricultural people to understand how we produce the food that they eat and use in their daily life,” says Hunt, strategic account manager and CCA for Alliance Agri-Turf in Bolton, Ont. With his office on the edge of the town, he’s very aware of the balancing act needed in agriculture. “We’re not over-applying nutrients that can lead to environment problems, either; we’re applying nutrients that the crops need to grow. The three main pillars of 4R are related to the environment and the economic and social needs of farmers and everyday people.”

Hunt sees the Ontario program as a stepping stone. He knows there’s talk that the province is looking at regulating nutrient applications, and he believes agriculture in Ontario should have a system in place, ready to share with the government.

Times have changed, Hunt adds, and the eyes of the world really are upon everyone — not just agriculture. The use of smartphones to video incidents as well as satellite imagery available through the internet all heighten the possibility that farmers will be monitored. That’s where the 4R certification audits help shed more light on what agriculture does.

“That’s the right approach,” says Hunt. “People want to know and they do have the right to know where their food comes from. I don’t think any farmers are against due diligence measures, and nobody’s against showing people that what we’re doing is right.”

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