The green people powering the Canada-Ontario Environmental Farm Plan
Farmers wear a lot of hats. They're planters and harvesters, soil and pest experts, livestock and poultry managers, repair technicians, robotics specialists, food and farm safety officers, accountants, marketers, and social media influencers. They're also stewards of the land, using the latest technology to keep it healthy and productive for generations to come. In fact, the average farm today can produce twice as much as it could 50 years ago, using the same amount of inputs.
In Ontario, environmentally-minded farmers have been supported by the Canada-Ontario Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) since 1993, a program that helps more than 45,000 Ontario farmers and rural landowners adopt environmentally sustainable practices.
The Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) developed the new electronic EFP with support from the federal and provincial governments through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.
With the launch of a new electronic version of the plan, we are looking at the stories of some of these Ontario farmers to learn how the tool has helped them.
Joan McKinlay: A family affair
In 1993, some prominent farmers and key people from several Ontario ministries got together to create the EFP in hopes of addressing environmental concerns and making their farms more sustainable. Joan McKinlay, a farmer and Soil and Crop Specialist at what was then the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, was one of them.
She and her husband James have farming in their blood. His family farm dates from the 1880s, and their son Robert will be the fifth generation to carry the tradition. They farm 1,200 acres in Grey County, Ontario, with cash crops (corn, soybean, wheat, mixed grains) and beef cattle.
“This was monumental,” recalls Joan, “to get everyone in the same room, talking about environmental solutions together. Before, people never used to talk about their issues. But when the EFP was brought in as voluntary, it changed the thinking. It was locally delivered and approved. There was trust.”
The end result? A free two-day, in-person workshop. It helped farmers and rural people understand how soil, air, wildlife, water sources, buildings and management practices could affect the environment. Action plans ensued to deal with or minimize any risks.
Even though Joan helped develop the course, she and her husband found great benefit from attending.
“What surprised me was the little things you could do that would make a big change,” explains Joan. You came in wanting to hide your problems and came out feeling empowered that you could do something about it!”
Little things mean a lot
What exactly are these “little things”? Joan's passion is evident as she gives an example.
"Our cows were walking through creek beds, creating mud and getting foot health issues. When we constructed alternate watering systems, the cattle had clean water; the creeks ran clearer; the cows no longer had foot issues ... this saved us stress and money on medication. Not only was this the right thing to do for the environment and our cattle but it helped us financially too!”
Joan laughs and says, “We've taken the course six times. That's a lot of environmental ideas and projects.”
Wayne Shier: The student becomes a teacher
Wayne Shier was born and raised on a mixed farm of livestock and cash crops in Grey County. With more than 40 years of practical experience, he took his first EFP course in 2014 and was so impressed, he became a Workshop Leader with the OSCIA to help others through the process.
“As a Workshop Leader, I can see the improvements farmers have made. I'm seeing fewer environmental risks, because they've been addressed. It's not just for farmers,” he explains, “but landowners too — people with woodlots and rural properties.”
“I've never had anyone come who later told me they regretted it or the time spent,” Wayne continues. “Every risk that gets addressed is a step forward. People are embracing it, and it shows we care about the environment.”
The EFP is so successful, every province now has one.
As of 2019, approximately 75% of Ontario farmers have taken the EFP. The latest option for taking it is electronic (eEFP) — especially helpful during the pandemic.
Ashley Vogel: The next generation
What about the younger generation? Millennials often prefer online to paper and are very environmentally aware.
Ashley Vogel and her husband Dave operate cash crop farms in Glengarry County. They welcomed their daughter, Kendal, in March 2020. While both of them grew up on farms, this is their first operation together. A full-time teacher, Ashley took the electronic EFP course twice in 2020, once for each farm.
“I've learned a lot from my family, but through the eEFP, I learned even more. For instance, we'll be planting trees to provide windbreaks to minimize soil erosion. We want to ensure crop rotation to help with soil health and eliminate pests. It's knowing what to look for — soil health, water use, equipment used, tillage practices — being aware is very important.”
Looking to the future, Ashley adds, “Environmental stewardship is about replenishing what you take from the land. That's the ultimate goal — to become more efficient, to have an environmentally sustainable and improved piece of land that you can profit from, without affecting the land negatively.”
The sound of a baby crying in the background signals the end of the interview. As Ashley tends to the next generation, it serves as a reminder of the importance of the little things in life, which turn out to be pretty big things.
To learn more about the Canada-Ontario Environmental Farm Plan and register for a workshop, please visit the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association website.
The Canadian Agricultural Partnership is a five-year $3-billion investment by federal, provincial and territorial governments to strengthen the agriculture and agri-food sector. For more information, visit:
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