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New tool measures farm operation sustainability

Demand for “field print” calculations is on the rise

Energy consumption, land use, erosion and climate impact are key to environmental management. Consumers and food retailers are now demanding this type of information. But how do you measure your efficiency? A new calculator can help.

Denis Tremorin, director of sustainability at Pulse Canada, is the driving force behind the Canadian Field Print Calculator project and says the tool is similar to household resources that would measure a family’s carbon footprint.

“We’ve made the calculator an easy-to-use Microsoft Excel-based tool that is focused on output data and sustainability metrics that are quantitative in nature,” says Tremorin, who has been working on development for the last four years.

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He says producers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta have successfully piloted the tool in 500 fields covering over 80,000 acres and are continuing to expand the project.

D’Arcy Hilgartner, a grain, oilseed and pulse producer from Camrose, Alberta is a participant and says that he is proud of how sustainable his operation is but is seeing increased demand from buyers and consumers to prove it.

“Just saying that we are doing a good job isn’t cutting it and that’s where projects like this come in,” he says. “The calculator highlighted areas of our operation where we are doing well such as soil heath, water and biodiversity.

Tremorin says there is growing market demand for findings like Hilgartner’s as many retailers announce new policies about sourcing sustainable products.

Kellogg Company, for example, recently published a commitment to responsibly source their top 10 ingredients and materials by 2020. The company’s list of priorities for agricultural suppliers — resilience to climate change, optimization of fertilizer inputs, improvement of soil health and more — closely match the metrics provided by the tool.

“General Mills, Inc. has seen the calculator and is interested in an in-depth pilot project with oat growers who they purchase from so we will be working together with them in Western Canada,” says Tremorin.

Using the tool

Calculator users need to complete an initial data input of equipment used, farm locations and field details such as soil type, tillage practices and drainage. The majority of the input is then required as practices like seeding, fertilizer and pesticide application and harvest are completed.

“When growers provide their records of each activity, equipment used and hours operated to our consultant, they receive individual field performance reports based on five indicators — land use efficiency, soil erosion risk, energy use, climate impact and soil carbon release,” explains Tremorin.

The functions of the tool are closely based on another resource available in the United States through Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. Tremorin says this group is working successfully with Unilever and other large companies to share data.

Hilgartner says that he did not find the data collection process to be too onerous, which is key for more growers to participate. Tremorin notes that the pilot project has allowed for refining of the tool which could lead to partnerships with farm management companies to combine the calculator with existing software farmers may be using.

The output reports allow users to monitor improvements and compare management scenarios on their own farms but also compare their sustainability scores to regional averages.

Tremorin sees the output report as a way for growers to know their environmental impact and share information in support of their production methods. “We are realizing that food companies want to understand the agricultural production side and we are working with impact metrics because we want to change the discussion along the food supply chain.”

Hilgartner, a director of the Alberta Pulse Growers, says that if the market is looking to know how products are being produced, farmers need to have a set of measurements to back up their position.

“I have a fear that multiple markets will develop individual sustainability programs with different criteria, different reporting and little producer benefit,” he explains. “We need to stay at the forefront of the creation of these programs to develop one common practice which requires information that is already being collected.”

Tremorin agrees and says he is focusing on the data to reduce overall impact scores through the innovation of farmers, as opposed to purchasers demanding what specific practices are used in the field.

“The goal now is to get the word out and increase distribution,” says Tremorin. Interested farmers are encouraged to contact Pulse Canada or visit serecon.ca.

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