Simplifying conservation programs

Researcher sees unnecessary overlap of funding options in southern Ontario

Canadian dairy farmers continue to run a public image campaign aiming to convince the public that producing milk enhances environmental sustainability.

Many dairy farms in Ontario have a wide range of environmental programs available to them, but a University of Guelph researcher is wondering why the programs aren’t more streamlined. 

“Many organizations seem to put out similar resources or programs or overlap in program activities,” says Emily Sousa, who spoke to Farmtario about the work she did in 2020-21 in pursuit of a Master of Science degree in Rural Planning and Development. 

She sees some of this overlap as “re-inventing the wheel” when instead some organizations or government agencies could “pool resources and collaborate and have a greater reach.”

Why it matters: Canada’s dairy farmers continue to run a public image campaign aiming to convince the public that producing milk in the right way enhances environmental sustainability.

Sousa’s recent work – compiling all conservation-themed programs with any relevance to dairy farms in Wellington, Perth, Oxford and Waterloo counties – follows up on a 2019 study funded by Dairy Farmers of Canada to identify barriers nationwide for farmers interested in enhancing biodiversity on their land.

“We wanted to learn about the particular practices farmers are undertaking that are supportive of biodiversity and the reasons for doing so,” Sousa said of the earlier study, also supported by Ducks Unlimited.

Ontario stood out among all provinces for offering the widest range of opportunities. In part, Sousa credits conservation authorities for this and cites their unique model of promoting soil and water biodiversity on a watershed scale rather than regionally.

Initially, Sousa had planned to conduct in-person interviews with Ontario dairy farmers but COVID-19 changed that. 

Interviews seemed an unwanted intrusion when dairy farmers were forced by the pandemic to dump milk, but the constantly shifting public health guidelines also caused Sousa and her advisors to switch instead to an in-depth survey of available programs in four dairy-dominated counties.

She hopes in-person interviews will be part of follow-up research to explore disparities and differences between available programs on provincial, and ultimately, national scales.

From her four-county comparison, Sousa is reluctant to make broad observations given that the research is in its preliminary stages. 

But “I quickly became overwhelmed as a researcher in navigating these programs and comparing their levels of support or even requirements for applying,” she told Farmtario. 

“It makes you wonder how interested farmers, who are very busy already, try to sort out what is available or choose what to pursue and what their reasons are for pursuing these opportunities or not.”

A poster outlining the research, entitled “Striking a balance: An exploration of voluntary program activities to conserve agricultural biodiversity in southwestern Ontario’s dairy industry,” captured second place in a student contest hosted by the 2021 Latornell Conservation Symposium. 

Sousa’s poster offers that “biodiversity is critical for community well-being but is rapidly being lost.” 

It identifies intensive agriculture as a contributor to this loss, and Sousa notes in the poster that “dairy farming . . . may encompass both unsustainable livestock and crop production practices.”

When interviewed by Farmtario, however, she adds that biodiversity – encompassing “all living things amongst genes, species, landscape features, and whole ecosystems – is a complex concept and can be challenging for even scientists to understand.”

She believes many farmers recognize there can be mutual benefits from certain practices for ecosystems and their farm’s long-term sustainability.

“Understanding what this looks like is essential to know what we are talking about, especially if farmers are looking to see what would work best for their farm.

“It is a mutual relationship, and many farmers know this and are doing this work,” she continued. “But without supporting farmers to make this relationship work and maximizing benefits to both, we risk losing valuable resources that will impact the resilience of our agricultural industries and our shared environments.”

The unique nature of Ontario’s conservation authorities stood out as Sousa explored available programs. 

“As of 2014, the Grand River Conservation Authority alone had completed over 4,000 projects,” she noted, in territory “where farmers own over 70 per cent of lands.”

She’s fully aware her research comes at a time of uncertainty for conservation authorities, given the provincial government’s ongoing examination of how and to what extent they should be financially supported. 

Previously announced and potential future funding cuts “disproportionately impact rural municipalities with a smaller tax base to pull from in compensating for lost funds,” she said.

Sousa also observed that conservation projects tend to occur on an individual farm-by-farm basis while biodiversity depends on protection on a wider scale, including the watershed approach. 

She predicts farmers’ efforts will only succeed where numerous neighbouring landowners have the same vision and undertake similar projects at the same time.

In Ontario, some examples already exist. She pointed to Credit Valley Conservation’s Bird-Friendly Hay certification and marketplace program. 

She is now interviewing stakeholders who work for agricultural or environmental organizations to learn their perspectives. She aims to defend her thesis in December.

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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