OFA a long-time champion of environmental initiatives for farmers

Programs delivered by Adaptation Council helped advance farm environmental stewardship  

Twenty-five years ago, Ontario farm leaders came together to form a not-for-profit organization to deliver funding programs for projects and research for the agriculture sector in the province. That organization was the Agricultural Adaption Council (AAC), which is marking its 25th anniversary this year, and one of its early mandates was to support environmental initiatives.   

From the beginning, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) spearheaded a variety of environment-related projects with broad benefit across the entire sector as lead applicant on behalf of the industry and continues to do so to this day.    

“For farmers, focusing on the environment is all about getting the best productivity out of your land today and knowing that in 100 years, people will still be able to do that,” says OFA General Manager Cathy Lennon. “Environmental issues impact every single commodity that is produced in the province from beekeeping and maple syrup to cash crop and livestock, and as the full umbrella organization for all commodities, it makes sense to have OFA lead these types of projects.”   

One project in particular has been foundational to environmental programming across Ontario and continues to play a key role today in environmental stewardship, sustainability, and public trust issues - the Environmental Farm Plan (EFP). 

OFA, as a member of the Ontario Farm Environmental Coalition at the time, originally applied for funding to support EFP activities to increase farmer awareness of environmental issues and develop their capacity to protect Ontario’s agricultural resources through sound environmental management.   

Focusing on water protection, soil improvement and waste management, this was the first large environmental initiative in Canadian agriculture and the EFP model has since been expanded across the country. To date, 45,000 farmers in Ontario have voluntarily participated in projects targeting those three areas and over 3,700 EFP training workshops have been held in the province.   

In Ontario, the $235 million of government funding that have supported EFP programming since its inception have been matched by approximately $191 million in investments by farm businesses and other sources.   

 “We have government dollars matched by real investment dollars by farmers and that’s one of the really significant success stories of this voluntary program,” says Lennon. “It has also definitely played a role in the public’s trust in our food supply - a lot of companies now recognize EFP as the standard for Best Management Practices for environmental stewardship in Canada, for example.”   

During the establishment of nutrient management legislation and associated water quality regulations in Ontario, it was data gathered through EFP and on-farm projects completed by farmers across the province that helped the industry consult and negotiate with government around reasonable, cost-effective approaches.

Over the years, OFA has championed other environmental projects too, including exploring sustainable farm and food plans through a whole-farm approach to documenting and communicating sustainable farm practices, and a collaborative strategy to reduce phosphorus loss in the Thames River Basin by improving drainage and water management. Each time, the AAC as the funding delivery agent has been a valuable partner in the process, Lennon notes.   

“The people that sit around the table at the AAC board are truly a representation of Ontario agriculture, from specialty sectors to mainstream and that’s a strength of that organization,” she says. “It brings together a lot of sharing of best practices and priorities and linking groups together to encourage collaboration.”   

The organization has also been an excellent training ground for staff - Lennon herself worked at AAC in its early days - and for board directors who’ve been able to gain a broad understanding of the various sectors in Ontario agriculture and now serve the industry in different capacities.   

A strong focus for AAC over the years has also been ensuring that youth - those 39 and under - have a voice in its decision-making processes through the creation of two youth-at-large board positions. Two former youth directors, Kristin Ego MacPhail and Kelly Duffy, eventually went on to serve as chairs of organization.   

Since its inception in 1995, AAC has delivered more than 30 funding programs on behalf of both the federal and provincial governments.  

AAC is currently delivering phase two of the Greenhouse Competitiveness and Innovation Initiative for Ontario’s greenhouse industry funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), as well as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Emergency Processing Fund for food processors in Manitoba, Nunavut and Ontario. Projects are also ongoing in the Ontario Regional Priorities Partnership Program, which is a collaboration with Ontario Genomics and Genome Canada.   

“We are proud of the environmental stewardship accomplishments of Ontario agriculture over the last 25 years and to be able to work with strong industry partners like the Ontario Federation of Agriculture,” says AAC Chair Chris Hiemstra. “We’re a member-driven organization, which means we evolve alongside the industry so that we can continue to meet the needs of the Ontario agriculture and agri-food sector as we enter our next 25 years.”