Sustainability comes in many forms - all of them important
By Kara Oosterhuis Aug. 14, 2018

Kara Oosterhuis, 21, of Bow Island was the senior winner in the Alberta Young Speakers for Agriculture competition at the Calgary Stampede. Her topic was: What is sustainability and why does it matter to Canadian agriculture?

We live off the land. I live off the land. You live off the land.

Sustainability is vital to the health and welfare of our planet, and to the ever-changing agricultural industry. Here’s why.

Sustainability is environmental.

It’s knowing that a profit is imperative to the survival of my family farm, but taking care of our land and soil is even more important. We know there is such a thing as too much fertilizer and too many chemicals. I believe the value of crop rotations can’t even be monetized to its full extent, because it’s that imperative to the longevity of the land. Agriculture employs methods such as solar energy, wind energy, and hydroelectricity. Oftentimes, farmers are branded as not environmentally aware — but in my hometown county solar energy is beginning to power our irrigation pivots. We live off the land, so in this industry we really know the importance of our environment.

Sustainability is also financial.

It’s the ability to go into a local bank to take out an operating loan which can be used to finance the inputs to grow a successful crop, all the while having a trust relationship deep enough with your banker to actually approve the loan. It’s knowing that we have to keep our borrowing costs low in order to avoid dumping our debt on future generations. Advancements, such as crop insurance, have allowed our industry to continue on in the tough years by protecting us from financial disaster. Even in my short lifespan, I’ve witnessed the importance of crop insurance. Conversations with my farming friends no longer involve whether or not they should be insuring their crops. It’s an option that western Canadian farmers often take for granted. I remember growing up in my small town of Bow Island, when we would watch the storm clouds roll up, while keeping an eye on the weather radar. Although this was (and is) an anxiety-ridden event — crop insurance has allowed us to continue farming — even when baseball-sized hail comes roaring through a once thriving chickpea crop. When we face a drought year, like many across the Prairies witnessed last year, and the durum is heading out at ankle high at the end of May, we don’t have to worry much about whether or not we’ll be able to put a crop in the ground the following year.

Sustainability is technological, too.

Today this can mean pretty cool advancements like GPS, drones, and automated tractors. My dad and I have sat on the edge of a field, scouting nearby fields from a bird’s eye view in a quick moment, without moving an inch. Of course, we followed up by putting our feet to the ground and actually walking through the field. However, it’s amazing what technology can now do. Technology has given us the ability to build new infrastructure. The movement from the horse and plow to the first tractor allowed agriculture to become more sustainable. The first irrigation pivot in southern Alberta did the same, all the while feeding back and contributing to the economy and communities. Growing up on a now almost half-and-half dryland/irrigation farm, I have experienced first hand what irrigation alone has done for the feasibility of our industry, and what it has contributed to some of our small-but-thriving villages. Without the ability, through stable governments, to build our local towns, our roads, our education facilities, our trucks and machinery, and different modes of infrastructure, agriculture simply wouldn’t be what it is today.

Sustainability is our human resources as well.

We need to continue to provide some of the best education in the world to attract and retain our future industry professionals. I believe that in order to continue this successful education trend we are on, we need to continue cutting-edge research and to ensure the innovative ideas are communicated to the students. Students receiving cutting-edge information, means our industry is implementing it as well. However — it’s important to keep yourself up to date and current, even if it’s been decades since you’ve sat in a classroom. Attending conferences, field days, plot hops, and trade shows are some of the best things you can do as an industry professional to keep yourself in the loop. As a bonus, delicious local food and drinks are often included in these days, so can you really go wrong?

Sustainability is access to medical resources.

In order to take care of our land, crops, and farms, we need to take care of ourselves. We have to be able to go to a nearby hospital when the unfortunate happens. No matter how safe we are being on our farms, accidents happen, and part of having a sustainable farm is being able to have medical facilities and infrastructure close by. However, it’s not just our physical health that we need to take care of — it’s our mental health as well. Suicide numbers have increased, and there are countless reports of farmers feeling isolated. And no, this isn’t just millennials feeling this way. In a recent report across Canada, 35 per cent of producers met the criteria for depression, 45 per cent for high stress, and 58 per cent for anxiety. But on top of that, 40 per cent of producers say that they would feel uncomfortable when it comes to talking about their mental health, because of how others may portray them. Sustainability is creating a safe space to come together and help each other. It’s acknowledging the need for help is not a weakness.

Finally, sustainability is working together.

It’s a whole ecosystem of things working together. Sustainability in agriculture is an imperative interconnected system. In order to continue to advance agriculture and keep it moving forward, we as an industry need to continue to work together as one community. It’s not only making our lands and farms viable for future generations — but showing the future generations exactly how important agriculture is and why they may one day want to devote their lives to this exciting and challenging lifestyle.

That’s why sustainability is so important to Canadian agriculture — and agriculture as a whole — so we can all continue to live off of our prosperous land.

Read Chancey Lane’s award-winning speech ‘Agriculture has always been more than farming’ from 2017 here.