OFA sees value in incentive programs to recognize farmers for ecological goods and services, By Mark Reusser, Director, Ontario Federation of Agriculture

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The natural environment supports diverse ecosystems and thrives on biodiversity. As farmers, we must continue to prioritize enhancing our farmland to support prosperous growth of food and commodities for all current and future generations. We depend on ecological goods and services to maintain a healthy environment.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) acknowledges the important role that Ontario farmers serve in protecting and enhancing the natural environment and our most vital resources. Beyond the land that is used to grow crops or pasture animals, preserving forests, wetlands and water ways on the farm property is in the hands of farmers. Best management practices can achieve greater biodiversity, enhancing the entire rural landscape including woodlots, wetlands, riparian zones and more.

We tend to think of biodiversity in the general context of landscape although it is much more than that. Especially in southwestern Ontario, most of the land is used to produce food and fibre which is dependent on ecological goods and services. Ecological goods include healthy soil and clean water, and this environment allows marketable agricultural products to be grown. Farmers also have an opportunity to manage ecological services including water cycling (purification, retention, flood mitigation), air quality (oxygen production, carbon sequestration, climate regulation), nutrient cycling, pollination services, including habitat for endangered and threatened species, protection of wildlife and habitat and biodiversity, soil erosion control, and aesthetic and recreational spaces and scenic views. Using nutrients, water, space, and energy more efficiently, using more effective measures for soil and water conservation, and using biological resources better to raise and maintain yields of crops and livestock are all good investments to preserving diversity within our agricultural ecosystem.

Woodlots and wetlands are an invaluable part of Ontario’s landscape and a key to sustainability. Practices such as crop rotation, buffer strips, manure management and integrated pest management can all contribute to a healthier ecosystem on and off the farm. Farmers are responsible stewards of these lands, which also includes a variety of habitats within them. Animals and plants work in a virtuous cycle that benefits from biodiversity. Protecting endangered and threatened species is a part of this role farmers play in serving the environment.

These services to enhance ecosystems do not command an explicit price for maintenance and delivery. Ecological goods are commonly thought of as providing private benefit through market returns, while services are provided for the benefit of society. While producers make the effort to implement beneficial management practices, it is typically not encouraged through incentives. In a way, incentives can be an investment in the environment made by society.

In the Region of Waterloo, we have experienced success with the Waterloo Region Water Quality Program. This program incentivizes farmers in this area to reduce phosphorus runoff in nearby waterways by implementing practices such as fencing off streams to livestock and planting native species as a buffer along waterways, improving overall water quality and biomass.

Managing agricultural systems and their associated landscapes in a sustainable manner that preserves and promotes biodiversity will produce lasting economic and social benefits for future generations. OFA believes farmers should be recognized and valued for their efforts to manage, maintain and enhance the many elements of our environment. The organization continues to advocate for the development and implementation of a fair system of incentive-based policies and programs that properly acknowledge the significant environmental contributions that result from the adoption of beneficial management practices.