“Supporter Spotlight” features Canadians with a passion for Canada’s Natural Resource sector. Our spotlight for January 2022 is Allison Ammeter. Allison is a farmer in Central Alberta and talks to us about the importance of agriculture for our communities, economy and environment.
1 - Canada Action: Allison, thank you so much for taking the time today. You are a canola, wheat, barley, fava beans and peas farmer in central Alberta. You are also Director and past Chair of Alberta Pulse Growers as well as past Chair of Pulse Canada. How did you get into farming?
Allison: (She laughs). There's a simple answer. I married a farmer! But I also grew up on a farm and the farm that my husband and I are on is very similar to the one that I grew up on in Saskatchewan. So I have lived on a farm my whole life. It is what I am familiar with and I never actually thought I would return to a farm.
My brother farms our home farm and I got an education, got a real job, and when I met my husband, (who I thought was really great and then found out he was also a farmer), it kind of sealed the deal. He was raised on the family farm. His grandfather started it when he came over to Canada escaping the Stalin regime and they have been farming here in central Alberta since the late 30s. So Mike is third generation.
2 - Canada Action: In 2020 the entire agriculture and agri-food system employed 2.1 million people in Canada and generated 139.3 billion of Canada’s GDP (around 7.4%). That is an incredible 1 in 9 jobs. We are the world's largest grower and exporter of flax seeds, canola, oats, mustard seeds, pulses (like peas, beans and lentils) and durum wheat. Wheat is actually Canada's largest crop and In fact, we're one of the top five wheat exporters on the planet, and the world's largest producer of high-protein milling wheat. How important is Canadian Agriculture for our economy and for our food security?
Allison: You know you've got two prongs to that question and one part of it is how important is it to us as Canadians. I mean some of that food is staying in Canada; it's going into all kinds of packaged foods that you're buying in the supermarket, whether it's cereal or baked goods. So it's important to our food. But when you talk to people from around the world, they're very grateful for Canadian food. They recognize us as producing safe, high-quality, and dependable food. I don't need to tell you there are a lot of countries in the world where if you find out the ingredients are coming from them you might think “hmm, maybe not”. Nobody ever does that with Canadian food.
If you find out that you’ve sourced something whether it’s wheat or canola oil or peas - whatever comes from Canada… you say “oh good”. This was produced with some of the best water, the best natural resources, soil, air, plus really good food handling. We do things well. And so we are valued not only within the North American food system but within the world. In terms of what you mentioned about the GDP, it alternates back and forth, but we're usually in the top one, two or three industries in Canada contributing to our economy. That's a tremendous number of jobs and a tremendous amount of money that's keeping Canada rolling.
3 - Canada Action: As we all know, Canada has stringent environmental laws when it comes to the development of natural resources. We are a leader in sustainable crop production and we constantly rank high when it comes to ESG metrics. In a world where the population increases by approximately 83 million annually and therefore food demand increases exponentially on a yearly basis, what are some of the sustainable farming strategies employed by Canadian farmers? How do we ensure that amidst a growing demand, we keep a low carbon/net zero carbon footprint?
That’s really an interesting question and one that you will not find any group that's not talking about it within the industry today. Sustainability is like a three-legged stool. First, you've got to have economic viability to keep anything going. Then there has to be the social liability that it works for your community, for your farms, for everything around you. And then there has to be the environmental portion. And you can't focus on one and miss the other two If you want true sustainability.
If you talk to a farmer, we will tell you that sustainability to us means that our farm is going to be better than it is today when our great-grandchildren farm it. That's our goal. It's always to pass it on. So everything we do we're thinking of that goal as much as anything. So on our farm for example, some of the sustainability measures we do are we are no-till. This means there is no-tillage on our farm other than the occasional bad rut after a wet year. We just simply don't go out and cultivate all the time. We seed into the ground that we harvested the year before without having tilled it in between.
Now that sounds like all we're doing is maybe saving a pass on the land and saving some fuel. But what it also does is by not disturbing the soil you improve the soil bacteria, you improve the organic matter, and you improve the way the water flows through it which helps everything within the whole biosystem. So you’ve helped the environment but you've helped economically by saving on fuel costs and time, and you've helped the crop.
Something else we do is we soil test all of our fields and several zones every year and we plan our fertilizer based on the zones. Then we apply it variably based on that so even on one field our drill will put a different amount of fertilizer in different zones depending upon what the soil test told us. So we're not putting the same amount of nitrogen on the hills as we are in the valleys or the same amount of sulphur or potassium everywhere. We are basing it upon what we know the field needs. And that, environmentally, is better because we're putting just the right amount of fertilizer in the right place at the right time. And it's also better economically because fertilizer is one of our biggest expenses. So again we're looking at all the different aspects in terms of zero-carbon.
4 - Canada Action: Let’s talk about modern farming in Canada. Unless you have friends or family who work on a farm, when you think of farming, you might think of basic tractors, barrels of hay, and stereotypical images of farming and farmers. Yet modern farming involves a wide array of advanced technologies. How has technology impacted Canadian farming and what are some of the technological advancements we can look forward to in the next 5 years.
Allison: My 91-year-old father-in-law comes out to the farm regularly to visit and I've had some great chats with him about what farming was like here in Canada when he arrived. He took part in a threshing crew in the early forties and it was extremely labour-intensive. You shovel the straw onto the wagon, you shovel it off the wagon into the barn, then you shovel the straw out of the barn, then you shovel the manure out of the barnyard onto the wagon and then you shovel it onto the field!
Today, and I'm talking grain farming - I'm not a livestock farmer, that is another game altogether - grain farming has become far more machinery intensive. And it's because we can and it's the way of the world! We plant our crops with very high-tech equipment. As mentioned previously, variable-rate fertilizer means that the screen that we're using is satellite-connected based on a map that we have designed at the kitchen table. When we are on the tractor it is communicating with the satellite-based upon the GPS location and releasing that much into the drill to go onto the land. That's an example of the technology we're dealing with. Don't get me wrong, there’s still labour and we're still loading and unloading, but the machinery is doing a lot of the detailed work and covers so many more acres. My grandfather existed on 160 acres because that is all he could do with his son in a year. Today if we only had 160 acres we'd be broke! So technology is helping the environment and the farmer.
5 - Canada Action: What are some of the challenges agriculture faces in the next 5-10 years? What does the future of agriculture look like?
Allison: I think you never know what's coming down the pipe. My husband's favourite example is he's looking forward to when we can buy thousands of little drones that we put a picture in and say: “this is a wheat plant”. Then they crawl along the ground and cut out everything that's not a wheat plant in that field so that we don’t have to do any more spraying! We could just release the drones and they get rid of everything that's not the plants that we want there. They're doing a lot of things right now with autonomous equipment so it’s coming!
In terms of challenges, I would say one of our biggest challenges is regulations that are not always in step with our reality in Canada. Our government loves to imitate the EU for example, and things in the EU or not the way they are in Canada so it's not always a logical way to do things. It always sounds really reasonable on paper until you put it into practice. The other problem with putting things into practice in Canada is that the conditions where I am in, west of Red Deer, I guarantee they're not going to work the same for the people that farm in Winnipeg or Quebec. They are dealing with completely different weather and soil conditions. So one of the problems we have in Canada is when somebody wants to put a one-size-fits-all regulation on us. We are such a big country that one size does not fit all.
6- Canada Action: At the end of 2020, plant-based sales were up by 25 per cent in Canada, making the industry worth more than $600 million. Plant-based options are proving to be not only healthier for humans, but also for the environment. How are plant-based options changing the face of Canadian agriculture?
Allison: It's been amazing! There are several aspects to it. I would say one is that it has really awakened a lot of people to the true value add. And by value add I mean taking anything that we grow here and rather than shipping it away raw we add some value to it before we ship it off. The very basic value-add would be something like cleaning it or sorting it. That would be one step up. Or maybe you mill your wheat, maybe you crush your canola, maybe you take your peas and fractionate them and ship the protein, starch and fibre instead of the whole pea. That's added value. And the more we add value, the more we add to our GDP and the more we add jobs to our economy.
If all we do is ship away the things that add to the plant-based product and let places like China, Minneapolis or Europe do the rest, we've really gained very little. But if we start doing more and more here, which is what's happening, then our entire economy has lifted up. And because we produce so many of the things that go into plant-based food which is pulses, wheat, barley, canola, sunflower, hemp and the list is endless… if we do more value-adding at home we are the ones that will really see the benefit.
7 - Canada Action: Why do you think all Canadians should care about Canadian natural resource development? Is there any kind of message that you want to tell Canadians reading this?
Allison: Whatever you have, you eat, you wear, whatever is in your house: as they say, it was either grown or mined. I look at my table, my clothes, my food, I mean - pick one! It's been grown or mined. So if you're wearing it, living in it or eating it, it's because somebody grew or mined it. And I'm not saying we should all have a detailed understanding of these industries, but we need to have appreciation for the ones that are producing what we need. In my case, I grow food. It's great to say that I’m a grain farmer but really, I grow food. I'm growing what's feeding Canada and feeding the world.
8 - Canada Action: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Allison: My first thought was with all that's going on around the world in terms of food security and food insecurity, supply chain problems, food distribution problems… all of that. I would like to emphasize how fortunate we are to live where our food is produced safely, sustainably and abundantly. We have not worried in this country ever about having enough food and we are one of the very few of the 200 countries in the world that can say that. And I think we're very very fortunate.
9- Canada Action: Allison, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for your time today.
Allison: Thank you!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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