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Highlights of the 2021 DFC annual general meeting

Contributed by Dairy Farmers of Canada Published on 03 September 2021

On July 13-14, more than 325 dairy farmers from across Canada gathered for the Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) virtual annual general meeting (AGM) to discuss some of the challenges facing the sector and to identify future opportunities under the theme of “Cultivating Sustainability in Dairy Excellence.”

Recovery outlook is bright, says top economist

Pedro Antunes, chief economist for the Conference Board of Canada, was confident in his presentation on Canada’s post-pandemic recovery outlook. “Most forecasts for the world economy are considering a recovery in 2021 and 2022 – so major growth ahead, very quickly,” Antunes said.

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Part of the growth in Canada will occur because of the $1.9 trillion U.S. relief plan directed primarily at American households. “When American households spend, they drive global economy, they drive global trade, and they’ll drive the supply chain across Canada,” Antunes said. “Supply chain management is doing extremely well through this crisis.”

However, though Canadian households saved a lot of money by staying home – approximately $200 billion – and are itching to spend it, Antunes cautioned that we should not expect the path to COVID-19 recovery to be entirely smooth. “There will be structural changes going forward, including the adoption of technology in terms of remote healthcare, remote work and remote education,” he said.

Overall, Antunes predicted a solid rebound for the Canadian economy, driven by vaccines and stimulus measures at the federal and provincial levels.

“There’s perhaps a silver lining,” Antunes concluded, “which is a stronger productivity performance going forward, more adoption of technology and a more productive economy that will help lift our economic performance, our GDP and our income, despite [our] challenges.”

Farming with renewable energy

The example of Coop Agri-Énergie – transforming manure into natural gas

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“About three or four years ago, agricultural biomethanization was identified as one of the most interesting projects,” said Josée Chicoine, director of agrifood development at Coop Carbone, a non-profit solidarity cooperative with a mission to act on climate change through collaboration. “It is one of the easiest and quickest [ways] to reduce greenhouse gases from dairy production.”

Biodigesters can be compared to the stomach of a human, or cow, whereby food or food waste is digested by bacteria and then gets converted into biogas. “This biogas is made up of about 60 to 65 percent methane,” Chicoine said. The gas is then purified to upwards of 99% methane, “which is the standard for inputs into the Énergir gas network – the main gas distributor in Quebec.”

Coop Carbone helped create the Agri-Énergie Warwick co-op which is located 10 kilometres from a natural gas line in the most significant dairy region of Quebec, halfway between Montreal and Quebec City. By creating a central system made up of 12 agricultural producers and one cheese producer, the Agri-Énergie Warwick cooperative became owner of Coop Carbone’s biomethanization complex. The goal of the project was to put producers at its heart. “So we identified and approached producers in the area and convinced them of its merits,” Chicoine said. “In other words, we take their manure and then the output is returned to them.”

Some farmers Coop Carbone approached were already interested in biomethanization but were unable to implement it on their farms, due to the low price of hydroelectricity energy in Canada and the significant investment costs related to this kind of project.

From manure to electricity thanks to on-farm biodigester

“I’ve always liked the concept of being able to produce power with a waste product on-farm,” said Korb Whale, dairy producer at Clovermead Farms in Alma, Ontario. Whale invested more than $2 million for the initial capital on his anaerobic biodigester after the Ontarian government announced its Green Energy Act in 2000. This enabled Whale to sell the electricity produced by his biodigester to the Ontario grid. “I think we all have to be cognizant of our impact on our environment and on our society. When we built our digester here, it’s definitely played a role in how we think about the future,” Whale said.

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Whale’s digester takes in about 8,000 tons a year of food waste from local producers and processors, in addition to about 10 tonnes of his own cows’ manure. What’s more, Clovermead can charge these companies a fee to off-load their food waste at his farm while at the same time lowering his own carbon footprint.

“We’re reducing our greenhouse gas waste by almost 95 percent,” Whale said.

In addition, he can contribute to the other end of the food system. “I think that’s one of the exciting things about anaerobic digestion in general, the circular nature of that economy. We’re producing food that we send to the cities of the processors to make food for people; the waste from that food comes back to our digester, creates electricity, creates heat, creates fertilizer and it creates bedding, so that loop gets completed. It’s a nice feeling as a farmer that makes us feel good so we can produce food,” Whale said.

Canada’s electricity is fairly green already, but we need to make the rest of our energy sources more sustainable, Chicoine said. “I think there’s room for new models, new concepts, so that other sources of energy are green as well.”

Farmers often talk about the three pillars of sustainability – economics, environment and community – but Whale would like to add a fourth pillar. “I think that’s family,” Whale said. “Most of our farms are multi-generational, and I am making decisions today that won’t necessarily pay off in my lifetime, but hopefully the next generation will be able to profit and carry that on for many generations to come.”

Go to Dairy Farmers of Canada to learn more about the biodigesters at Coop Carbone and Clovermead Farms.

Innovation, sustainability and diversification key to dairy’s future: CEO Annette Verschuren

Sustainability was the theme throughout the 2021 Dairy Farmers of Canada AGM. CEO Jacques Lefebvre sat down with Annette Verschuren, chairwoman and CEO of NRStor Inc., for a “fireside chat” on how innovation and diversification will drive farming trends related to environmental, social and economic sustainability.

“Sustainability and innovation are real themes in my life,” Verschuren told Lefebvre.

Verschuren is former president and co-owner of Michaels Canada, former president of The Home Depot Canada and Asia, and is currently CEO of NRStor Inc., a leader in energy storage development. Among other organizations, she sits on the board of Saputo Inc. and is chair of Sustainable Development Technology Canada. Verschuren’s wealth of expertise across many fields has made her one of the most accomplished businesswomen in Canada.

Verschuren brought more first-hand knowledge to dairy. Growing up on the family farm in Cape Breton, she saw how her father worked to increase productivity to reduce costs. “Understanding the benefits of the land really has influenced my life,” Verschuren said.

Urging dairy farmers to focus on innovation to meet the trends of sustainability and revenue diversification, Verschuren sees a lot of opportunity. “What’s really cool about Canadian farmers is they are some of the most innovative farmers in the world,” she said.

Verschuren told Lefebvre how she thinks Canadian dairy farmers could take advantage of new opportunities. “Canada is a leader in clean tech,” she said. “We have 10 of the top 100 companies in the world.” Verschuren sees a lot of promise in turning “what we see as waste into energy and new products.”

Verschuren anticipates a future where rural landowners work together to expand renewable energy. “Clusters of farms building microgrids, with solar or wind with battery technology to serve a group,” she said.

Diversification through innovation

The broader trend of diversifying will become necessary for dairy farms in the future, said Verschuren. “I would be really constantly looking at different revenue streams … ways to make your product more attractive to the marketplace,” she said. “A2 is an example of a milk product that is also very attractive.”

Like all industries, Verschuren says that dairy’s success will be in its ability to respond to changes, listen to what the customer is saying and creatively diversify the business. “What I’ve seen in the last 25 years in terms of change happening, it’s happening faster. It’s the digitalization of the world,” she said.

The biggest barrier is financial, and Verschuren offered some advice to DFC. “I hope Dairy Farmers of Canada finds ways to collaborate to test some of this innovation on a collective basis,” she said. “There are risks associated with a new technology … and until the markets are developed, you can’t get those costs down easily.”

Verschuren is very optimistic about the future of dairy farming. “If I were a young woman, I would be so excited about the opportunity I see in farming because I think there’s so much growth and opportunity in innovation,” she said.

Dairy producers ready to embrace farmer-led change

The AGM closed with an interactive strategic planning session led by Lefebvre, where dairy farmers offered their input on a variety of issues. Dairy farmers recognized the need to do more to improve sustainability and communicated an openness to diversifying revenue streams as a part of that effort.

The respondents were especially united on their desire for advancements to happen on their terms: 75% agreed they need to educate people about their current and planned future efforts to avoid having regulations imposed on them by the government. This result echoed the comments shared earlier from early career farmers, who noted that farmers are best equipped to guide meaningful change in their practices themselves.

This session is an important part of DFC’s annual strategic planning process, as it gives dairy farmers an opportunity to provide feedback directly to the organization and their peers. As such, DFC will incorporate the insights gleaned from the session into its future planning.  end mark

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