Strengthening Incentive Programs to Increase Uptake

Expanding and encouraging regenerative agriculture practices in Ontario

Incentive and support programs for farmers are one important way to encourage climate-friendly and environmentally-friendly farming methods. However, existing programs struggle to maintain funding and can be hard to find and difficult to navigate. 

The Organic Council of Ontario (OCO) is conducting a Regenerative Programs and Incentives Feasibility Study to evaluate the potential of regenerative programs in Ontario. This guest article is part of OCO’s greater project, which seeks to evaluate the market for regenerative certification programs, examine the barriers and benefits to regenerative certification for producers, and explore incentives for producers to engage in regenerative practices. 

Widespread, well-funded, and easy to use incentives are needed to make meaningful change and increase uptake of regenerative farming practices. Beyond increasing dedicated funding, government, not-for-profit, and private organizations trying to incentivize regenerative farming methods can start by making incentive programs as user-friendly as possible.

Current Usability Challenges

Current approaches to on-farm climate change mitigation and adaptation rely on farmers to invest significant time, money, research, and labour. Most farmers expect that time and money will be required, but may underestimate the obstacles they will face when researching incentive programs. It can be hard to know where to look for funding information. To find a grant or partner organization, farmers must first be independently aware of potential regenerative techniques and must then have the motivation and time to do significant research. OCO’s recent article for Fruit & Vegetable Magazine offers a starting place for farmers researching their options.

After farmers have found a promising incentive program, there are often additional steps to getting information, including pre-registration, contacting a staff member, or clicking through multiple pages before realizing funding has closed. While administering these programs and keeping websites streamlined and up-to-date is a significant challenge for non-profits and government alike, it’s important to acknowledge that each additional step for a user is likely to reduce program uptake.

In order to maximize program uptake and increase benefits, regenerative farming practices and programs that incentivize them should be made accessible to all farmers, including those without previous expertise in regenerative techniques. Therefore, grant applications should be as simple as possible to complete while still collecting useful and relevant information.

Promising Approaches

Some programs are making an effort towards usability in one or more ways. Environmental Farm Plan workshops are now available online, in addition to in person. Application deadlines appear to be timed to align with slower times of year on the farm. 

The Canadian Organic Growers Growing Eastern Ontario Organically program provides a clear overview of program offerings, is low cost, and the application is readily available and fairly simple. Similarly, the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) offers a streamlined list of current open and closed programs that they deliver for producers. 

The East Central Farm Stewardship Collaborative (ECFSC) stands out for its streamlined initial application and coordination of stacked funding, meaning that the collaborative does the leg work of helping producers in East Central Ontario access multiple sources of funding from their 11 member organizations. 

The Canadian Agricultural Partnership’s Producer Guided Search allows users to see a full run-down of eligible programs, along with application due dates and maximum amounts of funding, but it can be difficult to find this page, and at the time of writing, all CAP programs related to regenerative techniques for livestock, poultry, and crops and horticulture producers  were closed. 

As a result of Covid-19, funding for non-profits has slowed, so without further support from policymakers, it is not surprising that the accessibility and usability of existing grant programs may suffer.

Understanding Risks for Farmers

Both from a funding and program usability standpoint, it is important to consider the risks that farmers face in making changes like planting riparian buffers, introducing cover cropping, or reducing tillage. We all experience some amount of anxiety and inertia when faced with change, especially when it affects our methods and outcomes at work. Incentives to encourage regenerative agricultural techniques will be most successful when they not only ease the cost or time burden of those changes but actually make the transition more appealing than no change at all. Among other things, this requires transparency around the risks and benefits of regenerative techniques. Will reducing inputs or shifting to no-till increase risk of crop failure? Will it help reduce climate change related risks on the farm? If farmers engage in a given practice and can prove it, are they guaranteed access to funding support? What is the likelihood that an application for cover crop cost-sharing will be accepted, and when in the process will funding be disbursed? 

Currently, incentive and support programs for regenerative agricultural practices are only truly accessible to farmers who are independently motivated to pursue regenerative farming methods and are aware that grants exist that can support them in making those changes. Beyond motivation, programs are limited to those who have the privilege and ability to devote significant time, labour, expertise, and capital towards these programs as well. With many farmers working full or part-time off the farm, farm debt on the rise, and farm incomes dependent on a fickle market and changing climate, it is no wonder that we haven’t seen a faster transition to regenerative and climate-friendly farming practices.

What is Needed for Widespread Change?

In order to see real change in agricultural practices in Canada, we need widespread, adequately funded, and easy-to-use programs and policies that help all farmers transition to regenerative practices. And we need resources from government, philanthropy, and industry to fund those programs. Farmers for Climate Solutions, a coalition led by the National Farmers Union which includes OCO and other NGOs, has called for the government to collaborate with farmers to incentivize and support the use of regenerative farming techniques. Climate change poses a threat to us all, including farmers. Farmers should be approached and supported as allies on the frontlines of the fight against climate change. They need support now in order to prevent catastrophe in the future.

In Tackling the Farm Crisis and the Climate Crisis, The National Farmers Union has called for the creation of a Canadian Farm Resilience Administration to support farmers. This entity would provide direct support “to help farmers protect soils, land, water, and our food-production capacities; support moves toward alternative land use, including wetland restoration and afforestation; and assist in the mobilization needed to meet our emission-reduction targets and stabilize our climate.”

Promotion of regenerative techniques could also be folded into Covid-19 relief efforts for producers. For instance, the Fruit and Vegetable Emergency Loans provided through the federal government’s Advance Payments Program could include further discounted loan rates or additional pools of funding to growers looking to incorporate regenerative growing techniques. As Farmers for Climate Solutions wrote in their recent report on Covid-19 recovery in Canadian Agriculture, “scaling up agri-environmental incentives” as part of Covid-19 relief could “help to create new jobs in agriculture and associated services and provide capital to farmers during a time of tight margins, while building resilience to climate impacts.

How Might we Improve Usability and Program Uptake? 

However support is administered and distributed, ease of use should be top of mind. While organizations that provide funding and support for regenerative practices are limited by lack of funding, keeping the following in mind may help to create user-friendly programs that create opportunities for more farmers to transition to regenerative practices.

  1. Limit the time and money required from farmers to apply and participate.
  2. Make information simple and easy to find. Market and communicate programs widely and clearly. Engage in active outreach to farmers. 
  3. As mentioned by Farmers for Climate Solutions, use farmer-to-farmer training or mentorship to share information when possible. Behavioural economics research suggests that getting information from trusted sources, seeing peers engage in similar practices, and committing to regenerative practices in the presence of peers are all likely to increase uptake. 
  4. Gather feedback from farmers who have used or tried to use existing programs and incorporate this feedback into program design.
  5. Before launching a program, map out the user’s journey to identify potential barriers to program use.
  6. If at all possible, test and improve application processes with a pilot group before fully launching.

Meaningful and easy-to-use support and incentive programs will be an essential tool in climate change mitigation on Canadian farms. These funding programs are important not only because they make it easier for farmers to transition to regenerative practices but also because they send a clear message that regenerative farming and farmers are key contributors to climate change solutions.

About the Author

Sophie Duncan is a researcher and consultant working at the intersections of social, economic, and environmental justice issues. Sophie has a particular focus on the role of food systems in building vibrant, equitable, and sustainable rural communities. She has worked with small-scale farmers and producers in the United States and Morocco, led food access and community development programming in Vermont, and consulted to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Fair Food Program. Sophie’s research includes Behavioural Insights research on Canada’s Food Guide and the role of guidelines as well as food systems research in Morocco as a Fulbright Research Grantee. Sophie is a Principal consultant at In Nova Consulting, a group specializing in organizational design and diversity, equity and inclusion. She is a Board member at the Fair Finance Fund and the founder of Rubus Research & Consulting. Sophie holds an MBA from the University of Toronto and a BA from Wesleyan University. If you’re interested in collaborating on a project or would like to get in touch, you can learn more and connect here.

Comments are closed.