“It’s like a circle, with things eating and pooping, and eating and pooping.”
First, they dug a shallow hole with a spade. Then, they picked around in the clumps of dirt for earthworms.
All told, they found a couple of dozen slimy little wrigglers.
For the Grade 10 students from Brandon’s Crocus Plains high school, the field trip to the Manitoba Zero Tillage Association Research farm last week meant that the pictures in their natural sciences textbooks had come alive, right there in their hands.
Of course, they had seen earthworms before. But they didn’t know that earthworm populations are dependent on the amount of carbon in the soil. That’s why in the no-till cropland, they found a couple of dozen, and in the thinner topsoil over a marshy hayfield, they found only four.
More black carbon and more earthworms means healthier, more productive soil, explained Ryan Canart, who along with Mitchell Timmerman hosted a station discussing soil health, one of eight that the 100-odd students passed through on the tour.
“Plants exude sugar, and that’s the primary food for all these insects and critters that we’re looking for,” said Canart, manager of the Upper Assiniboine River Conservation District, as the students dug.
“When a plant produces sugars for a longer portion of the year, the insects get fed longer, and that makes them happier. So one way to increase the amount of soil organisms is to have perennial crops in the rotation.”
Danny and Alex, both city boys from Crocus Plains, found that the whole business of soil and farming was a lot more complicated than they had imagined.
“It’s like a circle, with things eating and pooping, and eating and pooping,” said Danny.
All very compelling stuff, they agreed. But when asked, he and Alex didn’t see farming in their future, however.
“I love being out on a farm, it’s fun. But it’s not something I can see myself doing. There’s not enough people around,” said Alex.
The idea of operating a giant tractor appealed to Danny, but he figured the learning curve was a little too steep to be a farmer these days.
“I thought you just planted the seeds, then you harvested it, but there’s a lot of science behind it,” he said.
Whi le the Crocus students were digging up worms, Timmerman, a MAFRI nutrient management specialist, explained to the ACC students in the group how living organisms in the soil, such as earthworms and good and bad nematodes – typically thought to be only of interest to organic farmers – are also important to conventional agriculture.
“We’re asking the question and trying to answer it, why should farmers, or people like these students who might be going into agriculture, care about what’s going on beneath our feet?” he said.
Leanne LaBrash, an instructor from ACC who was serving as a tour leader, said that the goal of the day’s tour was to give students a look at the role of soil in the ecosystem of agriculture.
She noted that the ACC students in her group were from both the college’s agri-business and land and water faculties.
“So, we’re talking about no longer having two streams, where one group is preservation and the other is production,” she said.
“We’re putting the two together, realizing that they need to not only converse together to resolve disputes, but also to brainstorm together to manage the system.”
At his station, MAFRI soil fertility specialist John Heard was showing the students the “dos” and “don’ts” of soil sampling. Among them were the importance of clean equipment and proper practices to avoid contaminating the sample.
A little ash falling off the end of a burning cigarette, for example, can send potassium levels on the test results through the roof, he said.
“The thing that we are stressing is that farmers these days can have fertilizer bills of between $100,000 to $300,000 a year,” he said. “So, you don’t want just anyone helping you with that decision. You’ve got to make sure it’s done right.”
Lindsay Coulthard, manager of the MZTRA farm, said the goal of the day’s activities, which involved the co-operation of a wide range of private and government agencies, was to give the students an update on soils, wetlands, and the ecology of agriculture.
In past years, students from ACC had come out each year for a tour, but this year the program was expanded to include urban high school students.
“We wanted to see if we could put together a day that would link all those kinds of things,” he said.
“That way, if someday they are driving down the road and they see a wetland, they understand the benefits of it, why it’s there and what value it’s got for society.”
The Grade 10 students are studying soil as part of their curriculum, he added, so their experiences at the MZTRA farm could give their studies an extra layer of meaning.
“They’ll have a better idea because they’ve seen it and felt it,” he said. [email protected]