Jocelyn Velestuk stood in front of the research station classroom filled with people and confessed to an addiction of sorts.
“I am obsessed with soil,” the Saskatchewan farmer and agronomist told her audience.
“I even had a mud-themed birthday party when I was young,” she said in a later interview. “The first soil science class that I took, I just lit up and loved all the information. I couldn’t get enough… The more I learned, the more I realized I don’t know.”
When she first met her husband, the first thing they talked about was soil.
Velestuk was, however, in good company. That same interest that brought her and her husband together did the same for about 130 farmers, agronomists and the general public from two continents at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank Global Forum on Soil Stewardship here last week.
Velestuk raises cattle and grains with her husband and in-laws near Broadview, Sask. She characterizes the soil on their farm as “severely degraded,” but they are seeing improvements with a soil-first management strategy that has embraced adding diversity to their rotation through intercropping, perennials and reduced tillage.
“We are working to make decisions based on the soil and improving the soil while still maintaining our productivity and the economic viability of our farm,” she said.
Last week’s event, at which East African agronomists from Kenya and Ethiopia shared their experiences with conservation agriculture, was an eye-opener for Velestuk and a marked departure from the soil science events she’s attended in the past.
For her family, conservation agriculture practices are about ensuring their farm can support future generations. For farmers in East African countries, it’s about having enough to eat today.
“It’s really bringing a whole other perspective to it with the African agronomists here; they make the point that conservation ag is necessary for people to eat and for survival,” she said.
The six conservation agriculture specialists described how the practice has changed the landscape in their countries, and how it has affected food security.
“We wanted to make sure to create a forum for people to learn about (conservation agriculture), to hear more from African partners where the focus of our activities are but also that Canadian farmers have a chance to both learn about it but also actually to contribute to it,” said James Kornelsen, public engagement co-ordinator with the Foodgrains Bank.
Conservation agriculture has three pillars: minimal soil disturbance through low- or no-till farming, permanent soil cover such as mulch and diverse crop rotations and intercropping.
“When you leave the soil naked, all the fertility will be carried away,” Regina Kamau, a conservation agriculture expert from Kenya, said in an interview.
Mesfin Mathewos told the class how heavy tillage has caused the soil to degrade in his home country of Ethiopia. Mathewos said farmers often till the land six or seven times before seeding. A residue-free field is considered the mark of a good farmer, while a farmer with residue left in his field is considered lazy. Other issues including government control of fertilizers, reduction of farm size and erratic weather due to climate change have made things worse, he said.
Over the past five years, Mathewos, along with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, has trained 11,000 farmers in conservation agriculture.
“This is like climbing a mountain or running up a hill,” he said, adding they must work with traditional beliefs and political pressures.
In an interview, Kenyan agronomist John Mbae said the land is unproductive in the area where he works. Mbae, a conservation agriculture technical specialist with the Foodgrains Bank, said the average maize (corn) yield in his area is only 400 kilograms (16 bushels) per acre.
This is not enough for farmers to feed their families, never mind to sell, he said. With conservation agriculture techniques, average yields are now 1,400 to 1,500 kilograms per acre, enough for both the family to eat and for sale. Selling the surplus often means generating income that can pay school fees.
Mbae said the Foodgrains Bank program also connects farmers with buyers before planting, allowing them to plan according to what the market demands and grow knowing they’ll have a market.
The East African experts did in-field demonstrations of conservation agriculture techniques and tools. Canadians tried a hand-held planting tool, which is pressed into the soil to release one seed at a time. It turned out to be tough to co-ordinate — if opened or closed at the wrong time, a farmer could pick up the seed they’d just planted and remove it from the soil.
Conservation in Canada
Canadian farmers shared their conservation practices in a panel discussion.
“Get to know your soil,” said Velestuk. For her farm of about 400 cattle and 2,500 acres of crops, this has meant intercropping peas and canola and adding perennials to the rotation. They’ve also experimented with diverse silage mixes, which she said is beneficial for pollinators and beneficial insects and add structure and microbial diversity to the soil.
Lydia Carpenter, a livestock producer near Belmont, Man., said she and husband Wian Prinsloo move their cattle, hogs and poultry daily. This allows half of the forage to be left behind to protect the ground.
“We can see how positively the land responds,” she said.
They graze their chicken in mobile chicken ‘tractors,’ which allows the chickens to return nutrients to the soil.
During breaks between talks and during tours, the group was a buzz of conversation. One plant scientist gave a tutorial on intercropping to a reporter and group of people at the back of one of the tractor-drawn “people movers” while travelling through the research farm.
Older farmers recalled stories of piles of earth forming along fencelines as the wind blew away the topsoil. One spoke of someone in his area who had dug into one of these ridges and found a whole fence and a seed drill buried beneath.
Another remarked that recent “black snow” was a current reminder that wind erosion is not a thing of the past.
Velestuk told the Co-operator that the conference had taught her the importance of sharing information.
“It’s really important to not judge any type of farmer. There’s so many different types of farming practices and there’s a very grey area between right and wrong,” she said. “Each farmer is going to make decisions on their own farm based on what they know and based on their principles and values.”