Martin Entz points down a road that is more mud than gravel as he drives towards a pint-size field house and a cluster of research plots.
“This has become a real destination, it didn’t start out that way, but it certainly is now,” he said, turning towards the Glenlea Long-Term Rotation Study — the oldest organics study in Canada.
Entz launched the study in 1992 as a young faculty member at the University of Manitoba, which operates the 1,000-acre Glenlea Research Station just south of Winnipeg. But it was the publication of Our Common Future by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development a few years earlier that got him thinking about sustainability.
“We had a bunch of conversations about what does sustainability mean? What are the indicators we could measure?” he said. The stumbling block was that no study then existed where sustainability indicators could be measured, it would have to be created from scratch.
“The University of Manitoba used to have a long-term experiment where the football stadium is now located. It was started in the 1920s and it was ended in the 1960s against the wishes of the agriculture scientists at the time,” said Entz, who worked with a diverse collection of colleagues as he made his pitch for the establishment of a new, long-term study.
“There were many people who thought it was a big waste of time, I have to tell you, they said, ‘this has all been done before,’ but I think it’s proven to be really useful,” he said.
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For the first 12 years, the study looked at several types of farming systems, then it narrowed in on just two different rotations, organic and conventional.
“I would say in the first 12 years we had good production in the organic system because we were living off the benefits of previous inputs, then we sort of went through a trough,” Entz said, adding subsequent wet years also hampered organic plots. “Some of the organic systems were not performing well, they had to be changed, so we made some of those changes, we fixed our nutrient problem.”
This year the organic wheat trial at Glenlea yielded 70 per cent of what the conventional trial yielded — a vast improvement over the early years, where organics sometimes produced only 30 per cent of what conventional crops produced.
“What I’d like to see us do in the future is make the organic systems a lot more productive,” Entz said.
New technologies, like robotic, camera-guided inter-row cultivators for small grain production, may help achieve that goal, while advances in technology like pyrosequencing — a type of DNA sequencing — has allowed the impact of organic systems to be better revealed and understood by both researchers and farmers.
“We’ve learned that what we call the ecological systems, or the organic systems, they have a much more diverse set of soil bacteria,” he said. “The soil biology in the systems that don’t get as many fertilizers are actually quite a bit more active and that is one thing we had really no clue about.”
Entz notes that many of the technologies used at the long-term study today simply didn’t exist 10 or 20 years ago.
Social attitudes around sustainability, organics, and soil health have also evolved over the last quarter-century.
“There is definitely more interest now,” Entz said. “Soil health is something you hear talked about now, even in farming communities, and the tools to measure what’s happening in the soil have really changed.”
Techniques like intercropping and cover crops have also become more widely known, said Entz, who is also participating in research in Southeast Africa that makes use of some of the information Glenlea has yielded.
“That really gives me a lot of optimism that ecological approaches to agriculture, maybe not all the way to organic, but the ecological approach where we think of the farm as an ecosystem, where we think of the ecology of the system first, that’s at the centre of our planning, that’s the future of agriculture,” he said, adding that many so-called conventional producers have also found techniques they can use by visiting the study.
Manitoba has nearly 100,000 acres of organically managed crop-land and 155 organic producers, but Entz said it’s important that the research done at Glenlea benefits all producers.
“I believe as a university our job is to serve the whole sector,” he said. “And with things like herbicide resistance, fungicide resistance looming, we have some answers here we can help people with.”