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Soil is complicated… so are people

Soil Council of Canada's summit on soil health explored diverse issues of soil health across Canada and how to win people to the cause

It used to take six or seven passes over Ryan Pritchard’s fields to get them ready for spring — harrow, cultivate, harrow, deep till, fertilize.

Pritchard, who works full time off farm, was looking for a way to save time.

“Can’t go no till. It’s too cold a climate,” he told a tour group during the Soil Conservation Council of Canada Summit on Canadian Soil Health on Oct. 2.

He knew farmers were strip tilling across the border. “Why can’t we do it here?”

Pritchard worked with Yvonne Lawley, assistant professor of agronomy and cropping systems, on his Roland-area farm to prove that strip tilling could maintain the same temperature and moisture in his fields. It did.

These days, Pritchard makes one pass on his field in the fall.

Pritchard told the group that this method will build up the organic carbon in his soil and hopefully cut down on how much fertilizer he needs to apply. With cost savings on fuel, he hopes to make his money back on his equipment.

“It’s not a short-term thing. We’re going to see how it is over time,” he said.

Despite growing evidence of its efficacy, soil fertility specialist John Heard estimated there are only about a dozen farmers in Manitoba who employ strip tilling.

The tour discussed that while no till has taken off in Saskatchewan and western Manitoba, it has been slow to take hold in the Red River Valley’s heavy clay soil like that on the Pritchard farm. Not without good reason.

The tour on the first day of the summit began at the floodway gates, where David Lobb spoke about flooding issues in Manitoba.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

The Soil Council of Canada’s Summit on Canadian Soil Health brought together academics, policy analysts, agronomists and producers from across Canada. Its theme was “Setting the Course for the Future.”

The two-day conference began early on October 1. People boarded a bus in Winnipeg and travelled around agro-Manitoba on a tour of soil and water management practices. The next day, the group travelled to Oak Hammock Marsh for a day of speakers and panels.

Common themes throughout were psychological barriers to good soil health practices and the tension between risk and reward.

Keeping up appearances

In the end there’s a lot riding on how a field looks from the road.

During the tour, one farmer told the group that his neighbours think he’s crazy when he direct plants into his no-till fields. Participants talked about the need for crops to look perfect and even in the field because if they don’t, the neighbours think you’re a bad farmer.

The tour group examines a field plot after a demonstration of a chopper roller, which crimps a cover crop to kill it.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

Odette Menard said there is also an irrational need to prove everything.

“We have plenty of numbers to get into soil health,” said Menard, who has worked in soil conservation since 1988. “Why is it that we are not getting faster in that soil health business?

“Every number I give them (farmers), they want another one,” she said. “Yes but. Yes but.

“When we want to do something, we can do it. The emotion is leading us. When we don’t want to do something, we need numbers.”

Cereals Canada president Cam Dahl said in the past, environmental improvements were made because they were good for producers’ bottom lines. The two needs went together.

“We need to tell both of those stories when we talk to the farmers, rather than telling them ‘you need to do this because it’s good for the environment,’” Dahl said.

They need to know that good environmental practices are also good for profitability, Dahl said.

Martin Entz shows a tour group around the Ian N. Morrison research farm in Carman during the first day of the summit.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

Kier Miller from New Brunswick said his farm has been no till for 16 years, and that he made the transition “for all the wrong reasons.” He wanted more time and less fuel cost. Holistic reasons came second.

Miller said those concerned with soil health may need to move away from large conferences, and go back to farmer-to-farmer relationships. He described conversations on the field or in the coffee shop about “Sam has a new widget.” The guys would talk it over, and then go see Sam for a demo.

Dahl said the soil conservation community can learn from messaging developed by the livestock sector.

The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops steering committee, to which Dahl belongs, is developing a code of practice for grain, oilseeds and specialty crops. This is modelled on work done by the National Farm Animal Care Council.

An objective of the code is to build public trust. It’s a list of “what a good farmer does” they can use to speak to consumers about soil health and sustainability.

It will also give farmers a bar to meet, and recommendations to aspire to.

“That is a very powerful tool,” Dahl said — both for building trust and offsetting negative messages.

Long term

Despite many ideas on how to propagate soil conservation messages, the consensus appeared to be that there were no easy fixes.

Soil management specialist Marla Riekman pointed out that tests and methods of testing soil health have gaps, and a diagnosis may not identify the cause.

Paul Thoroughgood, the western representative for SCCC, said there’s a shortage of people who are there to give farmers good information with no agenda of selling them something.

One participant from Ontario expressed concern that, despite farmers knowing that a corn-soybean rotation depletes the soil, it wasn’t economically feasible to change things up.

Heard said 30 per cent of farmland in Manitoba is rented, which gives the producer who farms it less incentive to manage it well — but also gives the landowner a chance to build sustainability into contracts.

Experts, including Dahl and soil ecology professor, Mario Tenuta, called for a new government report on soil health in Canada. Dahl said they needed fresh information to bring to farmers and consumers, while Tenuta called for a national centre for research on soil health.

Ontario Senator Rob Black participated in both days of the conference and addressed the group near the close of the second day where he called for the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry to do a study on soil health.

In an October 2 news release, Black said it’s difficult for farmers to take on sustainable practices because of economic barriers. He said the government needs to take a leading role.

“There are soil experts across Canada,” said Black in the release. “We need to start listening to them.”


The As, Bs (and C minuses) of soil health

Western Canada is lagging behind the East on soil health awareness, according to a ‘report card’ presented by Mario Tenuta at the Summit on Canadian Soil Health 2019.

Tenuta, a professor of applied soil ecology at the University of Manitoba, presented a semi-facetious report card (see below) to the conference, complete with ‘course names’ for six different soil health issues.

It was divided into eastern and western regions and he gave an overall ‘A’ to the East and a ‘B+’ to the West, saying this region lagged about 10 years behind.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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