The many faces of resiliency: Resilience lessons can be learned from nature

There are no simple answers when it comes to protecting farms and the environment

A field and a patch of prairie are very different, but some similar principles can apply.

About a year ago the COVID-19 lockdowns led to an odd phenomenon.

Home bakers went to the store looking for yeast and found the shelf completely cleaned out. If you asked a grocer about it you were told that there’s none to be had, even the warehouse was empty. The entire stock was bought out when people realized they were going to be at home for a while and, to keep themselves occupied, they thought they may as well try baking their own bread.

Many of those without yeast began capturing their own and Facebook pages were soon littered with pictures of sourdough loaves until, a couple of months later, the yeast companies managed to culture a new batch and restock those shelves. You could say the commercial yeast supply was not resilient. On the other hand, the home sourdough bakers were.

Mario Tenuta. photo: File

“Resilience in its true sense is about the ups and downs and the ability to handle fluctuations and changes,” explains University of Manitoba soil ecologist Mario Tenuta. “Changes in climate and changes in markets, changes in disease cycles and things like that. That’s what resilience is in terms of allowing the farming system to weather all these changes.”

 

Differences

In Manitoba, growers are farming what was once natural prairie and prairie is resilient. It’s had thousands of years of practice since the glaciers receded so if a fight between two bull bison tears up some of the turf a quick “bandage” of annual plants will germinate there and hold down the bare soil. The next year the perennials will move back and after a couple of seasons the ground is none the worse for wear. Additionally, during a wet and cold summer the heat-loving bluestem grasses shrink back but the spear grass will have a great year. If conditions beat back one species, another will take advantage.

A farm field is not resilient, it’s an intentional culture of only one species of genetically similar plants. It’s more susceptible to pests and diseases. Any kind of weather anomaly could wipe it out. On the other hand, it’s undeniably productive. In this case farmers trade resilience for productivity because, with time, attention and a measure of good luck these plants will produce a profitable yield. That kind of production is vital to the farmer’s bottom line, the well-being of the local community and to the larger Canadian economy.

Neil Galbraith. photo: Supplied

“So there’s more than one resilience,” said Neil Galbraith, the farmer who chairs the Keystone Agricultural Producers’ environment and land use committee. “Farm income resilience is very important, there’s resilience to the climate and resilience in having something there for the next generation to take over.”

Galbraith farms 4,500 acres of rolling land close to Minnedosa. Time was he worked full time with the provincial government and farmed part time. He started farming full time in 2007 and is in business with his wife and sons. He pointed out how farming, and its own resilience, has changed over the last couple of generations.

“We’ve gone from the first hundred years where everybody had milk cows, pigs, chickens and grain and cattle and horses,” he said. “We’ve gone to specialization. It started in the ’70s because people realized they were better at one thing than another. I’m a better grain farmer than a cattle farmer so I can make a living on a grain farm. Someone else is a better hog farmer so they’re going to do that. Someone else is a better dairy farmer, they focus on that.”

Trade-offs

This specialization worked very well in one way. Both farms and production got bigger making Canada a dependable source of agricultural produce all over the world. Thoughts of starvation through overpopulation in the 1960s were put to rest during the green revolution where new techniques, chemistry and breeding upped world production. In 1970, Norman Borlaug, the father of the green revolution, won the Nobel Peace Prize and was credited with saving over a billion people from starvation. You could say specialized farming may have lost resilience at the field level but gained it at the world level.

On the other hand, production of this magnitude came with its own costs. In the early 21st century we find ourselves staring down some urgent environmental problems. We’re taking an important look at changes in both our soil and our atmosphere. We need to find out how agriculture can do its part to help mitigate these problems and yet maintain both profitability and stability at the farm level and beyond. In short, can we make agriculture more resilient?

“The technology is key to helping farmers adapt,” Galbraith said. “Plant breeding will be critical, plants that need less nitrogen or less water. Equipment advances will be important. They’ve got sprayers now that can distinguish a weed from a crop and spray only when they see a weed.”

Precision agriculture, the ability farmers are developing by using big data to fine-tune their field technique is coming into its own. Part of this is zone mapping, dividing fields into surveyed units based on the yield response to inputs. Variable-response applicators are already lessening the amount of fertilizer used while an auto steer tractor cuts the overlap saving on both inputs and fuel. These technologies will continue to improve.

“The other thing with technique is more research and interest in quantifying the benefits of lengthening the crop rotation,” Galbraith says. “On our farm we’re growing more pulses, in particular peas, and neither of those crops makes us as much profit as canola and wheat do. It’s a trade-off, some short-term pain hopefully for long-term gain in making a more resilient crop.”

Nature

And then there’s tearing a page out of nature’s own handbook and rotating to a perennial forage. Of course this is stock and trade for cattle farmers who need to maintain forage for their animals. A three-year stand of deep-rooted legumes and grasses helps condition the soil, increase organic matter and enhances soil structure and biology. Although it may not be for everybody, it makes the soil itself more resilient by mimicking a native grassland.

New technology is also helping farmers manage nitrogen better. Last September the federal government announced its guidelines on greenhouse gas reduction and it wants a 30 per cent reduction in off-gassing from nitrogen fertilizer. It wants reductions in nitrous oxides, a particularly potent greenhouse gas that outguns carbon dioxide by 300 times.

“What we found is that we can reduce emissions of N2O by using better, more modern nitrogen fertility management strategies,” Tenuta said. “The framework that we use is called the 4Rs.”

To recap, that means the right time, the right amount, the right product, and the right placement, customizing how we apply nitrogen fertilizer to the soil type and climate where it’s being used. This way most of it gets to the crop without off-gassing into the atmosphere. We use less but get more.

“In my opinion, more than my opinion, my expert experience, we can achieve those emission reduction targets for 2030 by applying these management practices,” Tenuta says. “I’m very optimistic and hopeful that we can be making those targets.”

Developing resilience is highly complex because, as Galbraith says, it comes in so many different forms. Ultimately, it’s about risk mitigation. Oddly enough, that’s what our old native prairie is doing in its own way.

Time has taught it to root deeply in the surrounding soil, to live in partnership with other organisms and to work with and shape the soil in which it grows. But it also specializes to a certain degree. Red River Valley tall grass prairie is quite different from the mixed grass prairie farther west and the short grass prairie of the foothill regions of Alberta.

Each has developed according to soil and climate and learned to thrive in its place in spite of any shocks or changes nature might throw at it.

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