Not only are farmers being trusted to look after the land, crops and animals, we also want to do the best possible job ourselves.
The problem is we don’t always have the clearest picture of what the best practices really are, and we of course operate within the confines of present technology and profitability.
Take the fundamental question of soil tillage, a practice that has dramatically changed over the past couple of decades.
At one time summerfallow was the general practice. It helped store soil moisture, provided nitrogen nutrition for plants and helped control weeds. However, after awhile we found there were negative effects. We were losing soil organic matter. The soil tilth and structure were declining because of this constant disturbance. As a result, we were experiencing massive losses of our precious topsoil due to wind and water erosion.
Through research we found better alternatives including continuing cropping, diverse rotations and zero-till seeding. These practices were largely made possible by the introduction and wise use of zero-till equipment, glyphosate and other pesticides, as well as a lot of commercial fertilizer.
There’s little doubt our soils are better for these changes, and that wind and water erosion have been significantly reduced. We have improved. But are we environmentally sustainable?
When I take a step back I find that my farm, while financially sustainable, still has a long way to go to be environmentally sustainable. I use a number of benchmarks to measure this.
My soil organic is still only about 50 per cent of what it originally was. This reduced organic matter still means poor soil structure and low nutrient — soil food web cycling. In other words my soil is not as efficient as it could be.
Rainfall is often not used where it falls, which can be problematic. Our crops only grow robustly for 60 to 70 days as a rule, out of a possible six-month window when we can expect liquid precipitation. Because there isn’t always a robust growing crop to soak that moisture up, excess moisture can enter the soil in recharge areas, collect salts, and then be discharged in other areas causing saline seeps.
We use a lot of fossil fuels, but we don’t burn them all. As well as diesel fuel, we also use lots of natural gas to make nitrogen fertilizers in the Bosch-Haber process. This in turn releases nitric oxides that are 300 times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.
We also lose phosphate from the system, have more pesticide-resistant weeds, an increase in yield-limiting plant diseases, continued though significantly slower soil erosion and a significant loss of biodiversity.
As in the past, when we have been made aware of the negative effects of our actions, pioneering farmers and researchers look for yet better ways. Biological solutions, biomimicry, high-density grazing, zero till plus, organic zero till and regenerative agriculture will become the norm.
Change is hard and some help may or may not be required. But to be the stewards of the land and be worthy of the trust given to us, we do need to change.
We must find better ways to build soil organic matter, soil health and dramatically lower our GHG emissions while providing adequate nutrient-dense food.
David Rourke farms near Minto, Manitoba.