Air management

Farmers find good soil management makes good sense

Opinion



One thing I fear about spring, besides its slow arrival, is the wind.

Invariably, before crops become established, we have a series of major wind events that cause the ground to shift, shear off new emerging plants, and fill ditches with dirt, the air with fine particles, and our teeth with sand. .

These events are much less damaging than before because farmers, especially on the prairies, are more successful at keeping their soils anchored, either with the previous year’s stubble or with cover crops.

However, a new report released this week by the Soil Conservation Council of Canada and the Compost Council of Canada highlights the emerging reality that good soil management is about more than keeping it intact as a growing medium.

The report Recruiting Soil to Fight Climate Change: A Roadmap for Canadais the latest effort to quantify the role that soil carbon sequestration can play and sets out an action plan to take full advantage of this opportunity.

“The policies, programs and practices contained in this document can be adopted by decision makers at all levels. This includes everyone from the home gardener to the farm level – and all the way to senior government officials. In doing so, they will put this incredible resource into use,” said Jim Tokarchuk, executive director of the Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC) in a statement.

The “recruitment soil” report treats the soil as a living entity.

“Carbon sequestration may be happening faster than previously thought,” the report says. “The old view that the rate (of carbon sequestration) is controlled primarily by the nature of organic input, mediated by environmental conditions, has given way to the view that sequestration is controlled by organisms in the ground,” the report said.

“In this new thinking, ensuring a good flow of carbon through the system remains important, but improving soil health by increasing soil life (e.g. bacteria, fungi, protozoa, etc.) is an equally important factor in capturing and retaining carbon in the soil.”

It indicates that soil carbon sequestration could more than offset agriculture’s contributions of 73 Mt of GHGs per year to the atmosphere.

Additionally, there is evidence that individual farmers are already showing that they can increase their rate of carbon capture by using practices such as keeping roots alive in the ground for as much of the year as possible; minimize ground disturbance; optimize the use of inputs; promote diversity; and make sure the ground is always covered. Five of these farmers profiled in the report showed that soil carbon levels increased from 1.5 to 2.7 tonnes per hectare per year.

“All five also report maintained or increased productivity, as well as increased profitability,” the report said. This is encouraging in light of the latest IPCC report – all 10,000 pages – describing how well we are doing in avoiding catastrophic rises in global temperatures.

So, the science supporting significant progress in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions – at least in agriculture – is there. Practical applications have been tested. Tangible benefits exist both individually and globally.

Why then are farmers not rushing to implement them? The reasons are many, but one of the biggest barriers identified in this report is how much of a farmer’s identity is tied to being a ‘producer’ of food.

This identity is strongly reinforced by family, friends and rural culture. Additionally, markets pay farmers based on what they produce, and an industry has developed to help farmers maintain and protect their yields.

Farmers who invest in more biodiversity are sometimes challenged by their own families for their “messy” fields.

This report indicates that the identity of the producer reduces the focus of innovation to yield improvements rather than environmental improvements, higher levels of soil organic carbon or even better profitability.

Increasingly, soil health advocates are calling for a new way of describing what farmers do, moving away from talking about it as a production process to describing it as an ecological process.

In other words, the language we choose shapes the conversations we have.

It’s a grainy wind of change, however, one of the report’s authors warns it could be the biggest, but the hardest to achieve.

Laura Rance is Vice President of Content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Laura Rance