Real work on soil health needs to be done

Fine speeches about our soil make us all feel good, but there's an increasing urgency for wider adoption

Soil health has received considerable attention in recent decades. There have been many champions who have promoted the benefits of good soil, farm organizations that have mounted campaigns to encourage its development and even Senate committees trying to help government recognize the urgency surrounding it. Yet reluctance to raise the bar on the subject remains.

Don Lobb, a retired farmer and advocate for soil health, is often buoyed by the efforts of the best soil managers, yet he is frustrated by the continued use of long-standing and destructive management regimens. He believes in the need to focus on soil structure and that the best measure for soil health comes down to good soil aggregates.

“The best way to measure that is by comparing one field to an undisturbed area that’s close to it, like a woodlot, and then look at the differences in water infiltration rates,” says Lobb, who farmed near Clinton, Ont.

“Let’s go to the end game which is soil aggregates. If you have well-aggregated soil, you don’t have water and wind erosion… you don’t get muddy water running out of a woodlot.”

Dr. Claudia Wagner-Riddell’s long-term project measures water infiltration, soil carbon sequestration and other properties using in-ground lysimeters.
photo: Courtesy of Cameron Ogilvie, Soils at Guelph

Government is listening

Lobb contends it’s imperative that government be made aware of the urgency of protecting agricultural soil, including treating it as an essential natural resource. He was one of five individuals to address the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry last May, joining Cedric MacLeod, Gabrielle Ferguson, Dr. David Lobb and Dr. David Burton, each with their own perspectives.

The hearing took place on the initiative of Senator Robert Black, with the goal of setting the stage for a more current national review, given that the report titled, “Soil at Risk: Canada’s Eroding Future,” was completed in 1984.

“Following the report under Senator Herb Sparrow, we had a whole lot of programs and interest by the government to make things happen — and we did make progress through the late 1980s and into the 1990s,” says Lobb. “What we need now is to put something in place that will not disappear the next time we have high crop prices. Historically, whenever we’ve had high crop prices, the same thing happens: the farmers who claimed they couldn’t afford better soil measures used new-found income to buy more iron and pushed production out on to more fragile land.”

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One of the recommendations that Lobb made to the Senate committee called for separating soil from the Department of Agriculture and Food, and treating it as an essential natural resource. To leave soils under agriculture and food creates a conflict of interest since production comes first and it’s unlikely soil will be managed as it needs to be.

“It’s so important to societal needs and to our economy,” says Lobb. “Our whole economy is built on cheap food and because it’s so important, soil health should be dealt with as a separate entity.”

Better relationships among proponents

One positive step to come along in the past year is the creation of Soils at Guelph, an initiative from the University of Guelph that seeks to connect stakeholders that have a vested interest in the health of soils in Ontario. Its official launch coincides with the 2019 edition of Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show, although its executive members have been working for several months, determining the best way to make those connections. The group is led by Drs. Kari Dunfield, Laura Van Eerd and Claudia Wagner-Riddell from the School of Environmental Sciences.

“Primarily, the connection that we want to be making is one where researchers and farmers and consumers are all having this conversation together,” says Cameron Ogilvie, communications co-ordinator for Soils at Guelph. “From there, we can make a collective effort towards improving soil health in Ontario.”

Ogilvie acknowledges the many organizations in Ontario that have been front and centre on the soil health issue. Those include the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA), the Ontario Soil Network, the Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO) and the Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario (IFAO). He also credits the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) for its extension services to farmers.

“It would be right to say that Soils at Guelph is not coming into this planning to duplicate, replicate or replace any of the work that these organizations carry out,” says Ogilvie. “What we’re realizing is that the university has a part to play in supporting the work these organizations do by better connecting them with our researchers.”

Too overwhelming an issue?

It’s possible that the subject of soil health, and trying to remediate the damage done on an annual basis, is too large an issue to be perceived as manageable. The time factor — where growers say they’re “too old” to begin no tilling in order to improve their soils after 10 years — could be viewed as a symptom of this mind-set or similar to a succession issue. Yet Ogilvie notes there are many growers who’ve cited the time savings that come with no till, without plowing or cultivating or packing.

“There is some practical time-saving within the year using a no-till system,” says Ogilvie. “It doesn’t mean it’s without its challenges but there are time-saving benefits to consider. But there isn’t going to be a silver bullet to addressing the issue. It’s a complex problem and it’ll be the accumulation of all these different ways of thinking about soil that builds up enough pressure to affect change.”

Use of cover crops is just one option to help with improving soil aggregation and enhancing sustainability.
photo: Supplied

He also likens the challenge of dealing with soil health as an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” relationship similar to human health. Crop production provides a visual sign of success where “crops are growing, so all must be well with the soil.” Yet like physical, mental or emotional health in humans, it’s often overlooked until it becomes a problem.

“We know the general things that lead towards health, but health is about balance and balance is a tricky thing to achieve,” says Ogilvie. “Because it’s underground, that adds to the complexity… and sometimes you can mask the health of the soil that you’re working on by putting in some more inputs.”

Bigger picture

It’s easy to become embroiled in the negatives, and as much as the Soils at Guelph initiative is attempting to provide a positive turn on the subject, Lobb is frustrated at the foot-dragging that he sees. In spite of new programs and efforts to improve soil health, a lot of farming is done based on profit this year and what the neighbours might see, instead of getting the broader picture of what their practices are doing.

Everything has to be examined, adds Lobb, pointing to Dr. David Montgomery’s book, DIRT: The Erosion of Civilization, as an omen on soil management. It took the Roman and Greek civilizations a thousand years to degrade their soils. With today’s intensive tillage, Western society has less time.

Lobb has also spoken with noted soil scientists including Dr. Jerry Hatfield, a director with the USDA’s National Laboratory on Agriculture and the Environment, who pointed out that eroded hilltops in Iowa have tripled in size in the past 30 years.

“That’s exactly what I see here, too,” says Lobb. “Where tillage is continuing, the size of those eroded areas just keeps growing. Precision agriculture doesn’t overcome that problem, it accommodates it, and that’s wrong.”

A second soil scientist, Dr. Ray Weil of the University of Maryland, told Lobb that disturbing long-term no-till soil would provide a boost in yield for one year, but the process of rebuilding the soil biology to previous levels could take 10 to 15 years. That biological component is necessary to give soil resilience and productive sustainability.

Lobb also believes that society may step in to dictate responsible soil management.

“Farmers need to understand soil functions and how those work,” he says. “Until they start to think in terms of long-term consequences, they’re going to be putting our soil at risk.”

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