As I read the farm papers that land regularly in our mail box, it strikes me that the biggest change I see in farming these days from when I started covering farm news is knowledge of, and care for, the soil.
I grew up in the beginnings of the chemical revolution in farming: fertilizers to make crops grow faster, pesticides to reduce competition from weeds and insects. Even when I began covering meetings in the 1970s, there was little talk about soil during crop seminars I attended. It was all about chemistry and new seed technology.
I remember what an eye-opener it was, about 30 years ago, when I attended a meeting of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario at the old Grey Township Central School in Ethel, (now North Woods Elementary) and heard a soil scientist from McGill University, I believe, say something like the weight of all the bacteria, funguses and soil animals and insects below the earth’s surface was far greater than the life above the soil. (I couldn’t find the exact comparison in a Google search).
Somewhere along the way, main-stream farmers began to edge closer to organic farmers in their understanding that healthy soils are essential for healthy crops. First, those leading-edge farmers who liked to experiment, began to notice that there were more earthworms in the undisturbed soil of fencerows than in the cultivated portions of fields. Then they began to experiment with planting equipment, often making their own modifications back then, to allow them to disturb the soil less.
The emphasis of university research changed along the way, too, with more emphasis being given to soil science and the importance of healthy soil. Suddenly those funguses and soil bacteria were noticed again.
Mainstream farmers began to learn from organic farmers about practices like cover crops to keep the soil covered after crops like wheat or soybeans are harvested. Speaking at the Summit of Canadian Soil Health last fall, Mario Tenuta, University of Manitoba soil scientist said: “Flying over southern Ontario in the fall it’s amazing how much cover is on the land, compared to what you see on the Prairies.”
Researchers and leading farmers also recognized that plant diversity on top of the soil added to the diversity and health below the soil’s surface. They’re experimenting with different crop rotations and multi-variety cover crops.
Ironically, none of this is new. Over 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson, a farmer and conservationist as well as U.S. founding father and President, used vetch, turnips, peas, and clover as cover crops and in rotation on his Virginia plantation to build soil that he knew was being depleted with his tobacco cash crop.
And some of the good things we used to do on the mixed farms of my childhood are sorely missed in building healthy soils. Farmers in those days before cash cropping, had a crop rotation that included hay fields and pasture (and cover crops when wheat, oats and barley fields were under-seeded with clovers). Tenuta worries if more consumers refuse to eat beef and dairy products there will be less land used for forage and more for annual crops.
That’s the irony in the debate about saving the climate by eating less meat because cattle are supposed to be so bad for the environment, between their expelling methane and their use of the earth’s resources. One of the solutions to reducing CO2 in the air is to store it in healthy soil, but to have healthy soil, pasture and hay fields are important.
The farm papers I read show that farmers and soil scientists have come a long way in re-evaluating the importance of soil health. Now we just need environmental scientists and consumers to learn the same lessons.◊