Farmers farm for various reasons: an altruistic desire to grow high-quality, nutritious food for the eating public; a preferred lifestyle; a sacred vocation; a love of nature and the outdoors; or, maybe because they enjoy solving problems – farming certainly has its share.
Grey County mixed farmer Brenda Hsueh identifies with all these motivations. And, perhaps surprisingly, with one more: a determination to mitigate climate change.
Becoming a farmer “was [my] first response to climate change,” says Hsueh, who worked in the banking sector in Toronto before purchasing her 40-acre farm in 2008.
Hsueh, who with partner Skyler and daughter Emma stewards Black Sheep Farm near Chesley, is not alone among farmers. As the climate inexorably warms, more and more farmers are intentionally working not only to adapt to the vexing vicissitudes of climate, but to intentionally diminish, or mitigate, its many deleterious impacts. They’re increasingly including mitigation strategies in their annual and long-term farming plans.
It’s a responsibility all farmers have for the good of agriculture, Hsueh believes. And for the good of the planet. Because, Hsueh adds, agriculture has been and continues to be a significant cause of global warming.
Some, maybe many, farmers may quarrel with that statement: that agriculture, their stock in trade, is a major cause of a crisis that threatens the planet as we know it.
But it’s hard to dispute the facts. While figures may vary among organizations that measure agriculture’s overall contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and global warming, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that agriculture – including crop and livestock production, forestry and fisheries – generates up to 20 percent, or one-fifth, of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Canada’s agricultural industry alone represents about 12 percent of the country’s GHG emissions, says the National Farmers Union (NFU). The actual contribution is somewhat higher since that figure only accounts for the production of crops and livestock, not the burning of fossil fuels or use of petroleum-based fertilizers and agrochemicals on farmland. Neither does it take into account the emissions generated from the conversion of forests and wetlands to arable land.
But there’s good news. Unlike the oil and gas industry, agriculture, if practiced ‘climate-smartly’ can also be a significant hedge against the ravages of a rapidly warming climate. According to the FAO and NFU, agriculture has enormous climate change mitigation potential, including significant capacity to capture carbon, the most ubiquitous of GHGs. The FAO has challenged farmers around the world to make agriculture a part of the solution to the global climate crisis.
In recent years farmers, scientists, and policymakers have become increasingly interested in agriculture’s potential to sequester (store) carbon (CO2) in the soil. Soil carbon sequestration is a process in which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and stored in what’s known as the soil carbon pool.
The process is primarily mediated by plants through photosynthesis, with carbon stored in the form of soil organic matter (SOM). Soil can sequester atmospheric carbon in significant amounts with potential to offset emission by cars, power plants and other burning of fossil fuels. Some believe it has potential to make farms carbon neutral.
Utilizing innovation and technology, most farmers seem to be learning how to adapt their farming plans and practices to a warming climate. But as Hsueh says, there’s only so many adaptation measures farmers can take. For the benefit of farming and the planet, “we also have to fight back,” she adds.
The climate’s increasing vagaries and their impact on her annual farming aspirations have motivated Hsueh to do so. She grows vegetables and raises sheep and chickens organically. She finds she has to plan not just for the kinds of modest weather fluctuations that generations of farmers have coped with, but for increasing weather system shocks that can disrupt, even destroy, an entire year’s crop.
According to Ontario’s Climate Risk Institute (OCR), extreme rainfall events – floods and droughts in particular – are expected to occur more often and with more ferocity. Combined warmer summer temperatures and increased evaporation may also escalate the likelihood of more severe and prolonged dry periods with less water from run-off and low soil moisture.
The average annual temperature in Ontario has increased by 1.4°C over the last 60 years, OCR says. Models suggest that by 2050, the average annual temperature could increase by an additional 2.5°C to 3.7°C (from baseline average 1961-1990) unless strong, global action is taken.
Arresting data like these also concern Simcoe County farmer Brent Preston. For Preston farming, and climate change adaptation and mitigation, have almost become synonymous.
“We’re constantly having to rethink our seasonal growing strategies,” says Preston, who with his partner Gillian farms 100 acres near Creemore. Preston’s The New Farm primarily produces organic salad greens for the wholesale restaurant market.
“Each year we say, ‘We’ve got our systems, we’ve got our crops, we’ve got our marketing figured out – this year we can coast’,” Preston says.
But it rarely works out that way anymore, he adds. Seasonal weather patterns have become so much more volatile, and their planning is therefore “always changing, always evolving,” he says.
In recent years, regenerative agriculture (RA) has grown in popularity as, among other attributes, a kind of omnibus strategy to mitigate climate change. Hsueh and Preston both extol the virtues of RA and are committed to its principles including for purposes of soil carbon sequestration.
RA comprises an array of ecologically-oriented techniques to maximize soil biology and health, and in the process, sequester carbon. Among the practices RA promotes are minimum till, cover crops and perennials to feed the soil and keep it covered, and livestock grazing that mimics the balanced, sustainable, and soil health-enhancing way that wild animals interact with nature.
Reduced tillage in the form of less equipment operation has immediate and obvious benefits to soil health and carbon sequestration. “Push in millions of gallons of fossil fuels [for equipment operation] and they will come out as millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide,” the NFU says.
“For our farm, we see really clearly that regenerative farming is the future for us and for everybody,” Preston said. “So we’re really focusing on soil health, on protecting our soil, increasing the abundance and diversity of our soil life. [This is] our real main focus going forward because it’ll make our farm more climate resilient,” he added.
Preston has been working systematically over the past few years to reduce his tillage. He’s now using tarps to kill stubble and control weeds instead of ploughing, disking, cultivating, and roto-tilling.
The importance of collaboration and partnership between farmers and farm organizations to facilitate carbon sequestration and general on-farm climate resilience, can’t be emphasized enough, Preston says. He participated in a two-year farmer-led research tarping project hosted by the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) which he says was successful. “We are pretty confident that we can get at least 80 percent reduction in tillage” using semi-permeable tarps that allows the free passage of air and water and suppresses weeds, he says.
Hsueh also subscribes to the principle of minimum soil disturbance. “No till keeps carbon in the ground by not breaking it up and exposing organic matter to oxidation,” she says. It also preserves fungal life in soil which has its own unique carbon sequestration attributes, she adds.
Hsueh’s intensive managed grazing strategy involves moving her sheep on a daily basis using portable electric net fencing. With rotational grazing, she says, “the pasture plants are kept in as much of a vegetative [state] as possible. This makes them increase their root mass, and keeps them photosynthesizing to the max, sucking CO2 from the air,” she adds.
Carbon sequestration through intensive rotational grazing also appeals to Preston. He has begun experimenting with cattle, having formed a partnership with an area beef farmer whose cattle graze Preston’s pastures. “I’ve seen examples of [farmers] really boosting their SOM through intensive rotational grazing and we’re going to see how that works on our farm as part of an integrated vegetable growing operation,” he says.
Preston and Hsueh are also likeminded on the importance of biodiversity in sinking carbon and for climate-resilient farming generally. Hsueh has undertaken “permaculture plantings” – enhancing treelines with native trees and berry-bearing shrubs to attract and provide habitat for pollinating insects, animals, and birds. She believes on-farm biodiversity of this nature mitigates climate change by “adding more CO2 sponges to the farm for the long term.”
The compellingly clear science supporting the link between biodiversity and climate-resilient, overall healthier, and profitable farms is still evolving, Preston acknowledges. But he believes a connection exists. “Our farm was fairly sterile when we bought it,” he says. But because we planted trees, hedgerows, and native wildflowers, our farm has become more robust and healthier, he adds. Our experience “reinforces the idea that biodiversity is good” for farming, he says.
Hsueh and Preston are examples of smaller-scale Ontario farmers who are committed to addressing agriculture’s unenviable role as a major contributor to the climate crisis. Larger-scale farms, both organic and conventional, don’t always as easily lend themselves to the kinds of carbon-sinking practices they espouse. Scaling up is possible, they believe, but in some instances may require farmers to rethink the agricultural model to which they subscribe. ◊