You don’t hear or see much in the media about the topic of soil – how healthy soils can slow climate change, help us adapt to it, support biodiversity, reduce the risk of flooding, reduce pollution of surface waters, and enhance food security. Nor do we hear that soils can do all of these things so cost-effectively that the economic benefits can be as substantial as the environmental ones. Unfortunately, soil is the forgotten resource.
Creating and maintaining healthy soils may well be the least appreciated of all environmental efforts. Yet, I am hopeful this can change: my 2013/2014 Annual Report shares the story of three Ontario farmers who are showing that a focus on soil health not only protects the environment, but also boosts yields and increases profitability.
Dan Konzelmann grows organically, which means that he cannot use any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. He has learned how to use non-chemical methods to control weeds, combining specific crop rotations with various cover crops and well-timed shallow cultivation. Konzelmann also designed and built his own compost-turning machine, which won a Premier’s Award for Agri-food Innovation and Excellence in 2011. He states that the results of all his efforts have been extraordinary: higher yields that at least equal and often surpass those of conventional growers (e.g., his soybean yields are 5 to 10 bushels per acre above the provincial average); increased levels of soil organic matter; reduced weeds and disease; greater water-retention capacity and drought resistance; and last, but certainly not least, increased profitability.
Dean Glenney is a conventional farmer who uses synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Where Glenney differs from the norm is in his management system, one that is extremely protective of the complex world of soil-based organisms that scientists call the “soil food web”. Glenney calls his system “fencerow farming” and his fundamental principle is to not disturb the soil (and its food web) any more than is absolutely necessary. He does not till and he places his fertilizer in small amounts close to each seed, where it is easily accessible to new roots. Independent test results show that the water leaving his land has no excess nutrients: the crop uses everything. Glenney also states that his yields have been growing each year and he recently hit 300 bushels of corn per acre, twice the provincial average.
Joe Gorski practices “biological farming”, an approach that focuses on the importance of the soil food web. Like Glenney, he minimizes tillage and is very careful in his use of fertilizer, applying it in such a way that nutrient losses are minimized and the soil food web is not affected. Gorski reports that his five-year average yield for wheat is about 60 per cent higher, and his corn is 70 per cent higher, than the provincial averages. At the same time, he says that his use of nitrogen fertilizer has dropped by more than 50 per cent and his need for pesticides is decreasing each year.
The three farmers profiled above use different approaches to farming, yet they have one important thing in common: they focus on optimizing soil health by protecting and enhancing the soil food web. The benefits are numerous: they are able to produce more food with fewer inputs, less negative impact on the environment, and greater profits. For these farmers, increasing sustainability does not mean sacrificing profitability; indeed, the opposite appears to be true.