Herb Sparrow – Report triggers turnaround in looming soil crisis

Doug McKell just has to look around his farm near Indian Head, Sask., to see Herb Sparrow’s legacy.

Where once hundreds of thousands of acres were fallow every year or subject to heavy

tillage practices and spreading salinization, today’s farmers are mainly no or low till operators and fallow land has been sharply reduced.

Where as recently as 20 years ago soil would drift on a windy day, now the topsoil is stable.

“In the 1980s, the use of fallow and the land practices were creating soil drifting and loss as bad as it had been since the 1930s,” said the executive director of the Soil Conservation Council of Canada.

“It has really turned around and I credit the Sparrow report with a lot of that.”

The Soil at Risk report was published in June 1984, warning of a soil erosion catastrophe in the making and included a blueprint for how to avert it, including investment in research and farmer education.

The report followed months of public hearings and travel by the Senate agriculture committee headed by Sparrow, a Liberal from North Battleford, Sask.

The proposals included government policy action and creation of national and provincial councils to promote better soil conservation options.

Soil at Risk became a national best seller in government report terms and as recently as 2004 a request for hundreds of copies of the report came from drought-stricken Australia where the soil was blowing.

Prime minister Lester Pearson appointed Sparrow, a farmer, businessperson and one-time president of the Saskatchewan Liberal party, to the Senate in

1968 at age 38. He served for almost 37 years, becoming dean of the Senate as its longest-serving member before being forced to retire in 2005 at age 75.

The Soil at Risk report came in mid-Senate career and it was a career highlight. It sent Sparrow onto the lecture circuit and earned him national and international environmental awards.

“That time overshadowed everything else,” Sparrow has said.

“I was in the right place at the right time. Farmers were ready for the message when they might not have been earlier. And I busted my ass, travelled a lot and spoke to anyone who would listen, and it worked.”

He wrote in the report that the germ of the idea for a study of soil degradation came after a 1982 flight in a small aircraft over Saskatchewan.

“Like many farmers, I knew that salinization was a problem but until that time I had not realized just how much of our productive land of our breadbasket was threatened by soil degradation.”

A similar flight in 2008 would produce a far different sight and soil conservation advocates credit Sparrow for much of that change.

“The change probably would have happened anyway eventually because we were losing our ability to produce,” McKell said.

“But without the Sparrow report and the work he did, I have no doubt it would have taken a lot longer and probably not have gone as far.”

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