Farmers urged to show good soil practices

Cereals Canada president says sector might want to consider codes of practice similar to those in the livestock industry

Farmers must show they are more than tillers of the land and are responsible caretakers preserving soil health for future generations, said the president of Cereals Canada.

“We need to be able to actively demonstrate that we have been taking action and we need to actively demonstrate the benefits of our sustainable practices. If we don’t do that it will be done to us,” said Cam Dahl.

Pressure has been mounting on animal agriculture to make changes. Codes of practice have been developed, which the cereal industry might consider copying to demonstrate sustainability, he said at the recent Canadian Agri-food Policy Institute meeting in Calgary.

The big issue is carbon and its sequestration in the soil. About half of soil organic matter is made of carbon but from 1981-2011 crop cycles depleted soil organic matter in Western Canada. Practices have changed since then.

‘Every cropping cycle today is putting soil organic matter back into the soils. That means our soils are healthier, that means they are more productive and we have better water-use efficiency,” he said.

Ongoing research into crop management to promote sustainable practices and sequester carbon shows it can be done if the right changes are made. However, there is little co-ordination on wide-scale efforts.

Carbon levels are growing in the atmosphere but considerable amounts are also locked into soils from the shallow depths to about two metres below the surface. That carbon can be pulled back into the soil to mitigate climate change and rebuild quality, said Sean Smukler of the University of British Columbia.

Animal manure and root exudates increase the carbon pool.

“If we take four parts per every 1,000 parts of soil and increase the levels stored, it could offset fossil fuel emissions,” he said.

“Some scientists caution we shouldn’t be investing heavily in this when the real problem is reducing emissions,” he said.

His work is looking at grassland set-asides, in which land is taken out of production for three to four years and cash crops go elsewhere.

“We know there are number of practices can increase organic inputs,” he said.

Compost, manure, increased crop yields and root inputs increase soil organic carbon. This is an indicator of soil health and is related to carbon storage cycling, water infiltration and holding capacity.

Smukler is also looking at the benefits of planting trees on the farm or agro-forestry to add more carbon to the soil.

Hedgerows with a variety of plants are recommended because they do not take much land out of production. Research found a 40 percent increase in soil organic matter below the hedgerows that also provided habitat and other benefits.

Farmers, scientists and government face challenges in making these changes happen. Farmers adopting a new practice need it to be economically viable. These new practices add more labour and cost, and could increase the complexity in managing the farm.

A thorough understanding of the sustainability of a particular practice is not short-term and more research is necessary to measure how much carbon can be sequestered. This can be costly so there must be incentives for farmers to adopt more carbon-friendly practices.

Consumers have to be involved in the plans because they will rely on taxes or increased prices.

The Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust is one example of such a program. It provides incentives to British Columbia farmers to set-aside habitat, plant hedgerows and seed cover crops.

The prices the trust offers do not reflect the real value and farmers do not make money by taking part, but they participate because they see it as a societal good and it allows them to be better stewards of the land.

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