A small non-profit organization based in Montreal hopes to make big gains on the Prairies as it works to connect people who want to improve soil health.
Regeneration Canada formed in the fall of 2017 after a successful Living Soils Symposium earlier that year. The symposium focused on bringing together farmers, scientists and other stakeholders who have a goal of regenerating the soil to feed people and mitigate climate change.
Last month, the organization had a booth at Canadian Western Agribition in its bid to better understand prairie agriculture and increase the membership base from its current 250.
“Our mission is really to promote regenerative land management practices to foster healthier food systems and also to mitigate climate change,” said assistant director Sarah Barsalou.
“We’re really trying to build a network across Canada of regenerative farmers and other stakeholder groups that are part of the movement. We have farmers all across Canada.”
Most of the farmer members are in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, but there are several from the Prairies, including grain farmers, cattle producers and bison ranchers.
Barsalou said many are already practicing regenerative agriculture but just don’t use that term.
Regenerative agriculture is broadly defined as principles and practices that enhance ecosystems. This includes minimal soil disturbance, keeping soil covered, integrating livestock and greening cities. The practices improve watersheds, enhance biodiversity and improve the soil, when then becomes more productive and sequesters more carbon.
The organization’s scientific director, Antonious Petro, said they sometimes face resistance from skeptics who think they are promoting a certain agenda. However, he said they get beyond debates over such things as organic versus conventional farming.
“There is only two percent of our land that is organically operated,” he said. “We need the 98 percent. Soil regeneration is one thing that everybody on this planet should agree that we need to work on.”
Added Barsalou: “Everyone has a role to play, and that’s what we’re really trying to figure out.”
Urban residents are urged to compost, grow food on rooftops and create more green spaces.
Petro said for every one percent of organic matter added to the soil, a hectare of land will retain 25,000 gallons of water. Water is a powerful driver in the carbon cycle.
“We think that sustainability is great but we need more than that,” said Petro.
“Our generation found (the land) in an already bad place. We need to regenerate. We need to add more to soils than we take from it.
“It’s nothing new. We’re not reinventing the wheel, neither are the farmers.”
What’s lacking is the connection between farmers who are walking the talk and consumers with no farm background.
Barsalou said she found that prairie agriculture is much different than what they see in Quebec.
“We’re trying to be as humble as possible,” said Barsalou.
“We’re not farmers. We’re trying to connect farmers and we’re trying to connect city people to agriculture and bridge that gap. We’re here to learn more and understand the reality.”
After Agribition, they visited the cattle operation of one of their members in southeast Saskatchewan.
Ross Macdonald said Barsalou and Petro were able to put some of what they heard at the show into context, such as the size of the landscape, distance to markets and topographical and climatic differences.
He advocates for regenerative agriculture for several reasons, saying it provides a positive direction for most agriculture production. The gold standard, he said, is native prairie.
“Most of our ranch is native prairie and finding ways to enable the grassland function that has evolved with grazing for thousands of years is paramount for our risk management, including capturing as much rainfall as possible and extending our grazing window as long as we can throughout the year while selecting for low maintenance, profitable cattle,” he said.
“The concepts around potential soil health improvements have actually made me consider expanding and buying some cultivated land to apply similar concepts to those we practice on our existing grasslands.”
A third Living Soils Symposium is scheduled for Montreal in March. Regeneration Canada plans to start moving the gathering out of that city as it gets more resources.
For more information, visit www.regenerationcanada.org.