Farm takes different approach to soil fertility

Brad Boot watches as his wife, Ashley, fills a bag with einkorn, which she sells at the Saskatoon Farmers Market.  |  Sean Pratt photo

On the Farm: Producer adds calcium and reduces glyphosate while growing a variety of crops, including ancient einkorn

OUTLOOK, Sask. — Brad Boot noticed a difference between dairy cows in central Saskatchewan and those in southern Alberta.

When he was 14 his father sold his dairy in Fort Macleod, Alta., and bought one three times the size near Outlook, Sask.

The Saskatchewan dairy cattle were more prone to disease. They appeared to have weak immune systems.

Boot and his father suspected there was a problem with the feed, even though tests showed it met all the required attributes. It didn’t appear to have the proper nutrients.

“There was something wrong with it,” he said.

Boot started investigating what could be wrong. That is when he discovered Back To Your Roots Soil Solutions Inc., a Saskatchewan company that takes an unconventional approach to soil fertility.

The company’s focus is on adding calcium to the soil, which helps beneficial micro-organisms to thrive.

“You can get a soil profile that breathes,” said Boot.

His hypothesis is that the river water used to irrigate the crops in southwestern Alberta was more calcium-rich than irrigation water in central Saskatchewan.

Boot contends that the calcium-infused water from the Rocky Mountains loses that mineral punch by the time it wends its way to Saskatchewan.

He believes the addition of calcium to the soil, along with a host of other management techniques, has bolstered beneficial micro-organisms in the soil and is creating healthier crops.

Boot uses a refractometer to check the Brix level of his crops. Brix is a measure of the sugar content and nutrient density of the crops. It is a tool used by grape growers to see if the grapes are ready for harvest.

“When the plant is growing and green you can squeeze the juice out with a garlic press, get the sap out of it and stick it on the refractometer,” he said.

The Brix level of his crops was a three or a four when he first started using the Back To Your Roots’ soil fertility techniques. It is now a 12, which is good but there is still room for improvement.

“We’re now getting feeder roots that will go down a foot into our soil profile, whereas when we no-tilled we were getting a feeder root profile of two inches,” he said.

Another fundamental tenant of his new soil management regime is to vastly reduce the amount of glyphosate used on his father’s corn, barley, canola and alfalfa crops. Boot contends the herbicide ties up minerals and destroys micro-organisms in the soil.

In place of chemical control, he uses selective tilling to help keep the weeds at bay. His revitalized soil also helps in that fight.

“Weeds don’t like high calcium, high phosphorus soils. They like high potassium and high magnesium,” he said.

Boot has been feeding the high Brix crops to his father’s dairy cattle for nine years and started noticing a big difference in herd health about four years ago.

“Our death rate has definitely dropped. The animals have immune systems now and they don’t get sick nearly as much,” he said.

Boot was so encouraged by the health transformation of the dairy herd that he was inspired to start growing nutrient-dense crops for the human consumption market.

He is farming four quarter sections of organic hemp, wheat, peas and an ancient grain called einkorn using the same soil nutrition techniques employed for growing his dad’s crops.

Boot’s wife Ashley, who grew up on a grain farm and then a cattle ranch in the Outlook area, sells the cleaned and dehulled einkorn grain at the Saskatoon Farmers Market. She also sells einkorn flour, bread, muffins and cookies at the market.

“At first it was hard going because nobody knew what einkorn was. We have done a lot of educating,” she said.

“My bread is a big hit.”

Getting people’s attention at the market isn’t easy. It requires an aggressive sales approach, hollering at people to come have a sample of her baked goods.

“That was definitely a step out of my comfort zone,” said Ashley.

“I don’t like to be in people’s faces.”

Customers who are brave enough to try the ancient wheat flour say they love it, despite some challenges of working with the sticky dough.

Ashley uses it almost exclusively at home, although some recipes require the addition of a little conventional wheat flour. She makes bread, pancakes, muffins, tortillas and cookies using einkorn flour.

There is a captive audience for her baked goods. Ashley home schools her five children, aged two to 12.

Brad also markets the crop through his company, Prairie Genesis, to boutique flour mills in markets like British Columbia, Quebec and Pennsylvania.

His goal is to convince other farmers to start growing the ancient grain and to eventually build a grain-cleaning facility and potentially a flour mill or packaging plant for the product.

“(I want) to be able to grow crops that are nutrient dense but also be able to market them across the world to people who will appreciate it and will benefit from it,” he said.

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