For the love of soil

Arron Nerbas and his family developed their farming system piece  by piece as they observed how it functioned in the real world along  Manitoba’s Assiniboine River. Nerbas says they have looked for a  way to farm t hat protects the natural environment but also increases  the land’s ability to produce plants and livestock. | Ed White photo

This story launches a new series, Improving the Prairies, which will look at what farmers are doing to protect the environment while producing top quality food.

SHELLMOUTH, Man. — Arron Nerbas isn’t sure how to describe the numerous actions his family has taken to preserve and improve his farm’s soil, water and environment.

“There are lots of buzzwords: holistic, regenerative, all that,” said Nerbas, who raises cattle beside the Assiniboine River, with fields ranging from flood-prone valley floors to rolling wooded slopes to upland sandy plains.

He and his family have developed their farming system over the past two decades, looking for a way to operate that not only protects the natural environment and improves the land’s ability to produce plants and livestock, all while offering the family a stable living and future.

It’s a system they developed piece by piece, observing how it functioned in the real world along the Assiniboine.

“We just found that in changing the way that we do things, there’s a better way, and the environment can be the big winner if you use nature’s rhythms and systems, and don’t always be pushing the envelope against nature,” said Nerbas, whose operation is all cattle.

Thousands of farmers have taken similar actions in recent decades, with no two farms likely following exactly the same program.

Most farmers have embraced no-till crop production, preserving fragile prairie soils that suffered horrendous topsoil losses due to wind and water erosion up to the 1990s and 2000s.

Many have installed water control systems that don’t merely treat excess water as a waste product, but now treat it as a valuable resource that should be carefully managed.

Most follow rotations that encourage bigger crops with healthier soils remaining afterward.

Some farmers are protecting pieces of wilderness that, if they were put into production, could only provide marginal farmland, but are home to numerous native species of plants and animals.

Hands-on cattle producers are finding ways of getting more calf off every acre of pasture, focusing on boosting forage production by increasing the strength and depth of the topsoil and subsoil ecosystem.

Across Western Canada, farmers have found, developed, embraced and adopted novel production and management techniques to protect both the environment that they farm and their own ability to survive production and financial challenges and setbacks.

Yet farmers seldom get credit for this work, which has transformed prairie agriculture over the past quarter of a century. Farmers are often accused of causing environmental problems, of ruining ecosystems, of provoking climate change. Farmers are accused of poisoning and killing the soil, polluting and wasting water and eliminating the ability of the natural ecosystem to survive.

The actions being undertaken by farmers to protect soil, water and the natural environment are seldom acknowledged by people outside of farming.

With this story, I am beginning a series that will explore the actions farmers are taking to achieve what most people in Canada seem to want: a population of productive, caring farmers who preserve, protect and improve their natural environments, while producing top quality, healthy food.

For me, this is the definition of “sustainable,” but like the other buzzwords Nerbas mentioned, words can be so vague and nebulous they carry little meaning. Suffice it to say this type of farming, whatever you call it, is designed to survive the ages.

This newspaper writes for farmers and is not flying off the shelves of urban convenience stores, affecting the views of Canada’s city dwellers. But even if only farmers read this series, it’s worthwhile for those within agriculture to stand back and consider some of the incredible things farmers are doing to preserve their own environments.

I’ve started my travels in farm country to see some of the work farmers are doing, and I plan to continue that throughout the fall.

As I unroll this series story by story, I hope to take you on a journey that illustrates something you might know exists, but have never before looked at too closely.

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