The biggest crisis facing Canadian agriculture is right beneath our feet.
“For the first time in history, we have the technology and tools to produce food in a sustainable way, yet farmers and their influencers cling to old ways and values,” said Don Lobb, an Ontario farmer and a longtime leader in the no-till and soil health movements.
“Our soil indicates that we are beyond business as usual. What action is needed to move the majority of farmers and the larger agricultural community onto the soil restoration path?”
Lobb made his call for change at the Farm Forum Event here earlier this month — a conference (now operated by Glacier FarmMedia, the parent company of this paper) that focuses on innovation but often in terms of advancing traditional agronomic practices.
However, Lobb, a prominent soil advocate since the 1980s, argued agriculture needs a radical shift in focus to make soil health the top priority.
“Productivity is slipping away in spite of crop production improvements,” said Lobb. “Soil productivity has not been lost because we farm. It has been lost because of how we farm.”
The various components of soil — organic matter, nutrients, water-holding capability, and amount of carbon — need to be in balance, and that’s not happening, he argued.
Lobb said organic matter has dropped nearly in half since 1950 (most of that in the last 15 years), and with every one per cent decrease, soil’s water-holding capacity drops by about 27,000 gallons per acre. As well, the weight of field equipment has increased by about 900 pounds a year every year since 1960 and that means more compaction, which reduces both levels of soil organisms and water infiltration.
“All of this has been happening while crop production improvements have brought real crop yield increases,” said Lobb. “Those increases have temporarily masked soil health decline.”
But that can’t go on forever, he warned.
“There’s a critical point where declining water availability and biological activity cannot support a profitable crop,” he said. “How we manage the soil determines where that critical point will be.”
But practices won’t change until attitudes do, he said.
“Will we choose change in soil and water management, and a change in our attitudes and ethics? Is it not time that soil be treated as a critical natural resource?”
Soil aggregates and tillage
The adoption of low-till or no-till practices is a positive, but most farmers don’t understand that even a little is too much, he argued.
“Tillage, like smoking, is a terminal bad habit. The more we do, the worse the outcome. Tillage destroys soil aggregates and disrupts the bioprocesses that are essential to nutrient retrieval, to carbon sequestration, and to soil aggregation. This results in loss of water, nutrients, carbon, and sediment.”
Soil aggregates — the crumbly bits of bound-together mineral and organic matter — are “our lifeline to the future,” said Lobb, citing a long list of benefits, including greater water infiltration and storage, increased nutrient levels, resistance to compaction, aeration of the root zone, and reduced erosion.
“While carbon and water are at the centre of our food production system, soil aggregates provide the most certain measure of soil health and productivity,” he said. “I will continue to harp on the importance and the role of aggregates. Aggregates are essential to healthy, productive soil.”
Restoring soil aggregates will require an end to tillage and aggressive direct seeding, said Lobb.
“There is no other way to sustainably produce food on fragile land, and we must use fragile land to satisfy the (planet’s) growing food needs.”
Fixing the crisis
But that’s only the first step to reversing soil degradation.
What’s needed is a holistic approach that considers preserving organisms, enhancing organic matter, capturing moisture, reversing compaction, and returning nutrients back to the soil, he said.
Planting a diverse crop mix and keeping the land covered is one way to do that. Incorporating livestock is another. But these changes require a change in thinking.
“Collectively, these measures can allow us to sustainably support a growing population, and we can move off that soil degradation curve — if we employ intensive, scientifically sound, and responsible soil management,” said Lobb.
“For many, all of this means real change. Change usually comes with risk.”
He managed the risk on his farm by comparing various management practices in small-scale field trials the first year he tried the no-till approach. Each trial differed in yield, and as the years went on, he found that if he changed one component, it would impact some or all of the others, “often in a chain reaction.” He spent years determining what caused his yields to rise or fall.
“Success with no till came when I assembled the best combination of practices,” he said.
“If I had simply used a prescribed formula or recipe to try no till, I would almost have certainly failed… Clearly, we need multiple years of experience to make good decisions and make valid comparisons.”
In the end, his no-till fields were outyielding his tilled land three years out of four in side-by-side comparisons, and generating 35 per cent higher profits.
“For me, the most conservation-effective practices were also the most profitable,” he said.
But every farm is different, and what worked for him may not work on other operations.
“Each of us must develop our own crop management system, and we each must make unique changes,” he said. “Change does bring risk, but it also brings opportunity… I managed risk by focusing on the details and taking time to get my system right.
“It paid, and my soil improved.”
The greater risk is doing what you’ve always done, he said.
“We know the consequence of complacency. Are we prepared to accept responsibility for no change? The choice is ours.
“We must do better. And we can do better. It’s essential to our survival on the last frontier. Soil matters, and we have work to do.”