International Year of Soils ends with a bang in Alberta

Attendees at sold-out conference say it was a thrill to gather with people who ‘get’ soil health

Odette Menard, an agricultural engineer and soil conservation expert with Quebec’s Ministry of Agriculture, speaks to a packed house during the Western Canada Conference on Soil Health.  
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If the International Year of Soils didn’t seem like a big deal — then you weren’t at the Western Canada Conference On Soil Health earlier this month.

That is, if you could get in.

“We originally planned for 250 people, and we had room for 300,” said conference co-chair Tom Fromme. “The facility was able to accommodate an extra 100 and we were still turning people away.”

Having the UN designate soils for its international year helped attract attention for the first-ever conference of its kind on the Prairies, said Fromme. But interest in soil health has been building ever since North Dakota producer and cover cropping guru Gabe Brown gave a presentation in Peace Country a few years ago, he added.

Although only 35 or 40 producers came out for that first visit, they didn’t stop talking about what they heard — namely, that productivity can take off when you stop treating soil like dirt, said Fromme, research co-ordinator with the North Peace Applied Research Association.

That initial buzz prompted his association and its eight sister groups that make up the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta to bring soil health experts such as Christine Jones, Jill Clapperton, and Peter Donovan to Alberta.

A packed trade show during the Western Canada Conference on Soil Health. The event attracted more than 400 producers, and more had to be turned away.
A packed trade show during the Western Canada Conference on Soil Health. The event attracted more than 400 producers, and more had to be turned away. photo: Courtesy of McDonald’s Verified Sustainable Beef Pilot project

The groups also organized the soil health conference, which attracted producers from across the province as well as a number of people from Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

“We had people from California and at least one registrant from Africa who made it. We had two other Africans who couldn’t come because of visa problems, but they would have been here,” said Fromme.

He and co-chair Nora Paulovich also noted there was a good number of young producers, which was not a surprise to Fromme.

“I am more excited about agriculture right now than I have ever been in my whole life,” he said. “I’ve been a researcher for longer than I can remember, and I just feel like this is the right direction. It’s not easy to buck the establishment, but here you see 400 people who have very little fear about doing it.

“I’m sure they are apprehensive and unsure, but there are enough examples now, and I’m sure they’ll be able to get out to farms and ranches to see how it is working.”

The two-day conference featured presentations on topics such as grazing management, soil organisms, earthworms, and cover crops.

“This is not about people selling things,” said Fromme. “There are not people who are in it for fame, fortune or power. They’re in it because it’s exciting and they believe in it.”

That was evident when the conference went into overtime and the majority of attendees stayed until the final event, a producer panel and Q&A session, was done.

Russel Horvey, a purebred Galloway producer, was one of those who stayed right to the end.

The former Alberta Agriculture extension specialist has studied holistic management for 50 years and has also studied with one of the featured speakers, rhizosphere ecologist Jill Clapperton.

“I’ve always been interested in the living part of soils,” said Horvey. “When I heard the first two speakers on the first morning, it brought a lump to my throat. They reinforced to me that this isn’t just words. It’s about soils and the biological living side of soils.”

Horvey said he studied soil organisms in university, but the topic was never discussed during his agricultural career.

“We’re finally talking about the living part of the soils,” he said. “It’s so exciting to see a room of people who are getting it, who are hungry to understand this and how to build healthier soils.”

Fromme said the feedback from other attendees was “great.”

“They’ve been to a lot of conferences and this one came off,” he said. “They want to credit us, but it’s a credit to the speakers. They’re the ones who draw the crowd.”

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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