Creating soil wealth is a long rocky path, marked by frequent twists and turns. Potato grower Charles Emre describes the science and art of building organic matter as a chess match lasting years, not hours.
“We make a move and realize that move stems back to something we did 10 years ago,” he chuckles. “We’ve had five crops of potatoes in the last decade, switching to a cover crop every other year. We’ve improved the organic matter by 0.1 per cent and that’s a big victory.”
That incremental improvement relies on continually learning new cover mixtures and practices that deliver results on the sand plains of his Windham Centre, Ontario farm. Not everything works, he shares, pointing to a later-than-intended planting of a cover crop that didn’t have enough time to grow into a canopy before winter. The result was damaging wind erosion the following spring – something he took in stride as a lesson, not a failure.
Years ago, he started utilizing the biofumigant properties of mustards as a control agent for nematodes. And he’s expanded on that knowledge with additional species. In the spring, he sows mustards and oilseed radish as soon as the frost leaves the ground, followed by pearl millet in late May. Forage peas, vetch and tillage radish can be added in either spring or fall.
Each species has a role to play. Pearl millet, for example, builds organic matter and is a non-host for nematodes. Vetch and forage peas fix nitrogen. Barley, oats and rye build organic matter. Oilseed radish and tillage radish, have similar-looking leaves that look the same above ground, but they perform differently below ground. Oilseed radish, with its fibrous root, acts as a nematode suppressant whereas tillage radish, with its long tap root, opens up the soil.
“Clovers don’t do so well on our land,” says Emre. “We continue to learn and the fact is they often burn on our sandy soils in hot weather.”
By summer time, the cover crop is buzzing with bees and ready for mowing down. It’s then plowed under as a green manure. Volunteer potato plants have been a problem in recent years, so Emre plans to experiment with no-till in 2024 to see if that practice is beneficial.
As he continues to learn with his son-in-law Nick Bell, he’s most proud of how the long-range plan is working. He observes, “Our potatoes have more shine on the skin and this is a quality that retail consumers appreciate.”
Cover cropping is expensive in view of the specialized equipment, the cost of seed, drilling and plowing down, as well as foregoing a cash crop. But to not feed the soil is to mine the soil, an unsustainable practice over time.
Forty years ago, Senator Herb Sparrow and his agriculture committee issued a report titled “Soil at Risk: Canada’s eroding future.” Since then, climate change has further impacted soil health, an issue that’s being championed today by Senator Robert Black. He’s chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry which has heard from 100-plus witnesses on the status of soil health in Canada. Several key themes have emerged from the committee’s findings.
Soil health and climate change are linked. Erosion during weather events, changing rainfall patterns and hotter temperatures all affect soil health. Canadian horticulture is being affected from coast to coast. The atmospheric river in British Columbia in November 2021 was felt hardest in the Fraser Valley. Deluges of rain ruined vegetable and fruit crops along Québec’s St Lawrence basin during the summer of 2023. The Maritimes experienced its warmest July ever in 2023. And Taber, Alberta, the heart of potato country, broke heat records on August 14, 2023 with a temperature of 36.6°C.
Confronting such gloom, Croptimistic Technology Inc has developed proprietary soil mapping tools that track electrical conductivity to water flow paths and topographic elements. This technology is already in use in Prince Edward Island potato fields according to CEO Cory Willness based in Saskatoon. In a bit of clever branding, he has aptly named his mapping system as Soil Water and Topography (SWAT).
Too often, the issues of soil health and water health have lived in silos. But as Senator Black has noted, “The impact of soil stressors affects our ability to access food, the quality of our water and ecosystems, and the livelihoods of many Canadians.”
In a timely publication in October 2023, the Canadian Agri-food Policy Institute (CAPI) released “A National Agri-Food Water Action Plan.” The report’s authors, Tyler McCann and Angèle Poirier, write, “Whether it’s the boundary waters of the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, the St. Lawrence River, or the great rivers that flow from the Rockies into the Prairies, all agronomists and experts agree that water quality is linked to soil health. Healthy soil is like an athlete. It doesn’t need constant medication in order to perform.”
These voices and others will play an increasingly vital role in calling attention to the importance and benefits of improving Canada’s soil and water health.
In this Digging Deeper podcast, The Grower is speaking with Senator Robert Black. After a year of criss-crossing the country, talking to farmers and experts, Senator Black says that a report on soil health is expected in 2024. He’s chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. Listen here >>