The international travel that my 2019 Nuffield scholarship has proven to be a real eye opener for this farm boy from Manitoba. It was clear that all of the farmers I connected with are working to achieve a common goal — to contribute to the food supply by harvesting sunlight in our fields. While agriculture is very diverse the world over, one universal topic is water. From flooding to droughts, in dryland farming you might say water is largely out of our control as it is dictated by the weather and general climate patterns. Even in irrigated farming systems there is in fact a great deal of management that contributes to how effective our water use is. This management centers around a systems approach to growing our crops and managing the soil.
The farm ecosystem is very complex but when we realize that water is the lifeblood of all ecosystems and focus on the soil health principles that allow us to better manage water, great things start to happen. Healthy soil allows water to infiltrate more rapidly as opposed to running off and encourages a diversity of plants to grow root exudates, feeding the rich soil biology. This increases the carbon in the soil which allows efficient water use among a multitude of other positive outcomes. The soil that is produced has a sponge like quality for absorbing water, cottage cheese type texture and smells like the soils in your grandmother’s flower garden.
There were many examples of a functioning soil with good use of available water abroad. These included high tunnels growing vegetables in Brazil, pastures in the Netherlands, kiwi fruit production in New Zealand and crop fields in South Dakota. In Mexico, we visited the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) where the first semi dwarf wheat varieties were developed that helped spur the green revolution many years ago. Yield increases from breeding new varieties has mostly levelled off and the current focus is to stay ahead of disease and insect pests.
There was one research plot we passed without much fanfare and it was simply adding diversity through crop rotation and reducing tillage. The benefits of this practice translated to yield increases as high as 20 percent. Many scientists have long preached the value of crop rotation and diversity, but it is the imagination of farmers that is starting to explode and drive this new wave of Regenerative Agriculture.
As spring approaches and many farmers will be doing unplanned tillage to level ruts from a wet harvest season, I challenge all farmers to celebrate Canada’s Ag Day to brainstorm some possibilities to make use of excess water and in the process build soil structure and capacity to handle the weather extremes that are sure to happen this upcoming growing season.
At home in Canada we are blessed with some of the best soils in the world and this is something all Canadians should be proud of! To the the soils that feed us, happy #CdnAgDay!