The Ontario government’s soil health strategy is a sprawling plan that aims to provide industry guidance on improving soil health out to 2030. It plans to do that by bringing farm groups, government and agribusiness together to provide the drive to make change happen.
Why it matters: Crop farming practices have changed in Ontario, with fewer acres in pasture and perennial forages meaning an increase in tillage. The result is continued decrease in soil organic matter and greater risk of erosion.
This is the first time Ontario has created a soil strategy, said Paul Smith, the OMAFRA senior policy advisor in charge of the soil strategy. In the past there would have been single initiatives, but not a central plan.
Smith says that the impetus for the new soil strategy includes the reduction in forage crops and pasture in the province and an increase in tillage. The 2016 Census showed a small increase in tillage from 2011 to 2016. He also says that the scientific view of soils has changed, including more focus on soil ecology and on the management of soil organisms. Farmers are also making use of new soil maintenance practices, including the use of cover crops.
The first wave of soil conservation efforts in the 1970s and 1980s focused on erosion and reduced tillage.
“It was largely a success,” said Smith. “Things have improved significantly since then.”
The strategy was created under the supervision of a working group with representatives from farm groups, government and crop service companies.
The working group members will also be part of a “governance” structure, with membership across the industry that will have responsibility for implementing the soil strategy.
Smith said OMAFRA is just starting consultations on what that group should look like to help drive improved soil health from now to 2030.
The approach is unique in Canada, said Smith, although there’s industry-wide engagement in the U.S. and the U.K. on soil health.
“They are dealing with the same issues we are, with more emphasis on annual crops and how to manage the shift from perennial crops to annual crops.”
Grain Farmers of Ontario was one of the industry groups involved in the steering committee. Crosby Devitt, GFO’s vice president of strategic development said the strategy is important and necessary, but the “real impact comes with implementation, with good partnering. It has to make sense to the farmer, they have got to want to do it, it has to be ground-truthed and something that doesn’t expose them to a big risk over the short term.”
The 68-page strategy looks at four “themes” that include:
This area talks about variability in soils across the province and even within a field and acknowledges that means farmers are best placed to influence soil management. Best management practices such as reducing tillage, keeping soil covered, diversifying crop rotation, controlling erosion, minimizing compaction and applying organic amendments are emphasized.
Soil mapping and data
The province has started to create updated soil maps, but the strategy acknowledges it is a long-term project for the entire province. Greater soil testing is encouraged, especially long-term monitoring of organic matter levels. New technology such as precision agriculture and remote sensing could have an impact on soil data gathering.
Soil evaluation and monitoring
Soil health is not monitoring at any significant scale across the province. It would take an industry-wide effort, and some discussions on data privacy in order to make a change.
Soil knowledge and innovation
There’s still much to be understood about soil and its complex biology, so research needs to continue to be targeted to soil health. Delivering information to farmers and service providers requires changing with the needs of the recipients of the information.
Collaboration is a key theme of the provincial soil strategy and Smith emphasized the importance of industry buy-in to the implementation of the strategy. He also said the working group heard clearly that different farmers need different solutions and expertise.
Cattle farmers, who maintain pasture and grow forage crops have different soil health information needs from hog farmers, for example.
“It really depends what you grow and where you grow it, what your crop rotations is. We’ll need to customize the approach for a particular farm or a particular field,” he said.
One of the biggest barriers to the adoption of more soil-friendly practices is the need for annual crops to make money based on annual budgets. That means it is harder to see the economic benefits on a year-by-year basis.
Smith said longer-term economic modelling needs to be done on the impact of soil health on farm profitability and productivity.
“It’s what a lot of farmers say. They need to make a living on an annual basis and it is a business.”
He says that there are new technologies that could create new agribusiness opportunities, such as geographic imaging systems, that can also help farmers to manage the health of their soil.
There is still a lot to learn about soil, said Devitt.
“Soil is really complex,” he said, adding that GFO has been working on soil health.