New farm research group offers more by pooling resources

Central Ontario soil research and stewardship groups try two-year collaboration

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A partnership based out of Trent University is offering farmers free access to its expertise.

The Quinte Farm Research and Stewardship Collaborative is a two-year initiative described by project co-ordinator Lindsay Nash as a network focused on modern agricultural practices in relation to soil health, water quality and new technologies.

Why it matters: There are many funding programs for agriculture, so any effort to streamline the process can help make it more efficient for farmers.

Network members include the Quinte Soil and Crop Improvement Association, Trent University, the University of Toronto, Lower Trent Region Conservation Authority, Quinte Region Conservation Authority and the Ganaraska Region Conservation Authority.

QSCIA president Amy Petherick referred to it as a great news story that began out of shared concerns.

Amy Petherick. photo: Supplied

“At a lot of trade shows and workshops, as we were discussing our own challenges, we started to notice we had a lot of commonalities in terms of the things we were trying to do and the challenges we were running into,” Petherick said.

“We thought if we banded together and shared resources, we could do more together.”

The network relies on regional growers — from Northumberland, Hastings, Lennox and Addington, and Prince Edward counties — to contact the collaborative to signify their willingness to allow soil and water sampling from their property.

In return, Nash said, “farmers are provided with a free in-depth soil analysis to determine the efficiencies of current farming practices on their fields.

“QFRSC can connect farmers to new technologies and grant programs to keep nutrients on fields, hopefully saving farmers time and money for future growing seasons.”

“It’s an exciting, really unique opportunity for farmers,” Petherick said.

Building soil research in central Ontario

That’s where the Trent University connection comes in, with Karen Thompson and Catherine Eimers heading up teams of students.

Lindsay Nash. photo: Supplied

The teams include a student who did an exchange with Fleming College in Geographic Information Systems studies, a PhD student interested in soil health and water quality and best-management practices, and an undergrad who specializes in water quality in rivers and wells and the impact of different agricultural practices.

As they look forward to sampling, following a delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Thompson said they are reviewing the publicly available data on historical land use and historical water quality to identify trends.

She said federal and provincial funding recently came through to set up a new agricultural soil health lab with a large suite of equipment to extract DNA from soil and amplify different genes.

“We are hoping for at least 20 different sites, to get a big variety of different types across the area,” Thompson said.

On the water side, Eimers said that for the purpose of this collaborative, sampling will preferably take place at operations with tile drains.

“We are sampling water at the outlet of tiles as well as the streams the tiles discharge into,” she explained.

Catherine Eimers. photo: Supplied

“We are trying to engage with farmers themselves to see if, in some cases, they would be willing to take samples for us, and we’ve had some expressions of interest so far. We provide the bottles. You grab a sample, stick it in the fridge and we can pick it up.”

This aligns with her ideal of involving farmers more actively in the research, as opposed to just walking in and taking samples.

The project promises a broad range of engagement, bringing to the table representation from QSCIA, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, members of the farming community, academics and conservation authorities.

“Even the students,” Eimers added.

“They come to all these meetings, they’re not just in the lab.

“They’re getting around, talking to people and seeing how the research means answering questions that matter to people.”

As the holder of a PhD from the University of Guelph, whose colleagues include other Guelph alumni, Thompson is keen to bring more funding and research to the QFRSC area.

“That is one of the gaps in a lot of Ontario-based farm research — so much of it is based in southwest Ontario. We do want to try to collect more data relevant to the farmers of this area,” she said.

Eimers agreed. Having seen so much research centred around the Lake Erie farming community, she is delighted to see some focus on the Lake Ontario community, “which are generally under-represented in research. It’s a great opportunity from that perspective.”

Petherick, who works full-time with her in-laws’ dairy operation at Petherick’s Corners and part-time with her own family’s crop operation in Castleton, is excited about the potential impacts. They specialize in forage, but also grow corn, soybeans and wheat.

“This work has the potential to identify areas of improvement in a proactive way on the farm. It will also set us up nicely for some follow-up projects.”

Nash said the network is looking for more farmers to participate in the group.

The ideal farm for the collaborative’s purposes would be one that primarily grows a corn-soybeans-wheat rotation (with perhaps some cover crops or manure applications) and preferably an operation with tile drains.

But with other projects set to come on line, Petherick added that they would like to hear from any interested farmer in the region.

One such project was approved in November in a cost-sharing arrangement with the Canadian Agricultural Partnership. It involves a Trent University project that aims to examine the impact of agricultural best-management practices to enhance water quality and soil health in the Bay of Quinte watershed.

If an operation is not specifically right for QFRSC research, Petherick said, there will be other projects it could further. And when appropriate, there will be the potential to share the sampling acquired from voluntary partners in the region’s agricultural community.

Members of the agricultural community interested in helping out with this work are asked to contact Nash ([email protected]), Eimers ([email protected]), Thompson ([email protected]) or Petherick ([email protected]).

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