Talking Dirt: New Soil Health Centre Backs Intuition With Science

Soil preservation is gaining seatbelt and sugarless gum status in our society. It’s simply no longer optional. Some soil advocates are now calling for every agricultural grant application to have a tick box explaining how the proposed project exercises best soil management practices. No doubt, pressure is mounting to acknowledge the unparalleled role those first few inches of soil play in keeping most of us fed.

That makes the time right for new, and more, evidence-based approaches to soil conservation, preservation, and health.

Some organizations, such as the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) and the Soil Conservation Council of Canada have long been involved in soil preservation. So have farmers, pioneers like Ontario’s Don Lobb, who have been involved in these organizations.

In fact, back in 1984, the federal Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, examined soil and water conservation throughout Canada. Later, filing its heralded Soil At Risk report, committee chair and Saskatchewan farmer senator Herb Sparrow, wrote there is, in fact, considerable work going on at the farm level to conserve Canada’s agricultural soils.

“But this work goes on in spite of, rather than because of, general economic conditions and government policies,” he said.

Earlier this year, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) tabled Sustaining Ontario’s Agricultural Soils: A Shared Vision. In that report, minister Jeff Leal noted healthy soil is the basis for a strong, sustainable agri-food system. He said consumers need to pay attention.

“Healthy soils support the production of healthy food which in turn contributes to healthy Ontarians and a strong economy. All Ontarians benefit from healthy soil through the local foods we all enjoy, the raw materials we need to develop our bioeconomy, and the environmental benefits that farmers provide through their stewardship of Ontario’s rich agricultural lands,” he wrote.

The latest effort to keep soil health front and centre is the University of Guelph’s new Soil Health Interpretive Centre, located at the Elora Research Station. It’s a significant initiative, funded by Grain Farmers of Ontario, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and OMAFRA through its knowledge transfer and technology project, and operated by the university’s School of Environmental Sciences in partnership with the OSCIA. The centre features a $2 million lysimeter infrastructure project (lysimeters measure the water in the spore spaces of soils), supported by the Canada Foundation of Innovation and the Ontario Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science.

The breadth of funding partners shows how soil health has gained the attention of decision makers. Prof. Claudia Wagner-Riddle, the centre’s director, says that’s because of the realization that healthy soil is related to such a wide range of issues – improved water quality, crop yields and carbon sequestration, among them.

“Soil receives rainfall, returns vapour to the air and filters water moving towards the groundwater,” she says. As far as sustainability goes, its health is absolutely key.

And while soil has a defined top and bottom, it is difficult to measure what is moving through that environment without disturbing the movement. As society asks harder and more specific questions about how farmers manage their soil, having detailed information about water movement and soil is more important than ever.

A monolith
A monolith

That’s where the lysimeter project comes in. It involves 18 open-air one-square-metre barrel-like soil units (called “monoliths”), sunk 1.5 metres deep into the ground, connected through dozens of highly sensitive sensors. They can detect differences as small as a 10 grams in the three tonnes of soil in each monolith.

The sensors allow water and nutrient movement to be minutely tracked at various depths, under real conditions, and the self-contained units allow researchers to monitor the physical, chemical and biological make-up of the soil.

The new knowledge will complement existing on-farm know-how, says University of Guelph Ridgetown campus soil expert Prof. Laura van Eerd, keynote speaker at the interpretive centre’s open house Thursday. She advocates five steps for better soil health: crop diversity, cover crops, organic amendments such as manure and spent mushroom compost, permanent cover such as alfalfa, and grasslands.

“Growers are asking for measures of soil health, but intuitively, they know what it is,” she says.

In many cases, they’re already actively pursuing it. Now, the interpretative centre will help them better understand the science behind that intuition.

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