Ontario's Soil Health Strategy: a 12-year roadmap with short-term funding


Ontario has released its provincial soil health strategy, a long-term framework that sets the vision, goals, and objectives for soil health and conservation in Ontario beginning this year and through to 2030.

A 12-year strategy is lengthy in government program terms, but hardly a blip when we’re talking soil health, research, and improvement. Can Ontario actually achieve what it sets out to accomplish in such a short time?

Read the Soil Health Strategy here

The outline is a good one — there’s a focus on keeping soil covered, incorporating forages into rotation, and measuring organic matter changes over time. As with any best-laid plans, the success of the strategy hinges on the implementation.

Some of these goals will be easier to achieve than others. I, for one, am glad to see there’s discussion about developing markets for forage alongside the call for adding them to rotations, and there’s mention of compensation or support for manure/digestate purchases. Some of these changes will be easily adopted, but some — like eliminating or drastically reducing tillage — are going to be much more complicated to achieve.

Why? Because a document like this one lays out a plan for significant change in land management practices, and change is hard.

Woody Van Arkel, who farms at Dresden, Ontario, sat on the working group of this soil health strategy, representing Innovative Farmers of Ontario. He says the entire process started with first building a basic understanding of soil structure, organic matter’s role in soil, and how crops interact with soil. From there, one of the big questions was identifying not just the desired outcomes of a soil strategy but also the barriers to achieving change.

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One of the major barriers is the cost of change, tied up in swapping high-disturbance for low-disturbance equipment, but another, perhaps larger, barrier is the time and effort a management change of this magnitude requires.

Incorporating no-till and cover crops into grain production requires another level of management and patience, Van Arkel says. “You’re waiting on fields, doing things in a different order, with another layer of complexity,” he says. And then sometimes Mother Nature throws you a curveball. All of that change has to happen gradually to reduce the risk of a real wreck, but how do you know what to change and when?

And that’s another barrier, Van Arkel says, as there is certainly a lack of Ontario-centric research informing crop practices with soil health in mind.

There’s also a frustration that while these soil health strategy goals span more than a decade, most funding for research is short-term, spanning two or maybe three years, alone.

What’s more, Van Arkel says that the way we fund change is inherently flawed. “The way things are set up for funding, it helps a farmer buy a drill, but what if the next year they give up on no-till?” Van Arkel would rather see practices rewarded per year on an opt-in basis vs. funding equipment cost-share.

The idea of funding a practice and not equipment means that farmers can achieve the goals in a way they see fit, without being held to a certain part of a certain program. It would also mean that early adopters of cover cropping or reduced tillage could still participate in some of the rewards for promoting soil health, something that’s not readily apparent in the final strategy.

“Let’s say there’s a scale from 1-10 (for soil health practices),” he says, 10 being a full-on, zero-till, cover-cropping, soil-health saint. “We need support and encouragement to take a farmer from a one to a three, but also a seven to a 10.”

Regardless of provincial plans, Van Arkel says that If you can only change one thing this year, leave your soil covered. “I don’t care if it’s a live cover crop, a dead cover crop, or residue, whatever. Just cover it.”

Highlights from the soil health strategy:

  • The strategy’s goals, objectives and actions are divided into four theme areas to address different aspects of the issues: Soil Management, Soil Data and Mapping, Soil Evaluation and Monitoring and Soil Knowledge and Innovation
  • A stated need for more soil testing results aggregated in a central database
  • A five-part goal of: Building soil organic matter; Diversifying crops; Minimizing soil disturbance; Keeping living roots throughout the year; and, keeping the soil covered
  • A goal to increase soil organic carbon to reverse the decline in soil organic carbon and stabilize or increase soil organic carbon over time
  • A goal to reduce soil erosion risk – lower risk of erosion and area of cropland in higher risk categories over the long term.
  • A goal to increase soil cover – reduce the area of cropland with bare soil over winter
  • The strategy sets out development of a Food and Organic Waste Framework that will help to reduce the amount of food that becomes waste and recover resources from food and organic waste intended to create safe and beneficial end-products such as compost and digestate. Compost and digestate can be used as a soil amendment for agricultural and some horticultural applications.

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