By Trevor Busch
As part of an effort to better understand soil health on the Canadian prairies, the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry recently completed a fact-finding mission in Western Canada.
In late August, senators met with farmers and ranchers throughout the region to examine soil conditions, identify ways to improve soil health, address the effects of climate change and help Canadian producers become sustainability leaders.
“The impetus for the whole study really comes from the heart and soul of our committee chair Rob Black. Rob spent his whole life working in agriculture and agricultural education,” said Senator Paula Simons, who hails from Alberta and was part of the tour as a committee representative. “For him, the state of the Canadian soil has been a concern for a long time. And he wanted us to do a follow up to the quite well known in his day Senate report, the Sparrow Report, which came out in 1984, which was the first look at soil health in Canada. By the time our report comes out, it will be 40 years. So he felt that it was time to update because so much has changed in those 40 years.”
A lot has changed in farming practices on the Canadian prairies in those four decades in adopting new techniques that are less damaging and input-intensive for the soil.
“On the one hand, some things have improved on the prairies. In that time period, Prairie farmers in particular adopted no till as a strategy for their fields,” said Simons. “So they’re not destroying or tilling the land, and causing topsoil to blow away. And by adopting those techniques, which have happened over the last 20 to 30 years, farmers on the prairies have actually done a miraculous thing, and really limited topsoil erosion, and adopted these strategies puts lots more soil organic carbon back in the earth. So we want to look at the good things that have happened. But also the stressors on soil, which include erosion, and pollution, which is not something that I think we’ve looked at so much in the 1984 report. And the tricky one for us is land use planning/urbanization, because as a federal institution, we know and respect the fact that land use planning is provincial-municipal-county jurisdiction.”
The Senate committee has heard from farmers, scientists, agri-business people, association leaders, Indigenous producers, environmentalists and government officials, and completed another fact finding mission to Guelph, Ont. in April 2023.
Simons is concerned about utilizing land with excellent growing potential for purposes other than agriculture, which has been a recent issue in Alberta with some rural municipalities pressing for rules and guidelines regarding renewables development.
“We also know that it’s important that we have policies that don’t incent people to pave over or build upon our very best premium soil. And finally, what we wanted to look at is the whole issue of carbon sequestration. We wanted to talk about agricultural techniques, whether that’s grazing practices or planting practices that encourage the sequestration of carbon. We’ve spent billions of dollars to build carbon sequestration plants. And the plants themselves have known how to sequester carbon for millennia. And so sometimes we need to get out of the way and let them do their job.”
Simons serves as the deputy chair of the Senate ag committee, and she wanted her fellow senators to see what Western Canada had to offer.
“I really felt it was important that my Senate colleagues from other parts of the country see the way we do agriculture on the prairies, which is quite different than the way it’s done in Ontario, or Quebec, or the Maritimes or British Columbia, because of the nature of our soil and the nature of our landscape.”
The tour commenced in Saskatoon with some time at the University of Saskatchewan meeting with professors and academics working in microbiology and agronomy, before touring an environmental management services company in Saskatoon that got its start in soil pollution clean up in the oil and gas industry before moving into maximizing soil potential for farmers.
“Then we got to Alberta, which is of course the best part – Saskatchewan was wonderful, but I’m from Alberta, so I’m biased. And in Alberta, I wanted to make sure that we met with people from a really wide range of farming practices,” said Simons. “So we started off in the foothills visiting the South Porcupine Ranch, which is north of Fort Macleod. We visited with ranchers… and they are passionate about preserving native grasslands, building herds almost entirely on grasslands that have never been touched, never been ploughed, never been planted. So this is the authentic natural grasslands. And it was beautiful country, so it was really remarkable for my colleagues from other provinces to see.”
In Alberta, the committee team investigated different cropping techniques that have been developed to maximize various soil types and conditions.
“We visited Kevin Auch who is the head of Pulse Canada, who farms near Carmengay. Very dry land, he relies on irrigation to get the best possible out of his dry, sandy soil. He’s using techniques like intercropping,” said Simons. “And then we ended up visiting a forage farmer and rancher in Irricana, who is not on native pasture land. But he’s taken land that was used for crops at one time and put it back to pasture for his cows. So, by incorporating cattle back into the lifecycle of the land, he is eliminating the need for things like nitrogen inputs. And at the same time, he is providing forage for his cattle along with what he can grow on the land.”
Post-secondaries in Alberta are playing their part in helping to develop strategies and technologies to help ag producers.
“So we visited Olds College, the college of agriculture and technology, and got a look at what they’re testing out in terms of equipment with smart agriculture and precision agriculture, using everything from drones to robot combines to reduce the amount of synthetic inputs farmers need, because they can target their nitrogen very precisely so we’re not overusing it,” said Simons. “Because overusing nitrogen is bad for the soil itself.”
Many Western Canadians take a dim view of what the Senate has to offer, but Simons wants people to know senators are involved in real work advancing agricultural interests on the prairies.
“I think the tour was a tremendous success. We interviewed many people in the course of this study, we’ve heard from almost 100 witnesses now. But it’s one thing to have a professor or a farmer tell you something over Zoom, and something quite different to get out on the land and see the soil and see the condition of the soil and to literally get our hands dirty, touching the soil. I also think in addition to making this a much better report for the Senate, I think also it’s really important that Albertans who are sometimes a bit cranky about the Senate, get to see senators out in the wild watching us in action. It’s been a tremendous boon for us as senators and our staffers who are working on the soil study. But it’s also really important outreach for the Senate, for people to see that, yes, these are senators tromping around the foothills meeting farmers on their own terms at their own site.”
While the committee works on finalizing the information they have gathered thus far, Simons doesn’t want the report to be a stodgy, high-level document unread by anyone other than policy makers.
“We hope to have the report ready by the spring or early summer of 2024. It will come in the form of recommendations to the government. But we want it not just to be read by cabinet ministers and senior civil servants. We want it to be read by farmers and ranchers all across the country. And more than that, we want it to be a catalyst starting conversations with Canadians about the importance of soil and soil health. We want it to be a message that says that some of you know our farmers and ranchers, some of them have not just acquiesced to the idea that climate change is real. They have embraced and stepped up their mission to be on the front lines of doing what they can to mitigate climate change, and to prepare their land for the impacts of the change we’re already seeing. But we also want this to be a report that gets everyone talking about the fact that soil is a finite resource, we only have so much of it. If we waste it either by paving it over, or letting it blow away, or letting it degrade to the point where it doesn’t have organic matter in it anymore at the level it needs to sustain crops, then we are creating damage that is almost irreparable. And if we care about food security in this country, if we care about having a vibrant export sector, and if we care about the long term health of the planet, we all need to be part of finding solutions to protect the soil beneath our feet.”