Today, farmers widely use crop-growing methods like conservation tillage (working the soil as little as possible), strip-tilling (only working a narrow strip where seeds will be planted) or no-till (not working the soil at all). With strip-till and no-till, leftover material like roots and stalks from the harvested crop are left in the field, and the next crop is planted directly into that ground-covering material. These types of tillage can give the soil improved structure and nutrients, prevent soil erosion, improve water conservation and flood management, and promote populations of beneficial insects and micro-organisms. Bonus: no-till isn’t just good for the soil; it’s also less work for farmers, and because they’re using less fuel to prepare a field for planting, there are fewer greenhouse gas emissions too. By following these farming methods, farmers are actually taking greenhouse gases out of the environment, and putting them into the soil through a process called carbon sequestration. This process results in some areas of the Prairies now being net zero greenhouse gas emitters. New crops that are tolerant to specific herbicides can have environmental benefits as well, because farmers growing these crops can use a spray to kill weeds, instead of having to churn up the soil to get rid of them. And the most modern sprayers now use smart systems with cameras to identify weeds in the field, and only to apply the herbicide to the weeds, instead of the entire crop.
Did you know...
During photosynthesis, plants release oxygen, and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This captured carbon dioxide can be stored in organic matter in the soil — also part of carbon sequestration.
Plant science innovations are reducing diesel fuel usage by millions of litres every year, just from farmers having to drive less over their fields.
Part of sustainable farming means leaving the land productive for future generations — an approach to soil health called regenerative agriculture. It’s a new term for something that farmers have been doing for decades: putting emphasis on improving soil health over time. Key principles include disturbing the soil as little as possible; using livestock and their manure to improve soil health; growing diverse crops from year to year; and making sure the soil is covered at all times. All of these techniques improve the water and mineral cycle, and reduce the impact of climate change by sequestering or keeping carbon in the soil.
Keeping soil healthy by rotating crops
As part of sustainable farming, many farmers grow one type of crop in a given field one year, a different one the next, and yet a different one again in the following year, instead of just growing the same crop in the same field year after year. That process is called crop rotation. Every crop is affected by specific pests and diseases, and rotating crops reduces those risks. It also lets crops with different types of root structures add diversity to the soil, and to pull nutrients and moisture from different soil depths, so that the soil stays healthy and productive. Farmers across Canada use different crop rotations, depending on where they farm. In Prince Edward Island, a typical rotation cycles potatoes, grain (such as wheat or barley), and forages (grasses to feed cattle). On the Prairies, by comparison, it’s common to grow grain (oats, wheat, or barley), then oilseeds (canola, canary seed, flax, or sunflowers), followed by legumes (field peas, beans, lentils, or chickpeas).