Sustainable Farming, Climate Change, and Innovation

Sustainable farming starts with soil

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There are 10 main soil orders in Canada, which are divided into groups, families, and series, to cover hundreds of different soil types across the country. The Soils of Canada website, developed by a network of Canadian soil scientists, is a great place to learn more about soils across the country: The last Ice Age, combined with climate cycles and plant and animal growth and decay over millions of years, has built Canada’s soils into what they are today. The type of soil found on a farm — and how farmers look after it — influences what crops a farmer can grow and how to best grow them.

Why organic matter matters

Organic matter in the soil includes decaying plants, microbes, bacteria, and other microorganisms. It’s a great nutrient source, a habitat for soil organisms, and improves the water-holding capacity of the soil. The more organic matter you have, the healthier your soil, and the more productive it will be for producing food.

Quick fact:

Soils have unique characteristics that can influence the flavour and character of grapes and wines and other crops like ginseng. Wine lovers call this effect “terroir”.

Did you know...

It can take between 100 and 500 years to build two centimetres of topsoil. Sustainable soil management helps rebuild topsoil by slowly adding organic matter from the previous year’s crop.

Isn’t soil the same as dirt?

In a word, no! Soil is a living environment that’s ideal for growing crops. It’s a complex mixture of small particles of sand, silt and clay, decaying plant residue, earthworms, bacteria, fungi, insects, and micro-organisms. In fact, there’s a whole fascinating world under the ground that’s just as important to producing food as what’s above ground — and farmers, soil scientists, and others still have a lot to learn about soil microbiology and how it influences the way plants grow. Dirt, by comparison, is simply dead soil. As such, the title of this magazine should maybe have been The Real Soil on Farming!

Listening to what the soil is saying

Farmers have long been sampling their soils to know how much nutrients (like nitrogen or phosphorus) they need to apply. But new technology is providing a whole new picture of what’s underground. New sensor systems can measure gamma radiation emitted by the natural decay of soil, or the wavelengths that nutrients reflect. This imaging helps to create high-resolution digital maps of each farm field, showing their chemical and physical properties that aren’t visible to the human
eye. This reading in turn helps farmers to make better decisions when it comes to managing and improving their soil health.

Measuring how much carbon is in the soil

The soil’s ability to sequester carbon is one way to minimize the impacts of climate change, but there’s been no way to quantify soil carbon concentration in an affordable, accessible way. New technology, developed in part by a Québec-based start-up called Chrysalabs, is changing that problem, and could expand market opportunities for farmers to receive payment for their efforts to sequester carbon in the soil.