The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs is in the process of generating an Agricultural Soil Health and Conservation Strategy in collaboration with partner organizations, and has invited the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association to contribute.
The first step is the discussion paper called “Sustaining Ontario’s Agricultural Soils: Towards a Shared Vision” now available for comment.
The strategy takes aim at the apparent increasing risk of soil degradation in Ontario and the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association is encouraging farmers to mark Ontario Agriculture Week (Oct. 3-9) in a positive way by contributing commentary on behalf of the farming community. Gord Green, OSCIA president and dairy farmer, says now is the time to voice the perspective of primary producers, not after new policies emerge. But before they do, Green urges farmers to also consider what philosophies they want to see in practice.
“This strategy will lay the basic ground work as to what we should be doing, it’s taking a stand that we can build on in a practical sense,” he explains. “Anyone can and will state good things about the benefits of soil health, but we have to go at it with the right philosophy to truly promote positive change.”
Evidence suggests change in some farming practices may be necessary and Green believes all farmers should consider what might pertain to them. As an example, he offers agri-environmental indicators developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada which estimates 82 per cent of Ontario’s cropland is losing soil organic carbon and 54 per cent now has a high risk of soil erosion above the annual rate of regeneration. Farmers intent on protecting soil health on higher risk sandy and loam soils may need to question their current logic for selecting only annual crops, limited rotations, or varying degrees of tillage.
Paul Smith, senior policy advisor for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs, emphasizes the need for farmers, farm organizations, governments and other partners to work in collaboration on developing the soil strategy. The discussion paper proposes a draft vision and draft goals and objectives for our agricultural soils and invites comment and asks eight questions for people to respond to. All aspects of soil health and conservation are explored in the paper. How farmers manage soils benefits from having good soil information and mapping for decision making. Having the best advice on soil management for farmers means we need universities and colleges to offer the right types of courses and do research on the right topics. Educational tools like the Environmental Farm Plan and incentives for best management practice adoption also play an important role.
Preliminary discussions have already identified significant challenges for improving soil health in the province. Some Ontario soil resource inventory maps still have not been digitized and digital elevation data and Geographic Information System (GIS) coverage of agricultural land remains limited. Thousands of soil test results, both private and publicly funded, offer a wealth of data for monitoring soil health but a central system for collecting this information has never been developed. Demand continues to grow for a validated on-farm soil health test. Surveys also show a significant decline in soil science program enrollment in both Canada and the United States as emphasis on soil science at universities worldwide continues to decrease. If supported by the industry, possible actions resulting from the development of this strategy could include contemporary updates to information resources, the production of a farm-scale soil health test, and renewal for soil science programs at colleges and universities across the province.
Both the ministry and Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association strongly encourage farmers to review the full paper for themselves and provide their own input into the process using the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs web site, the Environmental Registry or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.