Standing in an alfalfa field, Carl Israel, 79, picks up a handful of soil, smells it, and notices its softness.
“I remember my dad saying… when you’re out there all day on the plow, you really have an appetite because of the smell of the soil.”
This same soil, essential to the health of crops and livestock, could also play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and help the Canadian government to ambitious goals he announced recently.
Carl’s grandson Brett, 24, says that by adopting a series of regenerative farming techniques like those used on his family’s 3Gen Organics operation, farmers can reduce agricultural emissions while simultaneously improving crop production. soil health.
“Farmers are at the forefront of climate change, we are seeing more intense weather systems,” Brett Israel said. “We therefore need to build resilient systems to overcome these problems and enrich the environment around us.”
Building these resilient systems begins by allowing the soil to capture and sequester more carbon through cover cropping, promoting crop diversity, protecting watersheds and integrating livestock into the farming system, according to Claudia. Wagner-Riddle, an agro-meteorologist at the University of Guelph who studies agricultural emissions and greenhouse gases.
Agriculture is responsible for 10 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. As part of its climate change strategy, the government allocated $ 270 million in its April 19 federal budget to support agriculture and climate-smart solutions, including regenerative agriculture.
“They [regenerative practices] make the system more resilient to extreme weather events or weather events, ”said Wagner-Riddle, adding that keeping carbon sequestered in the soil in organic compounds means that it is not easily accessible to be returned to the environment. atmosphere. carbon sequestration. “
Brett Israel switched to regenerative agriculture five years ago, which includes rotating 20 different crop types on his organic hog farm in Wallenstein, Ontario.
“We have been able to reintegrate forages into our cropping system, keeping the soil covered over the winter, reducing our tillage, which helps us sequester more atmospheric carbon in our soils, and ultimately trying to balance our cattle with our cultivated land.
With the crumbling soil in its hands, tracing intricate root systems and nitrogen nodules, Israel says planting crops like alfalfa, oats or winter wheat all year round instead of leaving the soil bare over the winter – a practice called cover cropping – makes its soil healthier.
“The cover crop may not be feeding my physical cattle or feeding people, [but] it’s fueling the biology under our soil right now. “
It can take up to a decade to see the benefits of regenerative agriculture and carbon sequestration, and the practice has remained a relatively marginal approach to agriculture until recently. But a growing body of research shows its effectiveness in reducing agricultural emissions and improving soil.
“Over the past 10 years, there have been a lot of efforts by various organizations to raise awareness of soil health in order to better measure and be able to tell when the soil is healthy or not,” said Wagner-Riddle.
Standing between two fields at college, one that uses regenerative practices and the other that doesn’t, the side using regenerative techniques is green with the remnants of a radish crop. The other dry and brown. Wagner-Riddle says leaving the fields dormant is a missed opportunity for farmers. Dormant land could be crops, nourish the soil and help offset climate change.
But a major obstacle, she says, is persuading farmers of the benefits.
“Overall it’s extra work for the farmers, isn’t it?” She said. “Basically they have to crash the [cover] harvest by seed without earning income, because you are not selling it to feed people or animals. You use it to nourish the soil. “
Another problem hindering wider adoption has been the difficulty of quantifying the economic and environmental impact of regenerative agriculture, as reliable data is scarce. Wagner-Riddle says she hopes to help address those concerns later this year when she publishes results summarizing the first three years of her study of soil’s ability to store carbon.
Blain Hjertaas also tried to get other farmers to adopt regenerative farming practices. He began using them himself in the late 1990s on his cattle ranch in southeast Saskatchewan, helping to promote both the general health of the soil and the growth of the microbes that live there and which. die there which sequester carbon.
“In my mind, it’s really simple. There are three types of agriculture. There is degenerative, in which the health of the soil decreases. [agriculture], it remains the same, ”he explained.
“Regenerator [agriculture] That’s when we turn the corner and say, oh, we’re gonna make it even better. It is therefore regenerative. “
In recent decades, tillage has been accused of disturbing the soil and advancing erosion. The practice has mostly abated in the Prairies, but Hjertaas says many more changes need to be made to further reduce agricultural emissions.
“We have to capture that sun up there, get the photosynthesis, and get that sugar down to the roots, which feeds the organisms under our feet.”
Hjertaas uses rotational grazing with his livestock to encourage plant regrowth, for example, by naturally distributing nutrients and allowing the roots to grow deeper.
“On this farm, we sequester enough carbon to more than offset the footprint of 400 Canadians [per year]”he said. The average Canadian the carbon footprint is 15.6 tonnes per year.
Hjertaas is confident in these numbers, but admits it’s not an exact science. And unlike organic farming, there are no regulatory bodies for regenerative farming and the practice remains more of a philosophy.
Even so, large companies recognize the benefits and get involved.
Cargill is committed to promoting regenerative agriculture on more than four million hectares of farmland in North America by 2030.
Walmart also announced its intention to become a regenerative business.
General Mills began working with farmers across North America in 2019 to advance regenerative agriculture on approximately 400,000 hectares, a project that includes 45 oat producers in Saskatchewan. The company offers soil testing and coaching to participating farmers, to help offset its own carbon footprint.
Hjertaas is one of the trainers at General Mills. “They have very few greenhouse gas emissions in their own processing, but most of the greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. That is why they want to work with us as farmers producing their products, to get us to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. “
Agriculture is an industry steeped in tradition, and Israel admits that it can be difficult to get some farmers to try something new.
However, he tells others that it’s actually like going back to how his great-grandfather farmed the same land before climate change turned into a crisis.
“At first you get questions and weird looks from the neighbors,” he said, pointing to any grains or unconventional crops he might grow as a pork farmer. But he hopes more farmers will start using regenerative agriculture.
“These [climate change issues] are universal problems, and farmers should take a step. “
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