Soil That Feeds Ontarians
Written by Ryan Carlow, Soil Health Specialist with the Greenbelt Foundation.
January 31st, 2024
In 2023, the Greenbelt Foundation launched an exciting and innovative Soil Health Program in the Golden Horseshoe in partnership with the Soil Health Institute and several other partners and advisors from across the Ontario agricultural industry. The program combines two measures of soil health: the Soil Health Assessment and Plan from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, as well as the minimum suite of indicators recommended by the Soil Health Institute.
Soil health testing provides an understanding of how well soil performs all of its functions...and how it's being preserved for the future."
What excites me about this program is travelling through this beautiful region of Ontario and meeting farmers to learn about how they do what they do. This fertile region of Ontario contains farms of all sizes, producing anything from vegetables for roadside stands to large-scale livestock operations. Regardless of the size of the farm, they all have one thing in common, they are critical to the industry and the rural communities they operate in. Despite facing pressures from limited access to resources, up and down commodity prices and increasing expenses, farmers persist in the hard, sometimes unseen, labour of feeding Ontarians. I cannot speak more highly of all the participant farmers in our first year who were very gracious to allow us the opportunity to sample their properties and give us some of their precious time to talk about soil health.
As part of the program, the tests are free to farmers growing grain and oilseed crops in the Golden Horseshoe, as well as those with pasture, hay fields or other lands that have been undisturbed for 10 years or more. Farmers receive a detailed report with results for organic matter, carbon stocks, aggregate stability, water holding capacity and more. In addition to their results, each metric is compared to others in the region on similar soil types to allow participants to see how their soils measure up against others. Finally, to help make decisions, each participant receives a customized report with recommendations and resources for the next steps in their soil health journey.
Soil health testing provides an understanding of how well soil performs all its functions (things like carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, water storage as well as sustaining plant and animal life) and how it's being preserved for the future. Because soil is such a critical resource for farmers and for the entire food system, it’s important to understand how best to manage it. Lots of research has been done to determine which farming practices improve soil, but this information has often remained trapped in scientific papers. This program brings detailed soil health data directly to farmers. With our program, farmers in the Golden Horseshoe can have their soil tested to see where they’re currently at and help determine the next steps in their operations. These results can also help demonstrate to farmers how their practices over the years have impacted their soil and highlight areas that may need improvement.
These farmers are not just in the business of crop growth but a common thread across farms in the Golden Horseshoe is the importance of family in achieving farming success. Farms have always been a family operation but in recent years family farm units are looking a little different. Modern farms, owned and rented acres, require multiple people including husbands, wives, parents and children, and siblings; some even have uncles and cousins sprinkled in! Many of these modern farmers are also working off-farm in addition to their farm duties. Not only family but neighbours can also play a critical role in the agricultural system often acting as sources of advice, providing help during busy seasons and sometimes even becoming another operation to share equipment with. The vibrancy of rural communities in and around the Greenbelt is a result of these crucial relationships.
After sampling over 120 sites in 2023 I am excited to continue the program in 2024. This year our team is sampling fields in York, Durham and Niagara Regions, and we are actively recruiting new participants! Sampling is open to all grain and oilseed farmers in the Golden Horseshoe region in 2025 and 2026. Learn more information here.
Image credit: Claire Foran