Grey Bruce Farmers Week gets to the ‘root’ of the situation with soil health

·5 min read

It’s a dirty subject, but one on which agriculture depends – soil health.

It was among the key topics on the agenda of this year’s virtual Grey Bruce Farmers’ Week in January.

Although this year’s format was different, thanks to COVID-19, the 55th annual Grey Bruce Farmers’ Week had the same winning combination that attendees have come to expect for the past half-century in Elmwood – excellent speakers to listen to and chat with, other producers to network with, trade booths with plenty of information, and much more.

The reason, said Lorie Smith of the organizing team, is GBFW is, and always has been, led and driven by farmers. In addition to herself, Nicole Heber and Patricia Ellingwood of Grey Ag Services, there’s a committee of people in the business of agriculture. Many of the presenters were suggested by farmers, for example, Crops Day presenter, Dr. Lee Briese, agronomist from North Dakota, who spoke on Soil and Crop Management: The Details Matter (and yo-yos – those who attended will understand). It means the content is relevant and useful.

Briese spoke about “looking at your farm with fresh eyes” and thinking about “what you want your farm to look like.”

He advised being leery of a “one size fits all” concept – each farm is different, the tools available are different, and “you have to customize your solutions.”

He expressed the hope that some of the things that have worked in North Dakota will give local farmers ideas that will benefit them.

One major factor in North Dakota is erosion – “snow that is black and soil that is white” – as well as washed-out gullies. It’s not something that happened overnight, but took time. It’s going to take time to reverse, too. Briese spoke about adding cover crops to protect the moisture.

“Do what works,” was his key message. If an acre is not paying, do something else there.

He presented messages that were repeated and expanded upon by other Crops Day presenters. Anyone who attended will never look at soil as an inanimate object or call it “dirt” again – it’s alive, and if nurtured and treated well, will continue growing the products that feed us.

In addition to the presentation by Briese, attendees had the opportunity to hear a pre-recorded presentation by Andrew Barrie, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

His presentation was about the topsoil survey being conducted.

“Topsoil is valuable stuff; it’s critical that we protect it and try to build it.”

He said Ontario is losing its topsoil. His project is to “get a baseline to build on for the future.”

To simplify a fairly complex process, the survey entails digging holes on farm properties (with the permission of the owner) and recording data on moisture, depth of the topsoil, texture and structure.

The test results are made available to the farmer; 10 years down the road, the plan is to go back and compare results.

Preliminary results indicate over 80 per cent use crop rotation; 38 per cent use cover crops (which is much higher than it used to be, he said) and three-quarters of the farms were owned as opposed to rented – that’s changing. Results also looked at added organic matter – mostly manure.

Another presenter, Peter Johnson (“Wheat Pete”), told attendees, “Organic matter has always been the ‘holy grail.’” However, as he explained, it’s not the only thing that affects yield.

Soil is mostly minerals, with one to 10 per cent organic matter. In that, five per cent is living – worms, roots, bacteria.

The words of wisdom he offered included, “Sell the straw if you want because the roots are what matters.”

He spoke about increasing microbial activity in the soil, about the immediate benefits of adding manure (cow manure), crop rotation and more.

“Organic matter is really cool!” he said.

Smith commented that Crops Day is always one of the better attended days, and this year was no different. However, thanks to the expertise of CTRE Productions and a lot of advance planning, other speakers were brought in from as far away as New Zealand and Great Britain. This kept attendance up and even brought in new attendees from across Canada – one of the benefits of going completely virtual.

The decision to hold a fully virtual event wasn’t made lightly, or at the last minute. To give themselves plenty of time to organize the best virtual conference possible, Smith said the decision was made in July, 2020.

In an interview on March 19, Smith said the decision on what to do about GBFW22 is going to be even more difficult. No one knows what the COVID-19 situation is going to be. She anticipates a decision by late July for the 56th GBFW.

There are reasons to keep with the virtual format.

“We were able to widen our audience base, and speaker base,” she said.

Sponsors really came through for GBFW21 and some new ones came aboard from all across Canada.

At the same time, people like meeting in person in Elmwood, for many reasons including networking. “And they like the pie,” said Smith, referring to the excellent meals that have become a tradition.

If there’s a return to an in-person conference, livestreaming will be an important part of it, she said.

One thing the virtual conference did was show to a national audience what local people have known for a long time - what an excellent conference and trade show GBFW is. It’s been described as a “hidden jewel” of an event. It’s no longer hidden.

Smith noted a Twitter comment put GBFW right up there with some of the country’s top agricultural conferences and trade shows.

One thing is certain – GBFW22 will be excellent as always, with great speakers, ample networking opportunities, and well-attended – the best agricultural conference and trade show around.

Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Walkerton Herald Times