PhD student launches farming survey on cover crops

·3 min read

A PhD student from the University of Manitoba wants to engage with farmers from Haliburton County to gather information for a study he’s working on focusing on the use of cover crops across Ontario.

Callum Morrison has dedicated the past two years of his life towards investigating cover crops and the potential benefits they provide both to farmers and the environment. Cover crops are generally planted to cover soil in a farmer’s field rather than for the purpose of being harvested.

“This is a really important study, because cover crops are an expanding area of interest,” Morrison told the Echo. “They have tremendous potential to benefit the environment and soils. Governments are starting to watch and take notice too of farmers that are using cover crops. Down in the States, the government is actually incentivizing cover crop use… That could be something we eventually start to see [in Canada] too.”

In an effort to hear how Ontario farmers are using cover crops, Morrison launched an online survey via SurveyMonkey to gauge responses. At the time of speaking with the Echo, Morrison had received responses from 416 farmers. The survey will be available online until April 2.

There are only two regions in which Morrison has not yet had a response – Muskoka and Haliburton County.

“It’s important for us to engage with all types of stakeholders in the industry across all regions. The north is a region that is important. Haliburton and Muskoka, the farmers and the information they have possess great value to the study,” Morrison said. “If I’m doing research into Ontario, I can’t exactly miss out part of Ontario.”

By the time he’s done, Morrison hopes to have engaged with at least 30 farmers from all regions. Far from acting as a lone agent, his study has been backed by 13 different organizations and associations across the province, including the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Grain Farmers of Ontario, the Ecological Farmers of Ontario, the Ontario government and the Ontario Soil Network.

This latest survey follows in the footsteps of a similar project he carried out in western Canada last year, covering parts of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Upon completion of his survey in Ontario, he intends to study the data compiled in both and provide separate reports to industry leaders.

Some of the information he’s received already has been quite interesting, Morrison notes, with only four per cent of farmers who participated in the survey and reported planting cover crops saying they saw a decrease in profits after doing so.

Around 30 per cent of farmers reported seeing no change, 30 percent said they saw a slight profit and 10 percent stated they saw a significant profit.

“While the profits are nice, we’re hearing all sorts of other benefits that farmers are experiencing as a result of planting cover crops. The big one we’re hearing over and over again is general improvements to soil health,” Morrison said. “We’re also hearing reports of reduced erosion, increased soil organic matter, reduced compaction, increased nitrogen, less weeds, more earthworms and some farmers are even saying they need less tillage.” Despite that, Morrison is adamant he is not necessarily an advocate for cover crops.

“I don’t want to say if you grow cover crops you will see financial benefits, necessarily. What I’m doing here is not trying to prove cover crops are great, instead just prove what they are,” Morrison said.

At this stage, he just wants to hear from as many farmers as possible to provide a more well-rounded and complete analysis of the use of cover crops in Ontario.

“I want to hear from people who have grown cover crops and those who haven’t. Their farms can be of any size and any kind. They can be organic, non-organic, fruit and vegetables, livestock, grain – we just want to hear from farmers to expand our knowledge of cover cropping practices in Ontario,” Morrison concluded.

For more information, or to access the online survey, visit surveymonkey.com/r/ontariocovercrop.

Mike Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Haliburton County Echo