Moving from simplistic solutions to more sustainable Farming practices is... complicated.

It’s not the food commodities such as corn, soybeans and wheat that set Mike Strang’s fields apart from others, it’s his focus on feeding the soil as well as people.  

The Exeter, Ont. farmer has embraced a suite of farming practices designed to keep living roots growing in his soil for as much of the year as possible, which is no small feat in northern climes. 


It has immensely complicated his farming system and there is no clear path to a payoff. 


So, what’s the point? For him, farming is about more than focusing on the short-term opportunities to make money. 


Exeter is on the front lines of a movement loosely defined as “regenerative agriculture,” which looks beyond the short-term returns to protecting the soil and water resources underpinning food production. 


It was always embedded in me early on,” Mike said.

Erosion always bothered me. I would see this erosion and wanted to prevent it. We went to no-till and strip till and that didnt even quite cut it. Maybe Im lazy, but tillage seems like a lot of work with filling in rills and erosion gullies. Id rather just have a cover crop in there.”


When Mike moved home after graduating with a university degree in agronomy to farm with his uncle and father Keith they were already starting to move away from annual tillage. He now farms with his father and brother Geoff, who worked as a laser robotics engineer in the automotive industry before moving home to farm.


Many farmers are stopped by the economics — the costs of labour, seed and equipment to apply cover crops or move to reduced tillage.


For Strang, the use of conservation practices is driven by the practical solutions they provide to challenges on the farm.


While there are more farmers like Strang converting to soil-conserving practices all the time, the majority of crop producers continue to employ farming practices that rely on tight rotations of a short list of single-season crops that leave the land barren for a significant part of the year. That’s seen as detrimental to the veritable ocean of microorganisms living below the surface. It also sets the stage for erosion to occur. 


What’s more, monoculture fields and tight crop rotations are easy targets for disease and pests.


The reasons why adoption of on-farm techniques that would benefit soil health and diversity lag are based on many of the pillars that underpin modern agriculture.


Take corn for example, which evolved from a wild grass to dominate North and South American agriculture. Its   productivity and profitability as a grain makes it a permanent fixture in many farmers’ crop rotations. 


The Green Revolution, widely recognized as saving a billion people from starvation in the 1960s, also set the stage for the current mindset around crop production.


Its greatest advocate was Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist and plant breeder. His work is credited with saving a billion people from starvation.


For his efforts he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


Borlaug developed semi-dwarf, high-yield and disease-resistant wheat varieties and led their introduction to farmers in Mexico, Pakistan and India. The transformation in those nations’ food security was  nothing short of miraculous. 

Mexico became a net wheat exporter by 1963. Indian and Pakistan saw wheat yields double between 1965 and 1970.

One side-effect of this success, however, is that farmers saw the success and mimicked it, leading to fewer staple crops, grown with heavy use of fertilizer and pesticides to offset the decline in diversity. 

Fast-forward six decades and there is renewed interest, at least on the policy front, in re-establishing biodiversity, and focusing on how farmers farm will be on the forefront. 

That’s because crops cover more than 11 per cent of the earth’s land surface, a figure that is growing ever year, as grasslands are tilled and forests razed.

Changing that’s going to depend on more than just biology, or even agronomy. It’s going to mean addressing the economics and  sociological factors that drive farmer decision-making.  

Encouraging the development of systems with greater biodiversity will require cultivating a new way of thinking about managing the soil. 

Based on recent farmer surveys, the ways to change are based in economics, creating supportive communities that involve other farmers and their crop advisors and providing evidence of the value of making change on their farms. 

In many ways it comes down to managing risk, especially financial risk, which is critical for farmers who are fastidious about keeping of control of the risks they can manage — compared to the ones they can’t such as weather and global markets.

Farmers — as many business people do — work to simplify their systems to help manage risks.

“One factor that popped up again and again were cost factors, reduction in profits, the financial component,” said Richard Vyn an associate professor of agricultural economics at the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus who completed a recent survey of farmers on factors that affected farmers who did and did not adopt a list of six conservation practices. 

They included the use of cover crops, crop rotations, reduced tillage or strip tillage, soil testing, the use of windbreaks or buffer strips and the use of organic amendments (like manure or compost).

Taking on new farm practices on a large farm requires significant technical knowledge, says J. Arbuckle a rural sociologist at the University of Iowa. 

“It’s not a simple thing to look at a 2,000-acre grain operation and say let’s incorporate cover crops. There are different types of soil, equipment and climatic conditions,” he said. The systems are more complex and take more knowledge and management.

“That’s where the technical know-how is important on the risk management side of things.”

Arbuckle and other colleagues in the United States recently published a meta-analysis — a look at numerous studies — about how farmers adopt, or don’t adopt soil conservation practices. He and his colleagues also conducted in-person interviews with farmers.

He says the most innovative work in soil and water conservation practice adoption is focused on systems thinking. Farmers who see their farm practices as interconnected and tied to larger systems are more likely to adopt practices that have effect on the larger community.

“We don’t know how to cultivate or teach that, but it’s something that we need to pay attention to,” he said.

What makes a systems thinker?

The Strang family would be considered systems thinkers, running a farm that is significantly more complex than an average farm.


For Strang, the use of conservation practices is driven by the practical solutions they provide to challenges on the farm.


“I basically ignore the economics. I’m not really thinking about it and I don’t disagree with people who say in the short term you are money behind growing the cover crops. We are trying to find ways of putting those cover crops in as cheaply as possible, but still there are costs there.”


For some practices, the economics are well-proved. Rotating wheat with corn and soybeans provides a five to six per cent increase in corn yield and 10 to 14 per cent increase in soybean yield, according to University of Guelph research in 40-year rotation trials.


“The problem is making the decision for the current year,” says Vyn. “I can understand why they would be hesitant to include wheat in that year if they are taking a financial hit for that year.”


Yet many farmers, especially in the American Midwest rotate only between corn and soybeans. In Ontario, leaving wheat out of the crop rotation makes the system simpler, with less equipment, less work in the middle of summer and less risk.


Changing the culture

In Western Canada, the system is similarly simple, with many producers rotating between a cereal crop such as wheat and the oilseed canola. 


But that production region is also an example of how things can and do change.

In the early 1970s, local smart-alecks described the typical crop rotation for Saskatchewan as “wheat, summerfallow, wheat.” 


The Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan wanted to change that. A new crop, rapeseed, later renamed canola after some genetic tweaking, was already gaining ground.

The centre identified pulse crops (peas and lentils, for example) and flax as other potential winners. They hired plant breeders to try to make that happen.

Al Slinkard was the pulse crop breeder, an American transplant that hailed from the Palouse area of Washington State. He was trying to find a way to make the soil-friendly pulse crops work on the cold and dry Prairies.  


In his home state, farmers grew both peas and lentils. So, although he’d been hired to breed field peas, he also began tinkering with lentils on the side. 


He said that he thought if Saskatchewan farmers could grow peas, and Washington farmers grew both, surely lentils could grow at least somewhere in the province.

By the mid-1970s he was planting trial plots on co-operating farmers’ fields. He told the newspaper that one brave farmer, Bruce Cheston, from near Moose Jaw, decided to grow two whole fields of lentils.

As luck would have it, that decision coincided with a production disaster in the Palouse, the major lentil-growing region in North America at the time. Grain buyers there had already sold some of the expected crop and were suddenly scrambling to fill their obligations.

Slinkard told the the buyers heard about Cheston’s crop, and raced north to buy it.  Cheston had harvested 1,800 pounds an acre, and his selling price translated into gross income of $600 an acre.

“The neighbour across the road was getting about $100 an acre on wheat and after that everybody wanted to grow lentils,” Slinkard said.

And grow them they did. In 15 of the next 16 seasons, lentil acreage in the province steadily grew. In 2020, 3.73 million acres of the nitrogen-fixing crop were planted.

For farmers it’s a question of finding the right balance for their farm that makes them ecologically and economically sustainable.

How does doing the right thing fit into business competitiveness?

Some of our reasons are altruistic,” says Strang. I like to do a bit of fishing. After a big rainfall event I see the creeks and the Morrison Dam fishing holes full of mud, I get a bit discouraged and think we can do better.”


Mounting benefits

The ability to get onto the land in spring and fall due to healthier soil, and the support provided by cover crops is another positive for Strang.


Compaction is also always on the forefront of our mind too. Especially when doing the corn, if you have a nice stand of annual ryegrass in there, when you go to pick the corn and its a little bit wet, weve had instances weve been chased out of the field with a half inch or three quarters of an inch of rain, but were back in the next day with no mud on those tires, right? Thats something once you experience you want to do it again.”


Both Vyn and Arbuckle found that local intelligence and expertise is critical to farmer adoption of new practices.


Bringing agronomists on side with conservation practices is an important step, says Arbuckle as they are the local experts trusted by farmers.


Local trials and demonstrations are highly valued, says Arbuckle.


They are time consuming, difficult, and messier than a typical soil scientist would like, but the payoff is potentially large.”


Both Vyn and Arbuckle found that predictable, longer-term financial incentives would be welcomed by farmers to help reduce the risk of conservation practices, but they are not the other, or even the most important factor.


Just throwing money at this wont have a big impact,” says Vyn. It will have some, but there is more to it. Even if we take care of the cost side of it, theres the time element, the additional machinery, the complexity of figuring out to implement a different kind of practice for which they may not have a whole lot of knowledge.”


For agronomist and researcher Martin Entz, it comes down to finding ways to give farmers winning conditions.

Entz heads up the Natural Systems Agriculture team at the University of Manitoba. 


He agrees that the mindset of modern agriculture will need to shift for the biodiversity push to succeed.


Strang encourages farmers to find someone in their area who has adopted a conservation practice and talk to them about how it works on their soil and in their climate.


Entz says he’s seen first-hand how these sort of informal information exchanges benefit farmers and spread knowledge quickly within the farm community. 


Entz also says there’s a clear role for public policy and efforts within the research community and consumers to enable this change and give farmers a path forward.


Increasingly it seems that the business community is going to drive more engagement in sustainability, and biodiversity on farms is likely to be a big part of that.


Diversity comes from complexity

The Strangs aim to have living roots in their fields year-round. Heres how they organize it:

• Annual ryegrass is planted in between double row corn at the three- or four-leaf stage. Mike Strang says they are still working at how to best make it work. They usually broadcast the seed onto the corn, but would like to be able to drill it in – a challenge in growing corn.


• Soybeans are planted into the ryegrass cover crop planted into corn. They will plant cereal rye after soybeans.


• Edible beans usually follow soybeans. Winter wheat follows edible beans and supplies the roots over the winter after beans.


• Red clover is frost-seeded into winter wheat in the spring, which grows after the wheat crop through the winter to the spring at which point they use strip tillage – which tills only the area to be planted – to prepare the ground for corn plants. 


Contributors: Gord Gilmour, John Greig