Soil: The Next Frontier

Posted on Thursday, February 6th, 2020

Written by Owen Roberts

A tractor travels across a dirt field

The relationship between agriculture and food is a natural one—at least for producers, who nurture it daily. But the agri-food connection is increasingly becoming a “eureka moment” for the public, too. People are waking up to the realization that agriculture precedes food, and that what they see on their plate comes from complex agri-food systems.

As they dig deeper into food production, they’re realizing these agri-food systems depend to a great degree on soil health and preservation. That’s promoting a new public interest and fascination with soil, says Prof. Laura Van Eerd, who leads the sustainable soil management graduate research program at the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus. She says the ball really got rolling when the United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soil. Initiatives such as World Soil Day, which had been around since the early 2000s, gained momentum. Soil started to become more a part of the conversation. Lately, that conversation contains some exclamation marks.

People see dramatic examples of soil erosion and mismanagement all around them. They see drastic images of earth sliding down gullies or mountainsides, washing into lakes, seas and oceans. They see good farmland getting paved over or blowing away in dust storms. All this serves to pique their interest, at the very least. However, once they scratch the surface, they also see farmers trying to nurture the soil, conserve it and manage it.

They see grassroots initiatives such as the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) and the Ontario Soil Network, farmer-led extension aimed at increasing soil-building best management practices such as cover crops, minimum tillage and soil amendments. As a result, they’re coming to understand soil is the most fundamental element of the agri-food system. They want to get involved and know more.

“They” also includes industry—seed companies, crop protection companies and other input suppliers aiming at ever-higher yields.

“Three-hundred-bushel-per-acre corn isn’t going to come from a jug or a bag,” says Van Eerd. “These kinds of yields will require years of investing in soil management.”

To her, all this makes soil science “the next frontier.”

Long-term research

Frontiers are rife with challenges and opportunities that require long-term approaches, which is how Van Eerd fashions her soil science research program. At Ridgetown, she oversees a continuous two-acre soil health research plot with her crew of three graduate students, five undergraduate students, a field technician and post-doctoral fellow.

That plot has been active since 2007. It’s one of only a dozen long-term cover crop trials in North America that compare side-byside soil management and plant production. Over that time, she’s had some amazing results.

Van Eerd and her crew have planted sideby-side cover crop plots 143 times, in grain cropping systems and processing vegetable systems. And 141 times, the cover crop plots have produced comparable or superior yields to those of plots without a cover crop.

“These figures are my ‘eureka moments,’” she says. “Soil management is long-term, but we’re showing it doesn’t take a lifetime to see results.”

Van Eerd, who also serves as a research program director for the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance, is seeing her own research program grow even further.

In 2018, she became part of a North America-wide initiative called the Soil Health Institute, dedicated to long-term soil health evaluation. Researchers in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico look at 30 soil health indicators and share results that they hope will benefit producers throughout their network.

As well, she was one of three research recipients of a $500,000 donation to the University of Guelph to support soil health outreach in Ontario, an initiative called Soils at Guelph. All this excitement about soil science means more graduate student opportunities and more jobs. Van Eerd’s program exposes students to a unique blend of soil and plant science. That’s led graduates from her program and other agriculture programs at the University of Guelph to jobs in a variety of fields in government, academia and industry.

Apple rootstocks growing in the field


For example, self-described “soil nerd” Aaron Breimer is general manager of Veritas Farm Business Management in Chatham, Ont. He graduated from the University of Guelph in 2001 with an agriculture degree.

“When it comes to an agronomic crop plan, the soil is the foundation for everything else we want to implement and achieve,” says Breimer. “I believe that every farm operation, farm field and management zone within a field is unique. To me, this means that every crop plan has a unique foundation that comes from researching the uniqueness of that specific soil.”

He believes soil science has very specific applications related to profitability. “Yield is limited by whatever nutrient or soil characteristic is in the tightest supply for the crop,” he says. “In other words, all things being equal when it comes to weather, soil science is the limiting factor to increase yields.”

Add in the complexities involved with soil science—which Breimer describes as physical properties, chemical makeup and biological processes—and every soil test becomes its own unique mystery.

“Trying to unlock the mystery is a great challenge, and cracking those challenges is incredibly rewarding,” he says.

Laura Biancolin graduated from the University of Guelph in 2016 and now works as a program analyst for the OSCIA.

Soil became a big part of her academic life in a fourth-year project analyzing two funding models used to support the adoption of practices that reduced phosphorus losses into drains and creeks. “It opened my eyes to the multitude of research projects, grant programs and pilot projects in southern Ontario, all with the goal of reducing nutrient losses through improved soil health,” she says. “The project introduced me to the farmers that are self-starters, take risks and try out practices with the end goal of creating a system that is economically and environmentally sustainable.”

Biancolin thinks there’s a huge role for communicating about soil—the impact farmers can have on it, and the impact of soil organic matter and soil structure on soil fertility, nutrient cycling, erosion and compaction, and resilience to climatic variables.

“I believe more people would be drawn to soil science if they understood its significance and the amount of time it takes to build organic matter and improve soil structure,” she says.

She encourages students interested in a soil science career to make connections: go on farm tours, talk to neighbours, communicate with local associations and networks, connect with the Ridgetown researchers and Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs extension staff, she suggests.

“The soil world is small and welcoming,” she says, “and the opportunities and directions are endless.” From his travels to Haiti as a University of Guelph plant agriculture master’s student, Cameron Ogilvie learned that soil health is vital—no matter where on this planet you farm or how much land you have. “I travelled there for some service projects and witnessed a lot of deforestation and soil degradation, worsened by poverty and trade embargoes,” he says. “I realized then the importance of soil systems for subsistence farmers. If you can’t afford external inputs such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, you are left to depend on a healthy soil system.”

At U of G, Ogilvie studied cover crops’ effects on soil physical properties and soil water dynamics. He was intrigued by questions such as: What comprises thriving soil? What untapped potential do soils have to boost agroecosystem productivity? How much can a healthy soil reduce dependence on external inputs? How much can soils be managed to suppress disease and weed populations? How much can soils be managed to improve crop water supply? Can better soil management increase profitability?

To him, all this makes soil science challenging, interesting and rewarding.

“Agronomy would be a simple science if soil wasn’t part of the equation,” he says. “It’s the ‘black box’ of agroecosystems.”

Ogilvie is now the outreach and communications coordinator for the Soils at Guelph Initiative. Soils at Guelph is a new outreach initiative of the University of Guelph to connect soil researchers with farmers and consumers from across the province.

Van Eerd says these kinds of questions and initiatives show the potential of soil science. “Everyone in agriculture is looking for good people to hire and there are many jobs for undergraduates, so they may be less likely to go for a master’s or doctorate,” says Van Eerd. “But all around, the need for soil research and conservation is being emphasized. We’d like students to consider graduate opportunities in soil science. It’s the next frontier.”

Photos: Rafael Santos (top); Praveen Saxena

This research is conducted at the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus. This research is funded by the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance. Additional funding was provided by Grain Farmers of Ontario and the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers. This story originally appeared in Ontario Grain Farmer magazine (February 2019), a publication of Grain Farmers of Ontario.

Articles in Research magazine are written and produced in part by participants in the Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge (SPARK). See more stories from the 2019 Agri-Food Yearbook (PDF).

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