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A day-long Friday session with progressive organic farmer Rick Clark kicked off the 2023 Guelph Organic Conference. A double classroom was packed with farmers, keenly listening, questioning, and figuring out what could work for them. Prevent Cancer Now was honoured to be in the audience.
We offer this example to inspire ambitious vision and goals for a Sustainable Agriculture Strategy consultation by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, open until March 31, 2023.
We DO NOT AGREE that:
… pesticides should, “play an essential role in Canada helping to maintain domestic and global food production …”Sustainable Agriculture Strategy
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The rain is lashing down, fields are flooding and topsoil makes the water overflowing ditches and streams look like chocolate.
The phone rings, “how much rain did you get?” asks the neighbour. “I got it all!” replies organic farmer, Rick Clark. His farm has virtually no bare soil, so roots and soil aggregates stay put and soak up every drop.
The Clark family has farmed in Indiana for about 140 years, and in his turn Rick is systematically challenging long-time beliefs. They have transitioned 5,600 acres to certified organic farming (more is coming), and in the process developed soil ecosystems that are robust and largely self-supporting. Indiana’s planting zone is the same as southern Ontario.
Organic practices are key to resilience. Rick is proving that with wilder weather, organic methods not only work, they can work better, with almost no chemical inputs, and good yields and profits. Using data-driven planning, including regular soil tests, he anticipates that a mineral top-up might be necessary every six or more years.
Ending tillage. Rick is breaking new ground, by not breaking ground. He insists that regular tillage has to stop. A neighbour’s cattle help during the organic transition, while in established fields crops are planted straight into covered ground, with roll crimping of the cover vegetation. The ground cover and roots not only capture and store water; the shaded soil is substantially cooler and moister, improving growth and potentially preventing crop failure during increasingly hot and dry spells.
Organic crops are being grown and harvested on thousands of Indiana acres with only three passes of machinery; first to roll crimp the cover and plant the crop, possibly crimping again to free up the young crop, and finally to harvest. The Clark family harvests nine crops, but none grows alone in the field—prompt succession plantings also include groundcovers for rejuvenation. Rick rattles off successful combinations such as: corn into a mix of oats, sorghum/sudan and radish; beans into cereal rye; or late autumn seeding of oats, Balansa clover, tillage radish, canola, chicory and hairy vetch. Reviving a 3,000 year practice of growing grains together, he is also harvesting “Maslin” from mixed fields of rye, barley and wheat.
Economic success. Rick points to both sides of the ledger—sales, and not spending money. He has used no pesticides for a decade and has cut soil supplements to near zero, with legumes supplying nitrogen, and deeper roots tapping into minerals. Rick also found that improving pollination improves yields, in that adding pollinator strips did not reduce yield despite re-purposing of some of the field.
In contrast, high-input farming planting into bare soil, with multiple applications of fertilizers and pesticides requires more passes of the field, with chemical and fuel expenses, and equipment maintenance. This all adds up, and farmers require larger harvests just to break even. Crops can also suffer with higher mid-summer temperatures, poorer rainwater capture and more rapid drying of the soil.
Nevertheless, fundamental transitions in farming, even when scientifically and ecologically based, demonstrated and coached, still require a leap of faith. Rick says straight up, “If you are comfortable with everything you are doing, you aren’t trying hard enough.”
The question is, how will the Canadian government support ambitious, rapid advancements in regenerative agriculture for biodiversity and climate resilience? Until March 31, you can share your thoughts on the Sustainable Agriculture Strategy consultation.