Making soil — and storing carbon — in the Greenbelt

May 01, 2024

A group of researchers and conservationists is trying to bolster the soil health of hundreds of farms in Ontario's Greenbelt to help alleviate climate change.

The two-year project offers farmers in the Greenbelt — a strip of protected farmland and conservation areas near Toronto — free soil testing and advice on how to improve their soil's health. Healthy soils are less prone to erosion and nutrient runoff. They also act as a carbon sink to help moderate the amount of planet-warming gases in the atmosphere by storing organic matter and other forms of carbon in the ground.

Healthy agricultural soils are built using specific farming practices, like cover crops and eliminating tillage, said Megan Sipos, a research and policy analyst with the Greenbelt Foundation, the group running the project. "By improving soil health using these practices, we can build climate resilience in a sustainable agricultural sector."

The project comes amidst growing interest in the climate-fighting potential of healthy soils in Canada and abroad. Recent years have seen massive interest from farmers, policymakers and media in regenerative farming practices focused on bolstering soil health for climate benefits.

The federal government is also looking to promote soil-focused practices through a suite of policies designed to encourage farmers to adopt some soil health-promoting practices, including its contentious 2021 fertilizer emissions reduction policy. The excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers results in nitrous oxide emissions, a potent greenhouse gas, and reduces soils' organic matter and microbial activity.

In B.C., a provincial legislative committee recently recommended the government embrace a suite of policies to help farmers better promote soil health. Those recommendations include creating more programs like the Greenbelt Foundation's soil-testing initiative to help farmers identify how best to promote soil health.

Back in southern Ontario's Greenbelt, Sipos said climate change is poised to extend the growing season — with the caveat it will also trigger increases in intense precipitation and the proliferation of new pests, which outweigh the benefits of a longer season for farmers.

Healthy soils help bolster farmers' "resilience" to these impacts by helping the ground absorb more water, thus reducing erosion. They also contain more diverse microbial communities, which help combat plant infections and pests, she said.

Those benefits are well-known to Barb Parker, who runs a mixed grain and livestock farm with her family in Halton County, between Toronto and Guelph, and is among those whose soil the Greenbelt Foundation is testing. Unlike many of their neighbours, the family hasn't tilled its fields in years and long ago adopted practices to bolster their soil's health, she said.

Those efforts worked. While they test their soil routinely for basic indicators, the Greenbelt Foundation's more comprehensive tests showed their fields are vibrant and packed with organic matter. They also offered them a glimpse of their soil’s health in relation to neighbouring farms. The glowing results were "a validation of what we're trying to do in terms of stewardship of our land," Parker said.

But she acknowledged many farmers in the region face a massive barrier to implementing similar measures because they rent their farmland.

Farmers renting land typically have fewer guarantees they will be able to stay on the same plot for the long haul, reducing their chance of benefiting from years spent building soil health. Many are also under significant financial pressure, and growing cash crops like soy or corn using soil-harming fertilizers and pesticides is a more secure way to stay in business, she said.

Farmland consolidation is a countrywide problem, with researchers last year warning that investors are racing to buy Canadian farmland, which they then rent out to tenant farmers. That dynamic leaves farmers "more often subject to landlord influence over production practice," including using less sustainable methods to maximize yields.

The B.C. parliamentary committee noted the same trend. In its report, the group said that the province should "increase farmers' and ranchers' access to agricultural land" to help farmers adopt long-term practices that sequester carbon in the soil.

Back in Ontario, Parker said she is grateful for the soil health insights the Greenbelt Foundation has offered.

"We're very happy with the program and the staff and — of course — very happy with our results," she said. “It is good to have some validation and to share that with peers."

"By bringing these improvements in soil health through shifts in management practices, we can help farms become more resilient and profitable while also reducing emissions and sequestering carbon," Sipos said. "Soil health can help us … support farms in the face of climate change, to remain profitable, and to support the really rich agrifood system we have here in Ontario."

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