Feature Articles

Well managed soil the pride of this PEI producer

April 9, 2007:

The desire for healthy and presentable soil drives soil conservation pioneer

When making the decision to commit to better soil conservation practices, producers are often driven by a set of common goals. Some are attracted to the possibility of saving money and greater efficiency on their farms. Others are driven by a desire to keep the soil productive and vital throughout their own farming careers and for generations to come. For most, it's a combination of both.

For Peter Townshend, a potato farmer from Rollo Bay, Prince Edward Island, an additional factor has driven his soil conservation efforts over the past 20 years: the satisfaction of going out in the spring to a field of red, PEI soil unmarked by the effects of damage from water and wind. "It really bothers me to see fields with eroded soil in the spring," he says. "That's always been the primary motivation of my soil management."

And even though these efforts, due to circumstance, have not always meant high returns from a short term financial perspective, Townshend says they have paid off in soil health and relationships with his neighbours. "When producers make these extra efforts, neighbours and even banks notice that they're taking care of their assets a little bit better. It pays off in the long run."

Water erosion a challenge

Although PEI's gently rolling landscape provides ideal conditions for potato production, Townshend says it also leaves farmland vulnerable to soil erosion from water. "This is particularly a problem in March and April, when maybe the top two inches of the soil thaw and the ground underneath is still frozen," he says. "As a result we see a lot of water running off of fields carrying topsoil with it."

Looking for solutions, Townshend and a number of other PEI producers attended a workshop and field tour organized for the creation of the Eastern Canada Soil Conservation Centre in Grand Falls, New Brunswick during the mid-1980s. It was there that he was introduced to soil conservation practices such as strip cropping, terracing, grassed waterways and contour farming. It wasn't long thereafter that Townshend decided to try these practices himself.

The first step Townshend took was to plant his crops in strips across the slope of his land. "Fields in PEI are 10 times as long as they are wide and generally run from the shore back, so you have long narrow fields running up and down the hill that create runoff," he says. "So wherever we had this situation we would combine fields together so we could plant the crops crossways, which slows down the runoff and protects the soil."

Other steps he has taken over the years have included building diversion terraces and grassed waterways to redirect runoff water off of his fields, developing nutrient management plans to help him track and manage the fertility of his soil, and rotating his potato crops with grain and hay to keep the soil rich in nutrients.

Some neighbours were sceptical of these practices at the outset. "The first year one guy told me I had ruined three farms by contour cross stripping — they didn't see the value in it. But today a lot of these practices are commonplace. A lot of the credit for that has to go to the people in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Aquaculture who have worked hard to show producers their benefits."

Long term benefits

These benefits have not always been tangible from an economic perspective, however. "In fact, we often lose some efficiency compared to the way we did things before, but that is generally the case when you're working smaller fields," he says. "Better equipment has helped, though. We now pick up eight rows with our harvester where we used to only be able to pick up two."

The true economic benefits, he says, are more subtle and longer-term. "Banks and lending institutions are starting to recognize the way producers are taking care of their land and are adjusting their lending practices to reflect that. That's certainly a long term benefit."