Feature Articles

Engineer fertilizes new soil conservation approaches for Eastern Canadian producers

April 9, 2007:

Odette Menard has made a career of helping Eastern Canadian producers take a new look at how they manage their soil

If there's one thing that has defined Odette Menard's career in the field of soil conservation, it's passion — passion for her work, passion for helping producers discover low-disturbance farming practices, and passion for the soil itself.

But passion alone is not always enough to convince sceptical producers of the virtues of farming practices such as zero-till, especially in Eastern Canada, where they are often viewed as a strictly prairie solution. Instead, the agricultural engineer from Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec and member of the Soil Conservation Hall of Fame backs up her passion with a willingness to challenge producers, to ask them tough questions about their farming practices in order to open their minds to new and different methods.

"I try to help producers think about why they do things the ways they do," she says. "Take tillage, for example. The plough was invented for three reasons: drainage, weed control and improving soil fertility. Today, we have tools other than tillage to help in those areas. So one of my first questions to farmers is, 'Why are you ploughing?' Sometimes, they don't know why, other than the fact that they've always done it that way.

"So I ask them, 'Are you making the decisions on this farm or are you just driving the tractor?' Basically, it's a matter of helping producers take back their farms from an agronomic perspective."

The root of the matter

Soil conservation was not Menard's primary focus while pursuing her Master's degree in Agricultural Engineering at McGill University in Montreal. Although there were some aspects of soil conservation in her education, her real passion for soil came about once she began to work in the field of soil conservation for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Quebec.

Because zero-till is often seen by Quebec producers as a dry soil solution and, consequently, of limited value to the majority farming on wet soil, Menard has often had to make her case for zero-till from a perspective other than soil erosion. For her, that has meant focusing on soil health.

"It occurred to me that a lot of people, when managing the soil, approach it from an above-the-surface perspective, or maybe three to four inches below the surface," she says. "What people don't often think about is what goes on below, at the roots. I wanted to show them the efficiencies involved in leaving the soil alone."

Key to this has been her study of the role of earthworms in soil reclamation. "When the soil is healthy, the first thing you notice is that you have a larger earthworm population in the soil," she says. "Earthworms do a number of things for the soil, but the primary thing they do is stabilize the soil by digesting it and combining it with organic matter which leaves it less vulnerable to erosion. They also create a lot of space for roots and air, helping to provide an ideal environment for microorganisms to grow."

The key, says Menard, is making sure there's enough organic material on the surface of the soil for the worms to feed on. The best way to build up this organic material is to avoid tillage, she says. "Conventional tillage reverses that process, taking away the food earthworms need to survive and do their job."

Convincing producers

"Ultimately, the most difficult soil lies right between the ears," says Menard, referring to the challenge of convincing some producers to give up conventional tillage in favour of zero-till, a process which requires commitment and the willingness to observe through trial and error, often over the course of several years.

"You have to give people enough time to make the change because it takes time to go from doing something one way to something else entirely. To producers, I recommend they use the 'one-five' rule: one year for thinking about and strategizing a switch to zero-till and a five-year transition process to measure progress. You can't expect to see dramatic improvements from zero-till after only a year."

Producers are sometimes intimidated by the expense involved in this process of trial and error. That's why Menard recommends working closely with agronomists and other soil counsellors in order to make sure they're getting the best value for their time and effort.

"Ultimately, it will be the roots that will tell producers the quantity and quality of what they're going to get out of the soil," she says. "The key is to seek out those who can give them the correct reading."