Feature Articles

Prominent soil conservation advocate driven by passion for soil health

May 9, 2007:

Former senator Herb Sparrow brought awareness of soil issues to Canada and the world

For as long as he can remember, Herb Sparrow has been concerned about the soil. As a child witnessing the effects of soil degradation while growing up on a farm in Vanscoy, Saskatchewan, Sparrow knew intuitively that there had to be better management practices which could keep the soil healthy and productive.

In his adult life, that passion awakened every time he would see a summerfallowed field full of blowing soil. Occasionally, he would even stop at producers' homes to let them know about better ways to manage the soil. Some were receptive; others told him to mind his own business.

It was that kind of determination, however, which made Sparrow a leader in the field of soil conservation during his time in the Canadian Senate, a time in which he became a vociferous advocate of healthy soil. This period saw him play a major role in founding the Soil Council of Canada, help launch National Soil Conservation Week, write a highly influential book on soil conservation and become a popular speaker on the subject in Canada and around the world.

But ultimately, Sparrow believes his success was, at least in part, a matter of good timing. "There were a number of people who had become knowledgeable about soil degradation and were ready for the message," he says. "I was there with the right people at the right time."

History of advocacy

Appointed to the Canadian Senate by Prime Minister Lester Pearson at the young age of 38, Sparrow's work as a soil conservation advocate began in 1984 as chair of the Senate Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Committee. It was during this period that Sparrow spearheaded a senate study on the effects of soil degradation, holding court with just about anyone with an interest in the subject.

The results of this extensive industry consultation resulted in Soil at Risk: Canada's Eroding Future, a state-of-the-union document on the status of Canada's soil, complete with macro-level recommendations on changing the direction of soil management in the country.

One of the key recommendations of the book, which remains highly in demand more than two decades after its initial publication, was for the government to play a role in spreading the message of soil conservation. For Sparrow, this was the beginning of a 10-year journey which saw him speaking out on soil conservation for about 100 meetings a year, both in Canada and the U.S. and abroad.

Although Sparrow encountered his share of naysayers over this period of time, what's most remarkable is just how ready the world was for ideas on how to better protect the soil. "Europe was in particularly bad shape from the effects of soil degradation and people we met there were interested in what we had to say. I think the world was waiting for people willing to take a leadership role."

Ongoing urgency

Although he has, in his own words, "made way for the next generation of soil conservation advocates" in recent years, the new challenges facing the agriculture industry are never far from Sparrow's mind. He is particularly concerned about the large emphasis currently being placed on ethanol production from grainseed and its implications on food production and the soil.

"There is a danger of food shortages if we start moving too much of the land into ethanol production," he says. "Also, soil management issues under grain produced for ethanol may be different than that of grain produced for food. Ultimately, we will want to make sure the soil is protected."