Feature Articles

The search for soil conservation economics

September 5, 2007:

Three views on what it takes to convince farmers

The checklist of soil conservation success in Canada today is impressive. There are fewer acres under conventional tillage than ever before. There has been a dramatic increase in zero and minimum till across the country. There is an added emphasis on crop rotation.

But in spite of these advances, there are still many areas across Canada in need of improvement. So how can the industry engage the next generation of soil conservation? Part of the solution, say some industry leaders, involves giving producers a better sense of the economic value of these practices — the challenge is coming up with the numbers to prove it.

One producer who does not need to be convinced is Jocelyn Michon. Quick to pull out a list of numbers showing how zero-tillage and other soil management practices have driven profits on his Sainte-Hyacinthe, Quebec farm, Michon is almost a "poster boy" for soil conservation. He is typical of a growing number of producers whose personal experiences have given them confidence in the economic value of productive soil.

The challenge for soil advocates is getting more producers to see soil conservation in that light. For Carlyle Ross, a researcher with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Edmonton, Alberta, the answer comes down to economics and communication. "We know that soil conservation provides long term economic value, but there is very little research data showing what these practices can do in the short term. We need research that demonstrates the on-farm value and more effective tools to communicate the benefits."

The key to that quality of research, says Doug McKell, executive director of Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC), is to make it as practical and as tailored to the needs of producers as possible.

"The scientific community will need a lot of support, both in resources and extending their findings, in the next round of agriculture programs," he says. "When you look at the history of the soil conservation movement in Canada, developments such as zero-tillage have been led by farmers, like Jocelyn, and their conservation organizations in certain provinces.

"However, the science associated with these practices has suffered over the past few years with government budget cuts and changing priorities. We need to revisit how science can provide the proof for soil conservation Beneficial Management Practices (BMPs), tie it to producer value, and get this information out to as many producers as possible."

Producers taking lead

Jocelyn Michon began his experimentation with reduced tillage in 1977, gradually phasing out all elements of conventional tillage from his predominately corn-soybean-spring wheat operation. His nearly three-decade journey towards eliminating soil disturbance on his farm reached its peak when, in 2003, he put his entire 500 acres under zero-till. He had used only light manure incorporation following wheat harvest since starting zero-till in 1994.

Being an early adopter of soil conservation practices in Quebec made Michon one of a handful of believers in a sea of sceptics. The reason for this, he says, is that early advocacy efforts were driven only by the environmental argument and lacked sufficient economic data to convince most of the province's producers.

Since that time, Michon, himself an advocate for soil conservation, has worked tirelessly to attach specific numbers to these practices, taking advantage of several opportunities to analyze efficiencies on his own farm. What he found was substantial. Michon estimates that using zero-tillage practices saves him, on an annual basis, approximately $25,000 in machinery costs, $8,000 in machinery maintenance, $15,000 in fuel, and, thanks to the build-up of nutrients in his soil, as much as $15,000 in fertilizer.

Cover crops used to capture nitrogen as well as efforts to increase the earthworm population in his soil (at last count, 400 for each square metre) have driven further efficiencies and enhanced his overall soil vitality.

"If we want more producers to make efforts to conserve the soil, the bottom line is that we have to show them the numbers," he says. "Once they make those efforts, the environmental benefits come free of charge."

Communication challenges

Although compelling, Michon's numbers are ultimately linked to his own farm — they do not scientifically account for the vast differences in soil, topography and climate experienced by producers from coast to coast. The challenge for the scientific community, says Carlyle Ross, is making research relevant to producers in such a variety of circumstances.

Research that better targets the needs of producers is the first step in this process, he says. However, such efforts will be futile if the value is not demonstrated to producers in a way that's meaningful to them. Finding new ways to communicate with producers, who generally prefer the "show me" approach employed by extension specialists and technical assistants, will be an ongoing challenge, says Ross.

"Unfortunately, that kind of direct, on-the-ground approach is not always an option today, so we need to look at ways to use existing tools more effectively."

Using demonstration sites to promote economic value may be one way to help fill this void, he says. "In the past, these sites have mainly been used to focus on the environmental benefits of soil conservation. However, the same principle can be applied to the economic benefits as well."

Demonstration sites also present opportunities for producers to talk to leaders in soil conservation and seek advice on how to set up programs on their own operations. "Like any group, producers tend to look to certain individuals in their communities for leadership. Using these leaders to promote the program can be a factor in adoption. Ultimately, we need to become more strategic about how we use demonstration sites and put more energy into promoting them."

Linking science with extension

Ross' proposal is an example of how the scientific and agricultural communities can work together towards a common goal. The problem, says Doug McKell, is that past models for extending research results that involved provincial government extension services no longer exist or are essentially non-functional. "Because of this and a lack of adequate resources for scientists, we may not have made as many advances in the field of soil conservation as we could have otherwise."

An indirect result is that many of the practical developments in soil conservation have been driven by producers themselves, he says. "With the zero- and minimum-till movement, for example, a lot of the technology commonly used today was the brainchild of producers. These pioneers did more than act on business opportunities; they developed solutions to issues identified on their own farms that may never have been addressed otherwise."

Leadership was similarly driven either by producers or by those with peripheral or historical ties to agriculture. Former Senator and Soil Conservation Council of Canada founder Herb Sparrow is a prominent example of someone with agricultural and small business roots who championed soil conservation on a worldwide level.

"Almost from the very beginning of soil conservation in Canada, producers have been forming clubs and associations that have taken the safe soil message to the industry, equipment manufacturers and government," he says. "It's a tradition that continues to this day, when we see farmer-driven initiatives popping up to market themselves on the basis of their soil-friendly cropping practices."

Although the ultimate goal of advocates such as SCCC is to convince producers of the benefits of soil conservation, McKell says a key component of the process will be the ongoing cooperation between producers and researchers to develop and extend the proof of these benefits.

"We need help from scientists to consider the information extension process of new technology and research and build that into their research proposals. Ultimately, agriculture needs good science that proves both agronomic and economic benefits as well as good policy that can get this information into the hands of producers."