Soils Champions

Year-round plan protects this Ontario farm soil

Five generations of Elgies have farmed this land so it's worth preserving

Earl and Bill Elgie, Dresden, Ontario.
Earl (left) and Bill Elgie, Dresden, Ontario.

There is something very comfortable about the Elgie farm just outside of Dresden, deep in southwestern Ontario's cash crop country. This is a true farm family unit where two brothers, Earl and Bill and their wives have raised their families, carrying on a long tradition of family ownership.

This is an old-style farm, a bit of an aberration in today's world of highly specialized agriculture. It's moderately sized, and has a highly diversified package of crops, livestock and woodlot which comes together to generate the income that sustains the place.

This is a proud farm, where soil conservation and land stewardship are important in everyday lives and the goal is to have a sixth generation of Elgie family involved at some point in the future.

Weatherproofing the soil

There is perhaps no other example of the strong feeling the Elgies have for land stewardship than the soil management plan that sees all their productive sandy loam cropland weatherproofed with crop cover 12 months of the year.

The cropping program is truly diversified. Wheat, grain corn, soybeans, black edible beans, processing sweet corn, processing peas, black tobacco and hay are all grown. To protect the soil, fall rye is broadcast, or buckwheat or oilseed radish seeded as a cover crop. Or the land is seeded to cash hay crop.

As well, the farm has used minimum tillage for years. Less tillage, improves crop residue cover which helps protect soil surface from wind and water erosion.

Natural soil nourishment

Livestock manure and compost are a key part of soil management. It's an uncomplicated system, low tech system. As livestock pens are cleaned, manure from the straw-based bedding systems in the 85 head feedlot and 500 unit hog feeder operation is piled in windrows in the field. That material is turned regularly to encourage composting.

That manure compost is spread on wheat stubble, which is usually underseeded to clover. In addition to the manure from their own animals, the Elgies purchase additional poultry or cattle manure.

All manure is tested for nutrient analysis and applications to land for fertilizer are based on the needs of specific fields which are determined by rotating soil tests. That helps ensure nutrients go to the crop rather than being lost to the elements, and that organic matter and these natural nutrients are part of a natural soil enhancement effort.

Windbreaks protect and reward

The minimum tillage system, seeded cover crop and shelterbelts protect the Elgie farm soil.
The minimum tillage system, seeded cover crop and shelterbelts protect the Elgie farm soil.

A sign of their long-term thinking on land management and one that speaks to their inherent love of the land is the miles of shelterbelts that crisscross their land.

When the brothers started farming their parents' land around 1980, the land was a patchwork of small, hard-to-manage pastures and fields. They tore out those fencerows, and replaced them with spruce and cedar shelterbelts that today systematically cover the entire farm.

"Basically the main reason is to protect the soil from wind erosion but they provide a lot of personal reward for our families," says Earl Elgie. "They are an important escape route for wildlife moving from woodlot to woodlot and we enjoy watching the rabbits, squirrels and other wildlife use them."

Messages for the public

What does all this effort on the farm mean to consumers today? There are real messages for the public in ensuring soil conservation and health, says Elgie.

One is that soil conservation takes a lot of time, effort and money, but the payoff is overwhelming once it's been done for a while. It doesn't happen quickly, however; it takes generations to make real improvement.

Elgie believes that there is real economic value to farmers in having high quality soil. "In our area we see producers looking for land that has not had tomatoes on it, because it is worth a premium to have soil with good structure."

In general, he believes people are more interested in what's happening at the farm level. Local food is starting to catch on over imported food, and in conversations, people are asking about managing land, why cover crops are used, for example.

"Bit by bit consumers are getting a little more in touch and our experience is they will support local as long as the price is competitive," he says.

Can a family make a living on 600 acres of farmland in the future? Elgie wonders that as well, as he ponders a next generation on the family farm. "It boils down to lifestyle expectations, willingness to work at it and the support of family," he says. "We wouldn't be where we are without our family's support."

"We don't profess to know everything," says Elgie, "but we do believe we can leave our farm for the next generation in a little better shape than when we inherited it from our forefathers or bought it."