Soils Champions

Organic matter increase improved these B.C. northern soils

Forage anchors the future for this family farm

Reuben Loewen, (far left) attends a local farm tour
Reuben Loewen, (far left) attends a local farm tour

When he moved from Saskatchewan to the Peace Country of Northern B.C., Reuben Loewen had to change his farming habits. The biggest change was getting out of the wheat mentality that he had been accustomed to in his home province.

Next, was learning how to make the grey wooded soils on his northern farm near Prespatou, B.C. more productive.

Today, a concerted effort around growing fescue forage has improved those soils and built a solid foundation for Reuben and Arlene Loewen, who now farm with their son Grant.

"When I first came to the region I grew wheat because that is what I had always grown. But this land is so much better suited to growing grasses and legumes. I grow fescue seed and my goal is to have consistent, strong, healthy plants going into the winter that are nice and green, have a decent size, with some space between them.

"In my soils I want nutrients to be available at three critical times of year that a plant needs them: to get started in spring, at stooling and when it's setting seed."

Organic matter key

Organic matter has been a major focus.

"To me, soil organic matter is everything," says Loewen. "For crops to live without soil organic matter is like people trying to live without eating protein. Organic matter is the host for plant nutrients.

"It bothers me so much when I see straw and all the crop residues taken off the fields and the land cultivated and tilled until it is exposed for the snowmelt runoff to take away the soil in the spring. We've experienced what it's like not to have good organic matter and it affects everything.

"I've increased the organic matter in my soils from two percent when I started, to six to seven percent because of growing fescue."

Soil recapture

Loewen has taken steps to reclaim topsoil in cases where it has washed off fields. He has used a scraper to capture than soil and return it to the field. Then he developed a strategy to get that land back into a more manageable state.

"We've learned that you can't stop water but you can lead it," he says. "So we move water flow from unstable areas to an area that we have stabilized. In some areas we used old truck tires to build dams and terraces in soil erosion ravines. We have been able to slow that water down and get grass established, and then eventually take the tires away so we can drive through with our faming equipment."

Stewardship commitment

Loewen's strong feelings about stewardship are clear as he talks of farming's future.

"A true farmer is a person of the soil. Farmers need to be careful or they can become equipment brokers. In agriculture we can become too focused on the bottom line. We need to remember how we got to that bottom line."

The whole universe relies on the top six inches of soil, he says.

"We cannot live without our topsoil and we need to wake up before it is all destroyed. It takes a thousand years to produce an inch of topsoil in central Saskatchewan. It must take even longer in the thin grey wooded soils in our area.

"Topsoil is like a family. If you have a happy family you have happy children. If you have healthy topsoil you have happy soil and plant life. Topsoil is the catalyst."