Soils Champions

Soil conservation anchors farm soil health

This New Brunswick farm success is built on soil management success

Aerial view of Eastern Grains Inc.
Aerial view of Eastern Grains Inc.

Robert Theriault started farming in 1976 near Drummond, New Brunswick, close to the U.S. border of the state of Maine. In 1979 he decided to specialize in seed grain production, and in 2003 his son Eric joined the farming operation which led to the incorporation of Eastern Grains Inc. Today Eastern Grains Inc. is well known in the region for the production, processing and marketing of quality seed grain and oilseeds to Maritime and Quebec farmers. Eastern Grains Inc.'s mission is to provide customer satisfaction by offering the best quality products and services.

"The soil is the cornerstone of agriculture and food production," says Theriault. "If your soil is healthy, your crops will be healthy, and your productivity and profitability will be improved. Crop rotation systems and soil conservation practices are the key to soil health and productivity. You cannot expect from the soil what you have not given back to the soil. It's a give and take process. Microorganisms in the soils have to be fed in order to maintain and to improve soil and crop productivity. Soil organic matter and proper pH level will help to retain nutrients by feeding the crop and to reduce nutrient leaching risk to ground water or to the environment."

The Theriault family start assessing their soil health by carrying out soil sampling and analysis every year or two, depending on the crop rotation system. The soil samples will reveal a lot about the soil, factors such as the organic matter content, soil pH and the soil nutrient status. They believe it is important to apply only the amount of nutrients needed by the crop.

Conservation practices

Eastern Grains Inc. has implemented a number of conservation practices over the years. Rolling topography along with heavy precipitation or intense summer storms events and its recurrence in the upper Saint-John River Valley in New Brunswick increases the water erosion risk and soil loss. This can further degrade soil structure and fertility. Without appropriate soil conservation measures, the water quality in the various watersheds can be impacted. To combat soil erosion and reduce soil degradation diversion terraces and grassed or rock lined waterways have been installed on approximately 340 acres (136 ha) of land under conservation protection. Additional efforts to improve land productivity and avoid soil compaction such as tile drainage systems have been installed on 200 acres (80ha).

Over the years Eastern Grains Inc. has introduced its rotation practices by land exchange with potato growers in order to favour better crop rotation practices in the Drummond area. Crop rotations are important in controlling undesirable pests and in breaking disease cycles. Poultry manure when and where available is used as an organic fertilizer. Grain crops are underseeded with a forage crop. These practices increase the soil organic matter, reduce fertilizer requirements and improve soil structure.

To reduce multiple tillage operations Eastern Grains Inc. purchased a seeder that allows them to prepare the seedbed in a one-pass operation over potato land. The one-pass seeding along with other conservation practices reduces soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption as well as labour while reducing soil organic matter deterioration.

Agricultural leadership

Not only is Robert Theriault a leader in conservation farming, but he is also an active agricultural and community leader in New Brunswick. He has served on many agricultural boards and has received a number of awards for his leadership. He has served as President of the Fédération des agriculteurs et agricultrices francophone du N.-B., a Past president of the Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick and a member of the New Brunswick Minister's Round Table on Agriculture.

More recently he has served as a board member of the Eastern Canada Soil and Water Conservation Centre working on the creation of a new Applied Technology Centre for Atlantic Canada. In 2006 Theriault received a Farm Credit Corporation innovation award, and the NBIA 2010 Leadership Award from the New Brunswick Institute of Agrologists.

Competition for agricultural land

Theriault understands that soil management at the farm level is part of a much bigger picture of our capacity to make use of agricultural land that can assure agricultural products availability for future generations.

"Arable lands at the global level are limited," says Theriault. "Populations are growing. Food production capacity decreases in many regions with the competition for land use. Soils are gradually losing their productive capacity in many parts of the world. A low profitability of farming operations and the need to survive in the agricultural sector may deplete our soil's production capacity. All this occurs as global food needs are continuously increasing and the resources are decreasing.

"It is increasingly challenging for farmers to preserve their limited land base and water resource while producing abundant high quality food," he says. "Preserving our soil health is seen as the biggest challenge in ensuring sustainable production. We need to feed the world, manage limited soil and water resources and protect the environment. The land belongs to humanity and all human beings who inhabit it."