Soils Champions

Zero tillage a cornerstone to healthy soils and healthy food

Alberta farm family has improved their soil and their economics of farming

There's a message for the public about soil conservation and farming today in Ken Farion's family farm experience.
There's a message for the public about soil conservation and farming today in Ken Farion's family farm experience.

Ken Farion, his wife Jacqueline and family, run Inland Park Farms at Vegreville, Alta., about an hour east of Edmonton. The family grows cereals and oilseeds on 3,800 acres of farmland in the parkland region. Their crop mix includes wheat, canola, peas and, if the price is right, borage. If there is an early fall, red winter wheat is included in their crop rotation.

Change in farming practices

The Farions' land is an example of how much soil management has changed on Western Canadian farms over the past generation and what that means to the future of their farm and their industry.

"On the farm where I was raised, every cropped acre was plowed and cultivated to deal with crop residue and perennial weed control," says Ken. "The soil was completely black at seeding time. But our soils were being eroded off the hilltops by tillage, wind and water.

"We knew how we were farming had to change," he says.

In 1992, after three years of trying zero tillage on a small scale the Farions seeded the whole farm using zero tillage. The dramatic improvement in equipment such as straw choppers and chaff spreaders, seed drills for better seed and fertilizer placement and on-row packing, made the conversion easier.

"After some major spring wind storms that closed highways the neighbors felt we weren't so crazy going into zero tillage," he recalls.

"In year one of zero tilling we started to benchmark soil testing in selected spots to a depth of two feet. That analysis showed that organic matter, water holding capacity and nutrient levels of the soil were all increasing, as well as crop production."

Two other things related to this soil management change stand out in Ken's mind.

Economics. "Plant genetics are making great strides in increasing yields; however we still need productive soils to meet the growing population's demand for food. At the rate our soil was degrading before the switch to zero till, production was dropping. Conservation agriculture on our farm has greatly increased yields and the economics of farming."

On-farm research. For 20 years Ken has donated land for farming to Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development and the University of Alberta to carry out research on soil fertility, variable rate technology and sustainable farming practices. "Supporting research is an important way of learning new findings, keeping relevant and applying that knowledge on a farm scale basis. For example, stratification of nutrients near the soil surface is an issue that we have to learn how to manage and use to our advantage," he says.

History of leadership

Soil success links farms with communities. Jacqueline and Ken were both raised on farms, which greatly instilled a sense of community in their lives.

Ken has been a long time leader in promoting zero tillage in the Vegreville area. He served as chair of the Parkland Conservation Farm from 1992 until 2002. Field scale conservation practices, such as direct seeding and a rotational grazing system with solar and wind power remote watering systems were demonstrated at the site. Their own farm has maintained 120 acres of aspen forest and a wetland for dense nesting cover for waterfowl.

He has also been an active member of the Crop Master Production group which promotes direct seeding in the Vegreville, Two Hills and the Andrew areas in Alberta. He has hosted field tours and demonstrated his drill for farmers at field days.

The Farions' commitment to conservation agriculture was acknowledged when they were selected for the Farm Conservation Award by the Alberta Conservation Tillage Society.

Public needs conservation agriculture

Ken thinks there's a message for the public about soil conservation and farming today in his family farm experience.

"The satisfaction of improving our soil is very close to my heart. It is a good feeling to know our family will have something to work with in the future if they wish to continue farming and raise their families.

"Crops are very much like animals; the nutrition they contain comes from the environment they are grown in. Food grown with fertilizers and crop protection products are healthier and contain more nutrients than food grown on depleted soils.

"The public must realize that healthy soil grows healthy food. The decision urbanites make on food should be made on facts, not trends and fads. As farmers, we continue to build healthy soils and produce healthy food for the world."