Aiming Higher: Soils Impact People

Soils At Guelph awarded $2 M grant from Weston Family Foundation to enrich soil health on agricultural lands.

The new five-year soil health project called Aiming High: Soils Impact People, will improve biodiversity on Canada’s agricultural lands by relaying the importance of adopting specific agricultural management practices to both farmers and those off-the-farm, to promote soil health in Canada.  

Soil at Guelph is grateful for the support from Weston Family Foundation, and is pleased to be one of the recipients of the new $10 million Weston Family Soil Health Initiative.  The initiative aims to widen farmers’ adoption of best management practices (BMPs), including cover cropping, nutrient management and crop diversification and rotation.

Through testing, training and encouraging uptake of a new soil health assessment and planning tools, the project will prioritize six ecologically-based beneficial management practices. These practices can help to improve soil biodiversity and resilience to stresses like drought and floods and ensure enough soil organic matter for water retention, carbon sequestration and crop growth. 

The project, led by University of Guelph’s Dr. Laura Van Eerd, will partner with Soils At Guelph, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), the Ontario Soil Network (OSN) and the Rural Ontario Institute (ROI).  It will also bring together researchers from the Ontario Agricultural College’s (OAC) School of Environmental Sciences (SES) and the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences. The cross-campus pairing and inter-institutional team reflects the project’s interdisciplinary focus on engaging more farmers in improving soil health and agricultural productivity through ecologically based beneficial management practices.  

“Soil health is the foundation of a healthy ecosystem; through improving the knowledge about the importance of soil health, we can build more diverse and resilient agricultural lands,” said Van Eerd, “Soil is a farmer’s greatest resource; it’s a strategic resource and needs to be treated as such.” 

Van Eerd will be working with Dr. Erin Nelson of the U of G’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology to gain a better understanding of the social side of soil health practices.  “Agricultural soils are constantly modified by humans. That’s why understanding soil health is very much a social science as well,” she says.

The project has three parts and will be rolled out over the next five years.

Improving soil health testing and Ontario-specific database

First, U of G researchers will work together with OMAFRA to roll out the soil health assessment and planning tool (SHAP) to be released in early spring. The project team will work together with farmers to use the SHAP across Ontario farms and assemble a database of the samples collected.  Having a soil health test protocol developed for Ontario conditions will give farmers a handy gauge of the condition of their land, and a better sense of how their practices are impacting soil health.

Engaging farmers in soil health BMPs 

With the leadership of Dr. Erin Nelson, the project will expand from soil science to social science. The new project will involve groups of Ontario farmers in discussions about soil health. “Farmers genuinely care about the health of their soil. They all understand and rely on the health of soils for the long-term productivity of their farms,” said Nelson.  

Dr. Nelson plans to conduct interviews with farmers who already work with groups such as the Ontario Soil Network on soil health BMPs. She’s interested in what strategies have worked to improve soil health and how farmers have overcome challenges. For this research, she will extend her existing project on how farmer-to-farmer peer learning helps in making soil health improvements.  She will also speak with farmers who have been reluctant to incorporate BMPs into their operations.

She says, “myriad pressures and distractions can interfere with producers’ best intentions. Farmers are always needing to weigh the perceived risks of making changes, as it can affect their livelihoods.”  

The project sees soil tests as a great starting point for BMP adoption, and this research will help to develop outreach materials that are better targeted to increase that adoption.

Normalizing conversations among farmers and off-the farm stakeholders

Beyond farmers, the third component of the project will engage service providers and off-the farm parties, such as insurers, financial advisers, municipalities and agricultural writers.  

“We want to help normalize soil health conversations,” said Van Eerd.  “While growers are the ones managing the soil, there are many influences on the farm. Getting science-based soil health information into the hands of the ag-business sector is also important.”  That’s why this project will engage future agricultural leaders in partnership with the Rural Ontario Institutes’ Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program (AALP).

 “It is clear, through the high-quality applications we received, that soil health is of growing importance in the agriculture sector and that there are scientifically proven yet underutilized approaches to increasing soil organic matter on Canada’s farmlands,” says Emma Adamo, Chair, Weston Family Foundation. “Our Foundation is committed to supporting landscape-level efforts to find solutions to our environmental challenges and, ultimately, improve the well-being of Canadians.”

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This release has been prepared by Soils At Guelph, an initiative at the University of Guelph that envisions science-backed sustainable soil management practices becoming the norm across agricultural production systems. For more information about Aiming High: Soils Impact People, or the Soils At Guelph initiative, please contact:

Heather White 

Knowledge Mobilization and Communications Coordinator

Soils At Guelph

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