Potato farmers on PEI are often the scapegoats of an environmentally-minded public looking for a target on which to pin the ecological decline of this sandy province. The study of soil organic matter levels over 18 years that was recently released feels in many ways like more ammunition with which to pelt the potato industry. And certainly, given the extent of row-cropping on PEI, potatoes cannot be exempt from the discussion. But most assuredly there is not a single farmer, of any kind, on PEI who is happy to see their soil organic matter (SOM) levels declining. Every farmer knows that SOM is a major cornerstone to soil structure, pH buffering, soil biology and, perhaps most pertinent to recent public discussions, water holding capacity and water movement. So evidently SOM is not something that farmers, of any commodity, are content to see declining. Given the current uptake in having fall cover crops established before winter, the evidence is visibly out there in the fields of the efforts that farmers are taking to protect their soil.
The study was done by a group of soil scientists and agrologists within both the federal and provincial departments of agriculture and looks at samples taken across PEI over 18 years. The results are definitive that current agricultural management systems are not sustainable from a soil health perspective and that swift action is needed to help reverse the trend of declining organic matter levels. Suggestions from the study include increasing inputs like manure and compost, establishing winter cover crops and reducing tillage to name a few.
Of particular note are the dates of the study. Keeping in mind that the Agricultural Crop Rotation Act was enacted in 2002, the study spans from 1998 to 2015, giving a snapshot of the period of time immediately following implementation of the legislation.
While soil organic matter levels take decades to go up, they can decline much more quickly and it seems fair to judge the Agricultural Crop Rotation Act by its ineffectiveness in even maintaining the levels that existed at its onset. Not only was the soil unable to maintain the meager levels it enjoyed in 2002, the decline was rapid and definitive, across the province.
As our governments invest significant financial contributions into public trust in agriculture, one might expect there to be swift reaction, acknowledging weak legislation and a lack of enforcement rather than letting the farmers take the brunt of the public blame. Of course farmers need to be responsible for their own soil health and make decisions that are best for the long term viability of their land, but given the policies and systems encouraged by decades of commodity-minded, export-oriented and bigger-is-always-better governments, the decline of our resources should come as no surprise.
The conclusion of the study itself gives clear guidance on the way forward, on the long road of increasing SOM but the first step is an engaged government, effective collaboration with other affected departments, communication with all farmers, and legislation and enforcement that actually results in positive change.
Sally Berard is the Green Party of PEI's Shadow Critic for Agriculture and Fisheries.
This article was originally published in the Island Farmer.