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Column: hopes for the new year, beyond dirt

Columnist David Zirnhelt has a healthy respect for soil

I am going to muse just a little on one of my focuses of learning and research in agriculture: soil is not just dirt. Now why would “dirt” be a dirty word?

There was a time in the last half century where the vocation of farming was seen as “mere peasantry.” It is now becoming more honourable and more sophisticated.

That is because soil, the skin of the earth, is understood to be essential to our existence and is being increasingly threatened.

I follow what farm newspapers are writing about and the last week of 2018 one of them (The Western Producer) had its annual last edition of the year covering topics of what is new and improving in the industry.

We know humans have an ongoing tendency to look for novel things to do and buy. This deep cultural tendency takes on almost moral implications: because something is technically possible it ought to be employed and used extensively to help us “progress” as food producers.

What is missing is an equivalent desire to test new things before they are widely used and create results that might not be beneficial. The problem is if the genie is let out of the bottle it might never be put back in.

Who, then, is responsible? Big pharma, big manufacturers, big government, big corporations?

Let us take this problem of lack of respect for soil, which has biological, chemical and mineral (physical) properties.

Many of these properties are microscopic, so we need technology to observe and measure what is going on in this very thin layer of our planet.

“Soil” implies for me the living part of “dirt.” A respect for all living things and their role in supporting human and other life is a necessary part of the farming ethic.

Sure, we can send robots to weed our crops and drones to overfly our fields and measure the quality and quantity of the crops in the hope that some treatment (like a foliar spray) can improve a failing crop.

Much technology can assist us to steward the resource base which feeds us. But we have to put the emphasis on the root cause of the problem, not just on a quick fix.

This respect for soil, not just dirt (as a substrate or growing medium), means we need to understand more of what is going on in the soil.

We know that the protein content of our farmed soils is going down and with it the protein value (for growing tissue). And we know from recent long-term US research that the protein content of our native pastures is going down and is growing less nutritious food products.

Just why, we are unsure: too much carbon dioxide on the atmosphere? Too much heat?

Technology can help us find answers.

A couple new technologies that seem promising were featured in the prairie newspaper I mentioned above.

One of them is treating barley straw for soaking up certain antibiotics and industrial organics from polluted waterways. But we must keep the focus on the cause of the problem to be fixed too!

Another is bioplastics that can be made from canola meal, which can be used as mulch and reduce the huge amount of non-biodegradable plastics in our landscape and oceans. “Yay” again, but treat the cause or need for high-tech mulch in the first place.

My conclusion is simple: let’s respect the people in the farming industry who are searching for and employing appropriate technology that helps keep “soil” and not just “dirt.”

“Dirt farmers” used to be a pejorative term. “Soil farmers” is a better term for the old and the new farmers who respect the life in the new age of conservation farming and ranching.

David Zirnhelt is a rancher in the Cariboo and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake Campus.

READ MORE: Two places to store water as protection against changing climate

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