Writer & Soil Health Expert
Co-Owner, Riverdale Farm & Forest
CEO, Greenbelt Foundation
Climate change is affecting Ontario’s agricultural systems. By improving soil health, Greenbelt farmers are helping to reduce climate change impacts.
Stretching over 800,000 hectares of protected land, from the eastern end of the Oak Ridges Moraine to the southern tip of Niagara to the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario’s Greenbelt is one of Canada’s most productive food-producing regions. It’s particularly renowned for two specialty crop areas — the Holland Marsh and the Niagara Peninsula Grape and Tender Fruit Lands — whose fertile soils and unique climate conditions allow Greenbelt farmers to grow crops that are rare in Canada.
But like all parts of Canada, the Greenbelt is feeling the effects of climate change. Excessive spring and fall precipitation, summer drought and sudden storms, and more winter freeze-thaw cycles affect the ability of Greenbelt farmers to produce crops. Wet springs can delay planting, summer drought and hail can kill crops, and frequent winter freeze-thaw cycles can make plants more prone to pests and diseases. All of this results in less healthy plants with lower nutritional value.
Healthier soil improves crop resilience
Greenbelt farmers, who already see the impacts of climate change in their fields, are adapting by focusing on improving their soil heath. For example, increasing organic matter in the soil helps to remove carbon from the atmosphere and increase the plants’ ability to retain water. Giving plants a deeper base in the soil helps make plants more storm-resistant. “Essentially, by preparing the soil in advance to be healthier, their crops have an easier time withstanding the impacts of climate change,” says Mel Luymes, a freelance writer and soil health expert.
“Healthy soil can hold water longer to resist drought and stick together to mitigate soil erosion,” says Luymes. This in turn improves the quality of the water. “On top of that, because plants need to draw down carbon from the atmosphere, the carbon is actually going to further help the soil withstand the impacts of climate change, so it ends up being a win-win, virtuous cycle.”
Farmers in the Greenbelt are improving soil health through a combination of traditional farming practices and modern-day technologies and innovations. “Improving soil health by reducing tillage, increasing plant cover, and applying manure is now being further aided by precision agriculture,” says Edward McDonnell, CEO of the Greenbelt Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to ensuring the continued health and prosperity of Ontario’s Greenbelt.
“GPS guidance, drones, and precision machinery are among the modern tools being used to inform farming practices that lead to healthier soils that require fewer pesticides, improve water absorption, and retain more carbon,” says McDonnell. “Together, traditional practices and new technology can improve agricultural yields while also improving resilience to climate change.”
One of the farmers using a more traditional approach is Owen Goltz of Riverdale Farm and Forest in Inglewood, ON. “By using regenerative farming techniques we’re exploring different ecosystems in our farm, preserving topsoil, and using compostable material to put that back into our soil so we can get more diversity in our soil biology and more nutrient-rich crops,” he says.
Supporting soil health research and innovation
The Greenbelt Foundation is supporting research and the adoption of new approaches to improving soil health. “We’re working with agricultural organizations across the Greenbelt region to support farmer-led best practice development and knowledge-sharing, like the Erin Soil Health Coalition — an innovative, community-based soil health project in Erin, ON,” says McDonnell.
Soil health will continue to play a leading role in the agricultural sector, which has been hard hit by climate change. “We know that soil is the key and that this is what we should’ve been doing all along,” says Luymes. “Climate change is really just telling us to get going.” Goltz agrees, adding, “We can’t get more nutrient-dense food without paying attention to soil health. And when we do that, the secondary effect is climate change mitigation.”