By: Ralph Martin
Dependable agricultural land consists of classes 1, 2 and 3 land. Class 1 land has no significant limitations for crop use, class 2 land has moderate limitations and class 3 land has moderately severe limitations. Non-dependable agricultural land ranges from class 4, with severe limitations, to class 7, with no capacity for arable culture or permanent pasture i.e. think rock.
In 1971, about 6,900 square kilometres of dependable agricultural land was urbanized in Canada, and by 2001, the urbanization of dependable agricultural land had more than doubled to 14,300 square kilometres. This begs the question of what we as Canadian citizens want it to be by 2031.
The odds of securing stable crop yields on dependable agricultural land are much higher than on poorer land of classes 4 – 7. As climate change brings seasons with too much or too little water, or temperatures that are too high or too low, at the wrong times, it will become increasingly important to retain our best land to produce food. Class1, 2 and 3 farmland should be retained for agricultural production.
Between 2002 and 2016, average soil organic matter (SOM) on Ontario farms declined from about 4.3 percent to below 4.1 percent. The data were compiled by Chris Brown, with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), based on 12,000-23,000 annual samples from the SGS Agri-Food Labs.
It was concerning to see, in the same report, that Lambton County (in southwestern Ontario) had an average SOM level of 7.14 percent in 1957, whereas the average level over the last 15 years was 4.16 percent. That’s a drop of three percentage points in about half a century – speeding downhill, in soil time.
Our home farm was on the border of Waterloo and Wellington counties. I took it personally when Brown reported that the average SOM level in Waterloo-Wellington was above five percent in 2002, and by 2016 had dipped to less than four percent, below the provincial average.
I appreciate that some farmers are doing an excellent job of arresting SOM decline, and in fact are on the long, slow, upward climb. Nevertheless, according to Agriculture and AgriFood Canada data presented to the Ontario Soil Health Working Group, SOM levels are now decreasing on 82 percent of Ontario farmland.
My farmer-researcher colleague Woody Van Arkel, a committed cover cropper, notes that it is much tougher to increase SOM than to lose it, so at the very least we should manage crops in order to stop losses. SOM undergirds productive capacity, especially in bad weather years.
Here’s another disturbing number: 54 percent of Ontario farmland currently has an erosion risk that is too high. It takes 200-1,000 years to form 2.5 centimetres of soil with natural processes. This is a renewal rate ranging from 0.3 to two tonnes/hectare/year, while soil is disappearing faster than that, on many fields.
Over the last 28 years, my long-suffering students have had to memorize the gospel according to Martin: “Keep your soil covered.” Today, across Ontario, only one in five acres of cropland has high to very high cover (i.e., more than 300 days covered). When bare ground is pounded by rain, it erodes and loses SOM.
Beneficial management practices (BMPs) are important, but it is crucial to employ them in appropriate combinations for each specific field, in a persistent manner. It is not enough to promote such practices if they are only adopted when it suits or in response to temporary incentives for one BMP at a time.
We need the ongoing attention of all operators. Part of the problem is that landowners increasingly rent their land to operators or consolidators of large land bases, who spread costs over more acres, with just two or three crops, and then accept the collateral damage of declining SOM levels.
In order to stop the decline of SOM, and to begin recovering past losses, it is time to link SOM levels to farm property taxes. Farmers pay a preferred property tax rate because they are farming. Fair enough, but to be more fair, those who have good or very good levels of SOM, or who are increasing their SOM levels, should pay even less property tax. They are investing in the foundation of food production.
On the other hand, landowners with SOM levels that are poor or declining should reasonably pay more property tax. If that were the case, they would make sure their rental agreements required good soil management to prevent SOM losses.
I understand that municipalities should not be hit with revenue reductions. The provincial government can underwrite a property tax program adjusted to SOM levels. All citizens, now and in the future, deserve a system that will ensure proper soil management and increasing SOM levels. Our civil servants and government can make it happen if they put their minds to it. The tangible action is to measure SOM in every field, every five years, with a consistent scientific protocol. This database, and some math, will make property tax adjustments possible. Let’s design for the outcome of SOM levels that we need.
Farmers are clever and adaptable. With research and peer support programs, they will figure out how to improve SOM levels and reduce their taxes.