The First Sixteen Podcast - EP 023

The First Sixteen - A podcast from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

An overhead view of an organic soil field

The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada's agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! A new episode is published each month.

Episode 023 - Saving our organic soils

40% of Quebec’s fruits and vegetables are grown in the Montérégie region due to its abundantly fertile organic soils. But these soils are under threat. We speak to Jacynthe Masse, an agroecology researcher, and Denys Van Winden, a vegetable producer from Sherrington, to learn about the challenges they’re facing and the experiments they’re running to save these soils.


Denys: They asked us the question, to me specifically, they asked, “Mr. Van Winden, you’ve received these research credits. What are you going to do with them?” That’s when we said, right off the bat, “Well, it’s simple. We want to save our soil for future generations.” They were a little confused. They said, “What do you mean, save your soil?” I said, “We lose about two cm of soil a year. Since our parents arrived on the farms here in the 1950s, we have lost more than a meter of soil.”

Kirk: Welcome to The First Sixteen. I’m Kirk Finken.

Sara: And I am Sara Boivin-Chabot.

Kirk: You just heard from Denys Van Winden. He’s the owner of a horticultural operation in Sherrington, Quebec, which means he has a big stake in our topic today. Which is...

Sara: Les terres noires.

Kirk: The direct translation is black soil because of the colour. But we don’t use that term – in English the term is “muck soil.”

Sara: It might not sound appealing, but it is some of the most valuable and fertile soil in Canada according to our other guest, Jacynthe Masse.

Jacynthe: Well, usually I call them organic soils. I don't think they call them, like, the direct translation would be "black soils." I never heard that before. So these soils are organic soils that were drained starting in the thirties. And then they created this industry around those soils that are very, very rich because they are basically just organic matter. So they’re very rich, and now the region produces about 40% of veggies that are grown in Quebec. So it's a very important region for agriculture in Quebec and for the people living on it.

Kirk: Jacynthe is a research scientist for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, working in the area of agroecology.

Sara: Both she and Denys are working hard on the preservation of these organic soils. Because like Jacynthe said, the region produces almost half of the vegetables grown in Quebec.

Kirk: And like Denys said, the land is disappearing. Fast.

Sara: Right. We’ll speak with him about the consequences of the soil loss, and how he’s partnered with a research chair at the Université Laval to tackle the issue. But first, let’s start with Jacynthe to paint the full picture: what exactly are these soils?

Jacynthe: There's two zones that we know of in the East of Canada. So there's the one that we are talking about today, which is the one that is situated in south of the Montérégie, close to Montreal. So that one has about 1800 hectares, and there’s one in Ontario as well, the Holland Marsh. They’ve been created with the retreat of the Champlain Sea. There were lakes that were left behind the sea when it got retreated, and then those lakes harbour a vegetation that, when it dies, it just goes in the body of water and just doesn’t decompose because it's very acidic. There’s not a lot of air and there’s no decomposition or very slow decomposition. So basically the soil will build up with organic matter. It takes about 500 years to build up 2.5 centimeters of soil in those regions.

Kirk: And all that organic matter makes for very, very fertile farmland once you drain the bog. It leaves behind these beautiful soils. But like Denys had said, we’re losing them now. So can you tell us the main issue at hand here?

Jacynthe: Yeah, the main issue is, like you said, those are beautiful soils. They're very productive. They're very important for agriculture in Quebec and in Canada in general. But the thing is, we're losing them through erosion. So aeolian erosion, water erosion as well, but also through decomposition with microorganisms. So you remember when I said they're building up about 2.5 centimeters per 500 years. That was when they were in this bog state. But now that we've drained them, those are very, very light soils, very viable soils. So we're losing right now about two centimeters per year. So one with the erosion, and one with decomposition. And right now there's about, in some areas, there's one meter left. So if you think about giving back the land to the future generation, well, you have to give something, right? So there's no soil anymore, or no rich soil as it is. This is a preoccupation for the whole region. So that's why we're trying to find innovative ways to conserve those soils and even to restore them.

Sara: And how is that going? What kind of approaches are you taking?

Jacynthe: What I like about this project or this issue here is the producers got together and they basically found a way to collect money so they can fund an answered research chair, which is housed at the University of Laval in Quebec City. And it's under the direction of Jean Caron, which is a researcher over there and a professor over there. They're looking at the erosion processes of what's happening, but also different ways to restore those soils. And one of those ways is through mulching. So they're testing mainly two types of mulch over there, so the miscanthus and the willow. And we collaborated with them to create this project that we're hosting here at Agriculture Canada. But it's done with three other departments within the federal government. And we're looking at different types of mulching, different types of strategy with the mulching. So whether we bury them early on in the season or later on in the season. And then we're also looking at a holistic approach, biovigilance. And we'll look at the global impacts that could have those mulching on the soil health, the plant health, and the ecosystem health as well.

Kirk: We’ll hear more on the research chair in a bit – that’s what Denys helped to fund so he could get answers on how to save his soils.

Sara: Yeah, but first I’m curious to hear more about the other groups in this project. Jacynthe, you mentioned three other government departments. Who else is involved? How big a collaboration is this?

Jacynthe: Well, just the example of the idea behind the choice of mulchings. So we've worked with Natural Resources Canada to try to find tree species that are growing very well in Quebec, but that are not very well used. So there's not a lot of market for them, such as larch. Ash as well. We know there's some problems with ash right now. So if we can find some usage for those species and they could help to enhance organic matter in the soil and everything, that's super interesting, because that's a little bit of circular economy, right here. And then they could also have different impacts on microbial communities and on soil functionings. And one aspect that I love, and I'm speaking mostly as a soil microbiome person, is usually when we talk about soil microbiomes, we mostly think about beneficial impacts that they could have. But in fact, they also have detrimental impacts. So I love the analogy of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” So The Good is all the beneficial impacts that they have. But The Bad could be also pathogens. So we have the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that's looking at pathogens, and they look at if those practices will enhance their spreading or enhance just their presence or increase their presence. So it's a very important component as well. And for The Ugly, we have the Public Health Agency of Canada that's looking at, oh, are we going to increase pathogens that could be harmful for humans with those practices? So it's very much looking at the problem from different perspectives in a holistic way and I just love it about this project, so... collaborations are always great.

Kirk: Yeah, so I guess, you know, one of the things when you hear that there's so many different partners, you know, did you have the impression that with all of that brainpower and everything like that, does that help to accelerate or does it slow the process down in terms of finding solutions?

Jacynthe: I think for me, it's... Well, maybe I live in a world with unicorns, but I feel like it's just speeding up the process, because there are a lot of brains working together. And it's great to know that, oh I'm not going to be the only one looking at this data. So everyone's going to work together, and at the end we work together. There's more brains, I think for me is, more brains for me is just positive. And also just on the field, we worked all the teams together. So we worked with the technician to collect the lettuce. And it was just a lot of fun seeing people from different fields working together and just creating the science. For me it's just something that's positive and once the project is well-defined, everyone knows what they have to do. I mean, what can go wrong?

Kirk: What can go wrong indeed – especially when there are so many different groups looking at this issue from so many different angles.

Sara: Speaking of different groups, let’s bring Denys in now. Like Jacynthe said, he was part of the producers who funded a research chair at the Université Laval to work on this issue. Denys, how did university come to collaborate with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada? I believe it started when you met a knowledge transfer agent at the research centre in Saint-Jean, Carl Bélec?

Denys: We went to see the research that Carl was doing on the site. And when we got there, he showed us a little about the plots he had planted with sunflower, willow, miscanthus, some other plants I don’t remember. But there were lots of plots that he had planted on his own initiative, along with the research he had done on other plants, which was a really good contribution of carbon and biomass. And after that, the producers who were there that day were all like “Wow!” All of that really made me realize, “OK, if Agriculture Canada is also aligned with the university on the same issue, we’re going to move even faster on this.”

Kirk: How have both groups been tackling this issue?

Denys: The Research Chair is really involved in the more technical part. When we’re going to reincorporate either willow residues or miscanthus residues—when we are ready to incorporate it into our soil—they’re really the whole biological side. “Do we have too much nitrogen or not enough nitrogen? Too much phosphorus, not enough phosphorus, etc.” So the university is much more focused on extremely precise work in the laboratory to look at the decomposition of soil, such as whether we should add certain materials to our soil and how they will behave in the future. Will it affect our vegetables when we do the planting or will it simply increase our degradation curve? On the other hand, with Agriculture Canada, our feet are more on the ground. We are at the Sainte-Clotilde research station where we have planted plots with many types of plants from around the world, which can be woody or leafy plants, or all kinds of plants so that, after a few years of growth, we can examine the decomposition of these plants, and then the matter that will remain in the soil. So we have a side that is very scientific, and then we have a side that is more down to earth with the research station, given that we are really on an experimental farm, in the field, working with organic soil and with methods more similar to ours, which we use to grow crops on our farms.

Sara: I’m guessing that in a perfect world, you’re hoping to learn some techniques that you can implement on your own farm, right?

Denys: Exactly. We often run into problems when we have research plots on our farms. For example, let’s say I plant a hectare or half an acre of switchgrass. I need to cut it in the middle of winter. Then I have to let nature break it down to remove some of its carbon. Then, in the spring, I have to chop it. After that, I have to spread it in my fields. Whereas Agriculture Canada, with its plots, they have the potential to find the perfect machinery to cut willows. To date, from a technical viewpoint, willow seems to be one of the most promising plants for the future. However, it will take special machinery to grind the willows, to store them in swaths, to be able to release some of their carbon content that can be too high. You need to let the willow decompose by itself. And after that, for the application, how are we going to spread it in the fields? Using which method, mechanically speaking, once we’re harvesting large plots? So that’s on the mechanical side. But we’re going to get there. I’m sure we’re going to get there.

Kirk: Okay, so, you received part of the funding for this project through a program with the National Research Council – how much longer do you have for that project?

Denys: The National Research Council program ends in spring 2023. So we’re at the end of the program. In fact, it’s been six years. There are other small programs that seem to… well, we could apply to those small programs to continue working with certain researchers. But it won’t be on the same scope as the research we’ve had in the past six years. So we are at the end of the program. On the other hand, in our local development centres for the region, we have really made the degradation of soil our top priority. So our issue has become known. In this region, we’ve raised the awareness of most, if not all of the producers around us. The stakes are really high. We need to work hard, and we have to keep investing. There will be other projects that will be developed on both the provincial and federal sides. There is awareness in my opinion, which is very good. Moreover, the Agriculture Canada research centre is on our side. After getting our governments on board, we should be able to continue other research projects in the future to continue to advance in this methodology.

Sara: So you’ve got one year left. And there will be future studies. But coming out of this one, have you developed some strategies that you’re capable of implementing yourselves?

Denys: On each farm of the 14 participating members, we have research plots large enough to be able to continue and to be aware that, yes, we must implement new measures. Willow hedges look very promising in two ways. On the one hand, because of the decompaction of the soil by the willow roots, we’re really interested in that. And on the other hand, when we cut down the willows after two or three years, they are going to continue to grow back afterwards. And when we go to see what is happening in foreign countries, such as in Europe, many willow trees are grown to retain riverbanks. First, if willow trees are grown in the right places, they can act as a windbreak. Second, they will decompact the soil and, third, we will use the wood from the trees and its residue to be able to increase our phosphorus zone in our organic soil again. We can use the willow trees, and after that their branches. After two or three years, willows grow very fast. They can be ground up and then spread over the most affected areas of our land. We do not need to improve 100% of our land, but there are areas where the soil is much thinner, more urgent or more significant than others.

Kirk: Have you had any unexpected results from the work you’re doing with AAFC and Université Laval?

Denys: The thing that surprised me the most in this whole project when we launched it was to see the people concerned react by saying, “Wow, how can the loss of our soil be that major?” So we saw other projects restarted with both support and research clubs. Whether it’s the Plein Terre, Acadie Lab or Prism research clubs, we saw that they too had an interest in trying to target research projects and that’s what really helped us advance the cause. If everyone gets involved, everyone can do more applied research. And then it becomes an issue, a major, important issue. That’s the thing that surprised us the most. We picked students who conducted studies on the organic soil, who are now professionals. We convinced Laval University, in Quebec City, that there is organic soil in Canada, in Quebec, and it is important to talk about it. So, there have been masters’ degrees, post-docs and doctorates. There are all kinds of things like that, and I believe that in the future, this will be a plus. It’s because our cause is known now. We are recognized in Quebec as a region with a truly special, miraculous, very productive soil. But it’s not sustainable for the next 100 years. We need to take care of it. We need researchers to remain alert. And, in addition, we have a research station in an area with organic soil. The last time we were at the research station, we were about 50 producers. All the producers said the same thing. It’s so encouraging to have the research station operating again. Everyone was happy to see the station reopened. There were projects and examples of the use of drones, and examples of plots where they were looking at onion maggots. We had plots to test different methods related to onion crops, with additions of biomass across the rows to study behaviour. We had research on lettuce and research on willows. That’s... wow! So we feel really validated.

Kirk: Yeah, no, I can imagine just how validating that is. You know, they’re putting themselves on the map and pulling resources from the whole region, really. You know what, hearing about the use of the willows as windbreaks is giving me flashbacks to our last episode on agroforestry.

Sara: Mmhm. Everything is connected. Soil, water, crops, trees...

Kirk: Producers, professors, researchers, Sara, Kirk, everybody, right?

Sara: Mmhm, exactly. So, speaking of researchers, let’s go back to Jacynthe for the last word on it. She mentioned the term before, but I think it really highlights the approach that is being taken with these organic soils: biovigilance.

Jacynthe: So we have a perspective of biovigilance, right? It's a project I really like, it got developed here at Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu with researchers like Odile Carisse, Mamadou Lamine Fall and Tanya Arseneault. And what it does basically, it relies on a continuum of science-based activity and research, but also it's recognizing that the system we're studying is a complex system and it has interaction. So the idea is to, yes, increase plant health, plant yields, crop yields, but also looking at all the interactions between all the components of the system and see if we're fixing one problem, would it cause another? Let's say we're increasing yield because of one practice, but would it increase pathogens? Would it increases weeds? So if the people working in soil fertility don't talk to the people working with weeds, then they might think they fixed the problem, but then they cause another one. Same thing with pathogens. So it's the idea that the system is an ecosystem-based system and all areas are interconnected. And we need to understand these in order to better model our prediction and better understand the system, and then to make appropriate adjustments to the system if needed without causing more problems. It's also, I love this approach because it makes us work together. Just like the ecosystem, we're interconnected. It's recognizing that the soil is a complex system, and agro-ecosystems are complex systems. And it forces us to work together to try to understand it better and to improve our knowledge about this system, and then to better protect it. Soil is, for me, the most precious resource we have on earth, maybe close to water. And this soil is very important for Quebec, for Canada in general. And seeing people coming together and just like... how the producer and the researchers came together, and with the other department, with the university, trying to find a solution to conserve and restore the soils is very amazing for me.

Kirk: Well now I want to throw on a pair of workboots and get down in the soil too.

Sara: Yeah, and I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Sherrington region, but “black soil” is not a figure of speech. The soil is black, and with the little green lettuce and onion shoots coming out in the spring, the place is gorgeous.

Kirk: Yeah, no, I mean it’s almost like the colour green is amplified.

Sara: Yeah, and I mean, it’s a region you have to know if you work in agriculture in Quebec, and horticulture even more so. But what’s interesting is also the work the producers are doing together. It’s a very innovative bunch, whether it be in research, protection of their plants, protection of their crops, innovation in marketing, exportation, it’s really an interesting place.

Kirk: Yeah, no, that’s super. Hey, you know what, Jacynthe, she mentioned that region, Holland Marsh there, which has got a similar soil situation in Ontario. If you’re a producer listening, or an agronomist and you’re working in that region, we’d be super interested to hear from you and any kind of work or research that you’re doing in your particular region on the soils there.

Sara: Plus don’t forget to subscribe to The First Sixteen on your favourite podcasting platform. We’ve got some fascinating topics coming up.

Kirk: Yeah, and you know, if you like hearing about protecting your soil and stuff like that, we’ve got some past episodes that touch on the subject, like the one on agroforestry or resolving nutrient loss in soil. Maybe there’s a biovigilant approach that could be implemented on your farm.

Sara: After all, you know what to do.

Kirk: Yes indeed. Try something new.

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Episode 023 - Saving our organic soils

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