Summer on the farm is all about pulling in beautiful food from the fields, reveling in abundance, eating the delicious fruits of our labour. It’s flashy and exciting and is the goal of all that we do on the farm – feeding our community. But while all the excitement is happening above ground, what is quietly happening below the ground is key to it all and we pay consistent and focused attention to the life happening below the surface because that is where our most enduring goal manifests – in the life and health of the soil.
Farming can be done in many ways and here at Cedar Down Farm, our goal is to be stewards, to care for the land in a way that will both provide for us and our community but also contribute to and enhance the health of the land. And there can be no health without healthy soil. Soil is a complex, incredible eco-system that maintains all life and as farmers, it is a lifelong challenge to reap what you need from the soil while ensuring that you replenish and enhance it. Farming inherently damages the soil – from cultivation and compaction to nutrient removal and erosion, we are ever seeking new information, new techniques to reduce our impact and contribute to soil building.
Here at our farm that means reducing tillage as much as possible and moving towards a low-tillage system of permanent beds. It means field rotations that allow soil to rest for multiple years and be replenished with soil-building cover crops. It means staying off the land with equipment when the soil is wet and farming without chemical fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides. It also means allowing much of the farm to exist outside of agriculture, leaving hedgerows, forests, wetlands and meadows to thrive and contribute to the overall health of the land and it’s inhabitants.
Last year we started participating in the Ecological Farmers of Ontario Soil Health Benchmark Study, a program designed to help farmers assess soil health on their farms and share knowledge and techniques for improving soil health. Jeff took soil samples from several spots on the farm and sent them off for analysis with a focus on soil organic matter levels and active carbon. In general (I am not a soil scientist!) these measurements are good indicators of the health and activity of soil micro-biology, the life in the soil that does the work of keeping soil fertile, friable, resistant to erosion and permeable to water.
Having these measurements helps us to know whether we are on the right track with our soil management techniques and will help us track this over time to see if improvements or changes contribute positively to the health of our soils.1