Soil School: Crop diversity and alternative fertilizer feed this soil

Knowing your soil and accepting your climatic challenges for what they are is key to choosing the right crops, cover crops, and soil amendments that will perform best. That said, sometimes it takes a major event to push for significant changes to the current status quo.

Jenn Doelman farms at Douglas, Ont., and is a key member of her family’s cash crop and seed production business. She’s also a member of the Ontario Soil Network and is passionate about what crop diversity can offer the soil she farms on, a high clay soil that has the tendency to turn to a solid brick when it dries out.

In her area, in Renfrew county, the last 15-plus years have meant a significant move away from alfalfa and pasture-based farms to more corn and soybeans, and the corresponding tillage. Doelman says that’s been hard on the unforgiving ground, and she’s witnessed the soil tightening up, even under their farms’ more minimum to zero-till system.

Then, in 2012, the area faced a Phase 3 drought. Something larger-scale had to change, she says, to add resiliency back into the land base.

Jenn, with her husband Mike and family at BDS Farms, made an effort to take on a unique rotation for the area — including forages, cereals, and even buckwheat, where it fits. The goal is to find the best fit for the soil and the climate, recognizing the limitations of the soil they grow on. Putting soil health first has also meant staying off the land when it’s not fit — and that can be tough when all the neighbours are rolling and you’re not, she says. (Story continues below)

Marketing what’s grown is also a consideration, of course, and they have developed a wholesale seed business that serves Eastern Ontario that can actively find a home for the crops that best suit the area.

What’s more, Doelman is open to possibility, and being within a few hours of a major urban centre means that the farm has access to compost and biosolids — a soil amendment that could prove very helpful in the long term in building organic matter. It’s early days yet in the evaluation, and using biosolids is not without challenges. Distance and logistics is a challenge on the profitability aspect of moving large volumes, but other farmers closer to the city are having success adding the amendment. 2020 will be the fourth year using biosolids, she says, and they hope to have a full analysis taken to yield on a strip trial basis.

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