The National Farmers Union would like to congratulate Katia Huszka and Stuart Oke, winners of the Beingessner Award for Excellence in Writing for 2015. This year’s theme was “Soil: Our Common Ground”.
Katia is 18 years and from Florence, Ontario. She is currently in her first year at the University of Waterloo studying Environment and Resource Studies. Stuart is a 25-year old organic vegetable farmer who farms north of Kingston, Ontario. He has spent the past eight years farming throughout Ontario from Thunder Bay to Kingston, and is a coordinator for NFU Local 316.
Soil: Our Common Ground
An open letter by Katia Huska, age 18, Florence, Ontario
My name is Soil, but perhaps you know me better by another name; Dirt. Not very fitting, considering the fact that I support all life on Earth! Compared to my counterparts, water and air, I have attracted little environmental attention. Until recently, you have taken me for granted and I have suffered great losses. As a result of your unsustainable land use practices, I have reached potentially disastrous levels of degradation, prompting the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations to declare 2015 to be the International Year of Soils. Finally, a little respect!
Did you not realize my remarkable capabilities? I contain one quarter of the planet’s biodiversity and one tablespoon of healthy soil has more organisms in it than there are people on Earth (10 Incredible Facts About Dirt, 2010). I help combat climate change by storing 10% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions (10 Incredible Facts About Dirt, 2010). I am priceless and indispensible … but I am under increasing pressure. Worldwide I am threatened by deforestation, human population growth, urban expansion, pollution, waste disposal, climate change and poor soil management practices. It is estimated that 52% of the world’s agricultural land has been moderately to severely damaged (The Value of Land, 2015). This fact is even more alarming considering that I am a non-renewable resource, meaning any loss or degradation is not recoverable within your lifespan. Are you aware that it takes a minimum of 500 years to form one inch of topsoil (10 Incredible Facts About Dirt, 2010)?
Centuries of neglect have resulted in biodiversity loss, salinization, nutrient imbalance, erosion, loss of organic material, acidification, compaction and desertification. The demands of our growing global population for food, fuel, medicinal products and fibre are estimated to increase 60% by the year 2050 (International Year of Soils, 2015). How will we meet these demands when our planet is faced with water scarcity, food and nutrient insecurity, poverty, migration and ecosystem reduction? It is estimated that 50 million people may be forced to seek new homes and livelihoods within 10 years due to the degradation of their land (The Value of the Land, 2015). The time for change is now!
For some of you, it will not be the first time that you have been made aware of these startling realities. Perhaps you are a farmer. Did you know that many of your fellow citizens believe that you are responsible for this grim situation? The State of Canadian Agriculture Survey, a 2014 study conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, recently sought to address the notion that farming is unsustainable and potentially environmentally harmful. A surprising and encouraging finding, the survey revealed that 95% of Canadian farmers are taking action to protect the environment (Realities of Agriculture in Canada, 2014). Are you committed to reducing the impact of your agricultural practices or are you part of the 5% who is not?
Excessive amounts of salt or heavy metals in the soil can reduce or prevent plant growth. Sustainable management involves making the conscious decision to improve my health and conservation. This involves restoring degraded soils through scientific analysis, increasing organic matter content, planting cover crops, utilizing minimum tillage, implementing crop rotation, reducing erosion, ensuring appropriate waste disposal and proper land use planning. These, unfortunately, are added expenses for farmers and society in general. The true cost of unhealthy soil is far greater, however, as the value of ecosystem functions provided by soil resources such as food, nutrient cycling, poverty reduction, clean water, and climate and disease regulation that is lost due to land degradation is estimated between 6.3 and 10.6 trillion US dollars (The Value of Land, 2015). Government funding needs to be implemented in order to recoup the additional costs associated with new technology, equipment and inputs related to these best management practices. Also, it will be crucial to develop an international policy as well as economic, legislative and regulatory guidelines as soon as possible.
Most importantly, soil management involves awareness, education and advocacy. As stewards of the land, you should be concerned not only with what is occurring on your own farm, but also about the condition of your fellow farmers’ property. They may be your next-door neighbor or they may be practicing ‘slash and burn’ agriculture on the other side of the world. Producers, as well as consumers, all share the responsibility to care for me and the biodiversity that I support for generations to come. Remember these words, taken from a First Nations Proverb:
Treat the Earth well: it was not given to you by your Parents, it was loaned to you by your Children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors; we borrow it from our Children. (Famous Quotes, 2013)
We are partners; if I am not healthy and productive, your farms will not be sustainable. I am depending on you to not leave your land as it was given to you – make it better.
Your Soil, a.k.a. “Dirt”
Deeper than the Soil:
An open letter on stewardship of the land and our relationship to it.
—by Stuart Oke, age 25, Kingston, Ontario
For many, the soil has no more meaning than the thing on which we put our feet. Of course everyone knows that plants and by extension our food comes from the soil but for farmers it has a much more essential meaning…It goes beyond the nutrient profiles and geologic classifications, although these factors are as important as any when it comes to growing food. It’s meaning goes beyond our ability to derive monetary value from it (from fields to pastures to pens) as much as this ability allows us to continue as farmers.
For farmers the soil is not just the medium in which we work, it provides us with one of the most fundamental blocks of life…food. A simple concept which seems ridiculous to underscore but with arable land decreasing by the year and most peoples daily interaction with their food less secure then ever it remains an idea as important to me now as when I started farming.
With that said, I admit that even for me my appreciation of the soil is not always present. When my day-‐to-‐day tasks and experience in growing serve to lessen my appreciation of the awesome power that it can hold. Yet in my more reflective moments the act of putting seeds into the ground and with a little care, watching as life springs forth seems to sometimes transcend my scientific mind into the realm of magic.
For farmers, I have come to believe, the soil represents a much more tangible connection to the world then many people come to be aware. We feed and build and work and sow and from this effort we feed ourselves and our families and our communities and this co-‐existence transcends the politics and disagreements and everyday noise in which we live. The inescapably true fact is that, we all must eat, and from statement there comes a truly common ground for us to stand upon; As we protect and care for our soil, so does it return the favour to us.
Certainly as a farmer the soil holds an important place within my life. It has allowed me an income to survive, a community to love and a lifestyle to live. While many farmers are in disagreement about the way to care for our soil and even the degree to which it should be, no one can disagree that the soil is the block on which our community, domestically and abroad, has been built upon.
For me personally I’ve come to realize that to protect the things most important to me involves protecting the soil as well. I work everyday farming in a way that emulates the stewardship and care of the land shown to me by my mentors and I hope that others will look at me and do the same, little by little leading through example. It is in this way that I believe as a community united in our belief that those things most important to our survival need be protected more fervently and passionately then all else need work one person at a time to effect change in the way we need desperately to see. Be it through farming in your fields, purchases with your money, food on your table or votes in our ballot boxes. Together we cannot just sustain our soil but can build it along with our society into as resilient and nurturing a thing that can be hoped for into the future.