Long-time Chatham-Kent farmer Bob Kerr is looking to save the earth one field at a time.
He shared that message with the Rotary Club of Chatham Sunrise Tuesday morning along with some practical applications for how local farmers can help.
Overall, Kerr’s message is focused on improving soil health by implementing farming practices that can provide multiple benefits for both the local community and the global environment.
One of those benefits, according to Kerr, is cutting down the amount of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere. Kerr says farmers can do that by promoting microbial life in the soil that produces humus, which is long-term organic matter. Kerr says that would help to lock up carbon in the ground instead of allowing it to build up in the atmosphere — thereby helping to reduce global warming.
Another benefit of having healthier soil is that it reduces run-off.
Kerr says this is a key concern not only because of the potential for harmful chemicals to pollute area waterways, but also because farmers are losing topsoil at an unsustainable rate.
“We’re in the vicinity of [losing] 1 mm of topsoil per year… that accumulates to one inch of topsoil lost in 25 years or four inches in 100 years,” says Kerr. “Left alone, nature only manages to increase soil at the rate of one inch in 1,000 years.”
Kerr’s suggestions for how farmers can help improve soil health include: reducing tillage, growing cover crops to protect the soil, increasing plant diversity of crops, and reviewing pesticide use — specifically, eliminating the use of chemicals that are hard on beneficial microbes.
It won’t be easy, though. Kerr admits convincing farmers to change their current practices can be difficult.
“[Implementing new farm practices] means trying new things… cost of production is high and profit margins are slim,” says Kerr. “We [farmers] hesitate to take a risk with an uncertain outcome.”
In order to promote positive change, Kerr says it could be beneficial to set up a financial incentive for farmers who are making adjustments in an effort to build up organic matter in the soil. He says if farmers are making an effort to provide an environmental service that benefits the whole community, they should receive some sort of financial compensation.
Kerr’s suggestion is to pass some of the carbon tax revenue on to the farmers in the form of grants, which could be used to help cover the cost of special equipment that may be necessary for changing their practices.
“[Soil degradation] is going to catch up to us,” says Kerr. “Unless we wake up soon and make some of these changes to conserve soil and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”