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AGFO - Standing Committee

Agriculture and Forestry



OTTAWA, Thursday, April 20, 2023

The Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry met with videoconference this day at 9:01 a.m. [ET] to examine and report on the status of soil health in Canada.

Senator Robert Black (Chair) in the chair.


The Chair: Good morning, everyone. It’s good to see everyone here bright and early. I would like to begin by welcoming members of the committee. I would like to welcome our witnesses both in person and online and those watching the meeting on the web. My name is Rob Black, senator from Ontario. I am chairing this committee meeting today.

Today, the committee is meeting to examine and report on the status of soil health in Canada. Before we hear from the witnesses, I would like to start by asking my colleague senators to introduce themselves.

Senator Simons: I’m Senator Paula Simons. I’m an independent senator from Alberta from Treaty 6 territory. Mr. Wallace’s backdrop is making me feel homesick, although I don’t think that’s a real-time photograph since I don’t think the grass is that colour in Alberta right now.

Senator Duncan: Good morning, Pat Duncan, senator from the Yukon.

Senator Cotter: Brent Cotter, senator for Saskatchewan from Treaty 6 territory and the homeland of the Métis. Good morning.

Senator Klyne: Good morning, and welcome to our expert witnesses. Marty Klyne, senator from Saskatchewan, Treaty 4 territory.


Senator Petitclerc: Good morning and welcome. I am Chantal Petitclerc from Quebec.


Senator Woo: Good morning, I’m Yuen Pau Woo from British Columbia.

Senator Oh: Good morning, I’m Senator Oh from Ontario.

The Chair: Thank you, colleagues. Before we begin, I would just like to mention that should any technical challenges arise, particularly in relation to interpretation, please signal this to the chair or the clerk, and we will work to resolve the issue.

I am pleased today to welcome from the Government of Alberta, Trevor Wallace, Provincial Nutrient Management Specialist, Natural Resource Management Branch, Alberta Agriculture and Irrigation — by video conference; from the Government of Manitoba, Patti Rothenburger, Assistant Deputy Minister, Manitoba Agriculture — again, by video conference; and Marla Riekman, Land Management Specialist, Soils, Manitoba Agriculture.

I invite you to make your presentations. We will begin with Mr. Wallace followed by Ms. Riekman for five minutes. At one minute left, I will put my hand up. When we get close to the end of that minute, you will see both hands up. It will be advisable to wrap up at that point. With that, Mr. Wallace.

Trevor Wallace, Provincial Nutrient Management Specialist, Natural Resource Management Branch, Alberta Agriculture and Irrigation, Government of Alberta: Thank you, chair and committee members, for your invitation. I am humbled to be speaking here on behalf of the Government of Alberta.

Because of its unique climate and geography, Alberta has a lot of diversity in its soils. Alberta has about 49 million acres of farmland, one third of Canada’s total. This includes about 1.8 million irrigated acres, which is more than 70% of Canada’s total. Alberta is home to about 22 million acres of forage and 27 million acres of annual crop production.

Agriculture is critical to the economy and global food security thus making soil conservation and management extremely important. Over the years, many initiatives have helped Alberta’s farmers improve soil health. Farmers and ranchers have changed the way they farm. The adoption of new innovations and technologies has allowed farmers to increase their productivity, build healthier soils and reduce their net carbon footprint. It is important to recognize the positive achievements farmers and past programs have had on soil health. We are happy to include these initiatives in a later submission.

Alberta is fortunate to have well-functioning soils. Soil health has improved in many ways, making them less susceptible to erosion and more resilient to stress. This is due to farmers reducing summer fallow, adopting reduced tillage, including livestock in production systems, adopting intensive and rotational grazing practices and diversifying rotations by including legumes and perennials. These practices increase soil organic matter and soil carbon levels, which are key to soil health.

However, the work is far from complete. There are soils across the landscape that are eroding and becoming more saline, acidic or compacted. Soils such as the Gray Luvisols require more careful management and are at greater risk of degradation. Weather, disease, pests and evolving production practices impact the soil’s ability to function. Without thoughtful management, these factors will undermine our gains.

Soil health is dynamic. Soils are living, and their natural healthy condition will change as they age. It is also relative. Optimal conditions for one soil are different than for another. This variability occurs across the landscape. In addition, soils influence and are influenced by the production system. There is no one solution to address all the issues. What works well for one soil area or system may not work well for another. Soil health principles require regional and local adaptation. Programs and policies must be flexible. Multiple approaches are needed to maintain and improve soil health.

It can take years and even decades to see improvements in soil health. It is not enough to just adopt practices. We must make ongoing maintenance a priority. We believe funding and technical support must be a long-term commitment to facilitate the following five focus areas.

First, we need discussions to identify collaborative opportunities and actions to advance soil health. These actions include: the development of regional soil health strategies; forming regional, non-government organizations or networks to deliver local strategies; facilitating data sharing to improve general understanding, reporting and on-farm decision making; and reaching a consensus on which indicators are the most informative and how to measure them. Metrics must be easy to collect, easy to understand and affordable. Labs must be able to complete analysis of targeted indicators. Soil organic carbon, soil organic matter and a measure of yield should be key indicators.

Second, soil health research has to be cooperative, collaborative and include all levels of government, private sector, non-government organizations and farmers. It is critical to identify long-term impacts from cropping systems and management practices. New practices and technologies need to be science-based, practical and affordable. The return on investment must be identified. Benchmarking current soil conditions and continued long-term monitoring are also needed.

Third, we need the broad-based adoption of beneficial management practices. Financial incentives such as those delivered by the Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership are essential to support, as well as the following: applied, on‑farm testing of new practices; adoption and long‑term maintenance of beneficial management practices; business risk management tools that provide operational risk protection when changing practices; and opportunities for ecological goods and services.

Fourth, we need local soil health extension for agricultural advisors and farmers. This should be a cooperative extension model, which includes all levels of government, private sector and non-government organizations.

Finally, we need public education on the societal benefits of improving soil health. This will improve consumer confidence in the agricultural sector and show that public funds are being spent for the greater good.

We fundamentally believe soil health is the foundation of sustainable food production. Farmers are stewards of the land. They recognize the critical role soil plays in their ability to earn their livelihoods and grow food for Canada and the world. Farmers need and deserve our coordinated support.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide input on this extremely timely and important topic.

The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Wallace. Moving on to Ms. Riekman, who is here in person.

Marla Riekman, Land Management Specialist – Soils, Manitoba Agriculture, Government of Manitoba: I am, yes. Thank you.

Thank you, honourable senators, for the invitation to participate here today. My name is Marla Riekman, and I am an Extension Specialist with Manitoba Agriculture with a focus on soil health and soil management. Joining me via video conference is our Assistant Deputy Minister, Patti Rothenburger.

You have heard from a number of our provincial colleagues over the last few weeks, including today’s presentation from Mr. Wallace from Alberta. Like our neighbours to the west, Manitoba has a high rate of minimum and zero-till adoption, specifically in the western part of the province. There, we have clay loam soils and a bit of a drier climate, which is more well‑suited to a no-till production system.

In contrast, the heavy clay soils of the Red River Valley around Winnipeg are less forgiving and tend to benefit more from tillage. However, we do see reductions in tillage in the valley, especially in dry years when farmers are trying to adapt to those situations.

Agricultural production in Manitoba is primarily within the black soil zone, which is a highly productive soil and more resilient in the face of degradation. Our soils may not show the extreme impact of soil degradation as quickly as others, but this also means that our soils have a high potential for improvement. They are capable of growing a lot of plant biomass, something that is necessary to build and store soil carbon.

Crop rotations in Manitoba are extremely diverse, which adds to our unique ability to adapt to climate change, improve soil health and build resilience in our agricultural system. Longer season crops such as corn, soybeans and dry beans have been added to rotations especially in the eastern and central regions of Manitoba. We also seed a variety of small grains and oilseeds as part of our crop rotations.

Some of the most critical issues affecting soil health in Manitoba right now are things like soil salinity and soil compaction. These might not always be given the same high profile that other soil health issues receive, but they have a direct impact on soil productivity and are a major challenge for farmers. Managing these soil health problems often requires a shift in how farmers manage the landscape. This might mean things like seeding saline areas to salt-tolerant forage or minimizing traffic over the field to reduce things like soil compaction.

Some of these management strategies can be tricky for a farmer to digest. We don’t always have enough information on the economic impact on the farm for these issues. As an extension specialist who encourages farmers to adopt soil health practices, this is often one of my biggest struggles. Do we have enough research that not only demonstrates the environmental benefit of these practices, but also the agronomic and economic benefit of these practices?

Farmers need to realize a return on investment when they are adopting new practices. If practices are known to provide a return, it is more likely that adoption will increase based on peer‑to-peer knowledge sharing. When there is not a return to the farmer but the public sees a great benefit to the practice, this is when funding programs are needed to drive adoption.

Adoption of soil health practices may also be slower on rented acres, something that’s increasing across much of the country. It is unlikely that a farmer will invest in soil building practices on rented land if they will not reap the rewards of the efforts themselves. Some landowners may be adding soil management clauses to rental agreements, but this then requires a long-term commitment between the renter and the landlord.

Manitoba is one of the few provinces that continues to provide extension services to the farming community. Extension offers a critical link between researchers and farmers, acting as an information conduit between these groups. We have an opportunity to connect with local producer groups to identify key research gaps, including the long-term economic impact of soil health practices, as well as indicators that farmers can use to identify if they’re making a difference. We recognize the differences across Canada in crop and livestock practices, soil zones and climate factors and can use this knowledge to inform research and policy on a national scale. We know that what might work in Alberta or Ontario may not apply in Manitoba and vice versa. It is critically important that we recognize the regional differences in both the problems and the solutions when we look at soil health.

We also know the importance of considering agronomic, economic and social aspects of the farm if soil health practices are to be adopted and maintained for the long-term. Thank you again for the opportunity to address you here today and we look forward to your questions.

The Chair: Thank you very much to both our speakers this morning. We will now proceed to questions from senators. Before asking and answering questions, I want to ask members and witnesses in the room to please refrain from leaning in too close to the microphone or removing your earpiece when doing so. This will avoid feedback that could negatively affect our colleagues working in the room.

As has been our practice, I would remind senators that you have seven minutes, and at one minute left, I will put my hand up. That’s seven minutes for questions and answers, so keep that in mind. We will begin with our deputy chair.

Senator Simons: Thank you to our witnesses.

Ms. Riekman, I want to thank you for laying out one of the important issues we’ve been wrestling with here, which is how to spur adoption of new techniques, whether you prioritize convincing people who have been lagging to change their ways and then how you reward people who made the changes years ago. You made a very good case that it has to be not just a question of doing it for the environment’s sake but doing it for the economic benefit. I want to thank you for laying that out so clearly. But as an Alberta senator, my questions will be primarily for Mr. Wallace.

I met with some Alberta soil scientists the other day. They were concerned about the fact — they told me anyway — that the last comprehensive soil mapping done in Alberta was done in 1989. I wanted to know from you, if that is the case, is that a problem? Are we all right to rely on soil mapping data — and we’ve heard this from other witnesses from other provinces, too — is it reasonable for us to still be relying on soil mapping data from the 1970s and 1980s or do we need new comprehensive soil mapping, and not just in Alberta but in other parts of the country as well?

Mr. Wallace: Excellent question. You are right. The soil mapping data is old and we have not updated it in years. And there are benefits. It is a trade-off. When we talk about improving soil health at the farm level, local level or field level, we need a lot of specific data, but that higher level soil mapping data — and in some cases, we have data that is older that isn’t even digitized — it does give us direction. It helps us develop better programs and target our efforts, not just at a provincial level, but through using our applied research associations and forage associations and municipalities across the province, it gives them a better understanding of how to produce programs to service the area. Granted, from a producer perspective, that data is not as useful because they need site-specific data to make decisions. Therefore, this is a role for two levels of data.

Senator Simons: When that data was collected in the 1970s and 1980s, not only were weather conditions different, the environment was different, but technology was different. I presume back then that people had to take individual soil samples. Now, we have drone technology, satellite technology, all kinds of aerial imaging technology. Would it be possible to do soil mapping today, leveraging that new technology, that would give us more comprehensive data and with less expense and labour?

Mr. Wallace: Absolutely. With some of the remote technology we have now, we can do analysis with various spectrums, even using drones or some other technologies. We can get a lot more information remotely. We are limited in the sense that ground cover and crop cover gets in the way of some of that, so we have to do it on the shoulders, but you are absolutely right. There are remote sensors, a lot of in-field technology we can use now that didn’t exist before. You’re right, the production systems have completely changed, the equipment has completely changed and how we’ve influenced the system has changed those soils.

Senator Simons: Given that, in Alberta at least, we have pretty long shoulder seasons, sadly, and — maybe this is not a fair question to ask you because you are not a politician — but why haven’t we done this? I mean, we have the technology. We have the capability to do this kind of soil mapping, not just in Alberta but across the country. Why are we not taking advantage of the technology we now have to get us the data we need that is up to date?

Mr. Wallace: Well, I think we are taking advantage of it, but it is usually at the farmer-consultant relationship level. And it’s not being aggregated into a larger provincial capture level. You are right, I’m not a politician. I do not set policy. I work on delivering set policy. But soil is represented by nobody. All the commodity groups depend on soil, but none of the commodity groups are directly soil focused. It’s all part of the system, and there have been a lot of initiatives by them to maintain and improve our soils. But it is not like they have a voice at the table sometimes directly from soil on some of its needs — nor funding or check-off dollars — to support programming like this. Right now, it is falling on the shoulders of individual producers. They are collecting data and improving their systems, and we are just not aggregating it up to provincial.

Senator Simons: You talked about the different kinds of soil we have in Alberta, where we have the dryland irrigation farming in the south. We have more precipitation and different kinds of crops in northern and central Alberta. You haven’t talked as much about ranching and soil maintenance on grasslands and forage. Is there a concern when we’re talking about the dryland irrigation farming that in some cases we are irrigating and farming in Palliser’s Triangle on land that was really meant to be grasslands and used for grazing? How do we strike the right balance to make sure we are not using the wrong soil for the wrong purpose but that we’re making the best possible use of each soil for what it was evolved to do?

Mr. Wallace: Excellent question. I don’t mean to miss out on the ranching and the grassland management. We have excellent grassland management across this province. You are right. We are irrigating in some of our light brown or lighter soils. We do a lot of analysis to make sure that it is a good quality soil. But it is not just where the soil is developed, it is how we manage it. Under the improved irrigation systems and with improved technology, we feel we can manage a lot of those soils to reduce the risks on them compared to when they were grassland and didn’t have that extra moisture. You can see them really perform when they do get their moisture. I spent many years out in the dry part of Alberta and when it did rain, those soils produced wonderfully. They can respond.

Senator Simons: Thank you. I love the windmill in the background.

Senator Oh: Thank you, witnesses, for being here with us. My question is for anyone who could help. That would be great. With the different types of soils throughout Canada’s provinces, there are also different challenges with these soils. For example, in the Prairies, the biggest issue is soil salinization. To address these different challenges, what kind of collaboration is needed between the federal government and the provincial governments? What are the most beneficial practices used to mitigate salinization of soils in these provinces?

Ms. Riekman: Yes, salinity is definitely one of the critical issues we see. A lot of it is natural. It is not necessarily an induced issue — I shouldn’t say that. Sometimes we do have things like roadside salinity that are caused along roads because of the ditches that are now there holding water. That influences how water is moving under the soil and it is influencing how salt is moving through that soil profile.

In terms of collaboration, we know what a lot of the solutions may be in terms of beneficial management practices to work within those areas. We know the importance of assessing those areas, seeing how bad the salinity is, doing that soil testing and then going out and putting a forage in. The problem is when those areas are in the middle of a field and a farmer is struggling with the size of the equipment they have, the time that it takes in order to get their larger farms seeded and now you have an obstacle in the middle of the field that has to be managed around, that can be a very difficult thing for a farmer to say, “I’m going to carry out this practice.”

We’ve been supporting this practice of managing salinity through our beneficial management practices, or BMP, funding programs for a number of years in Manitoba, but it doesn’t always have a high uptake.

I think sometimes the biggest collaboration or the biggest missing pieces are around the economics of that management strategy. What is the cost to the farmer to have that obstacle there? It’s one thing to be able to provide funding to say we’re going to help support you to put the forage in the ground, but now you have to manage and maintain it. What is that cost to the farmer? We don’t always know what that ends up being.

The other thing around that collaborative approach is what are the other benefits that, say, come from having the habitat there for beneficial insects, which can help to decrease some of the pesticide impact. We know that there is research out there, but in terms of collaboration that’s maybe where some of the biggest issues lie, which is in that lack of true knowledge of how that works on a farm and looking at the farm or field scale economic management of dealing with the salinity that way.

Again, dealing with that is different in Manitoba than it might be in Alberta because the scale of salinity can be very different from one place to another. Dealing with salinity on irrigated land — and Mr. Wallace could comment on that — is also a very different situation as well. Recognizing the need to be able to collaborate, look at research, look at the economics and the regionality of it is probably where we can do the most work for managing salinity.

Senator Oh: How serious is the problem? Is it stabilizing or getting worse?

Ms. Riekman: It fluctuates. Salinity is something that will change over time with water cycles, essentially. We go through wet and dry periods, and we will end up having salinity go up and down. It ebbs and flows a lot of times because the salts are moving with water in the soil.

One of the reasons we see it get worse is because we grow annual crops and annual crops don’t take up water as much as a perennial crop. Because they don’t extract as much water out of the system, you don’t lower the water table quite the same. To really solve and manage the situation, you can say, “All right, then we will just start growing perennials,” but that’s not a practical thing to do across all of the agricultural prairies in Canada. We look at targeting areas where we can use those forages for the benefit of managing salinity. Again, it is a tricky thing for a farmer to deal with because now you have this obstacle in the middle of the field that they have to spray around and seed around. There are a lot of behavioural changes that come with soil health BMPs, especially when we’re dealing with managing fields on a soil basis as opposed to a section or quarter section basis. That is something that I think we haven’t looked at enough: the behavioural changes and the social idea of how we encourage more of the adoption of those practices. A lot of it will come down to the economic decision making and the drivers for those farmers.

Senator Oh: Do we have any feedback from Mr. Wallace?

Mr. Wallace: I would agree with Marla completely on that. We have forgotten about soil salinity in many areas. It depends on the season and the rainfall that we get. People have been farming for many years in a wet cycle and it’s not been an issue. As soon as we get into a dry cycle, it has become more of an issue. The solutions, as Ms. Riekman pointed out, are the same here — putting in forages, changing the way we’re farming the fields and our production system. We do need to be more cooperative at all levels. Again, that comes back to that mapping and working together on that extension because that’s how we’re going to address it, one field at a time.

Senator Klyne: My question is for Mr. Wallace, but I welcome Ms. Riekman to chime in on this. You had mentioned research and collaboration and that inspires me to ask the question. When we look at this, soil health is a subject that is increasingly becoming top of mind for many stakeholders and for many reasons. With your reference to research and collaboration, is there a need for a national strategy that pulls together the senior levels of government, academia, science and research and the industry sector representations? Would a national strategy have to be resourced and support-based at a national level on one hand, but administered region by region due to, firstly, the difference in soil zones across provinces and territories; and secondly, due to the differences of soils, province to province and territory to territory? Could you describe what a national strategy might look like and how the regional stakeholders can best be served?

Mr. Wallace: Yes, there is a place for at least a national discussion on how we want to go forward with Canada. In the sense that we do a lot of reporting to the rest of the world — and we do a lot of the selling of our products together — there is a marketing advantage to this conversation.

There are a few things we do need to clarify nationally, for example, who is deciding which indicators and the process we’re going to use. The biggest thing we have is data sharing and information sharing. One of the things we’ve done in the Prairie provinces — and this is specific to manure and a few other topics we’ve worked on — is to bring the various people together, as you suggested. We’ve brought together the government, universities and researchers that don’t always have that time to integrate themselves with each other and familiarize themselves with what other work is going on. We can accelerate the research because of those relationships and combinations, and then with an integrated extension model, we can accelerate the adoption.

There is a value in a national conversation to address a few things. But I think when it comes down to delivery, a regional approach is going to have a lot more impact because there will be a lot more commonalities, both from what we’re trying to solve and how we can go ahead and solve it. Direct seeding is an example. In some areas of the country where direct seeding fits with the selection of crops we’re doing, it works a lot better compared to trying to push direct seeding forward into crops that cannot be grown that way.

Regionality — there are a lot more similarities between our soils here, in Saskatchewan and in Manitoba than there are with Ontario. It’s not just soil similarities, it’s also climate similarities because all of them are integrated with each other. We need to be working in the production systems that are relevant to the area.

So, yes, a national discussion to cover a few topics and set the basic strategy, as you said, and then to go into regional and look at how that’s going to work here — in the Prairies, for example.

Ms. Riekman?

Ms. Riekman: Yes, I totally agree. Nationally, I think that is what drives a lot of whether or not we move forward on these types of things. We get a lot of that from a national scale. We can push the mandate, let’s say — for lack of a better word — to actually have these discussions. But in terms of actually getting the work done, the researchers and people who are working within the local regions are likely the best ones to solve the problem within the region.

We have fantastic researchers from a number of different areas, whether it’s within Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the university systems, a number of the colleges and independent work, too. We have farmers in Manitoba who are doing their own on-farm research. They are doing things on a farm scale and producing data that they share with their local farmers, and it is statistically analyzed and written up. They collaborate a lot with researchers at the University of Manitoba as well to get that information out.

I think lot of collaboration is already happening, but it doesn’t get talked about at a larger scale because we maybe don’t necessarily have that overall national mandate to see that push forward.

Mr. Wallace has talked about things like issues with the changes in region. Looking at the Prairies themselves, Manitoba is kind of special — every province is special — in that we have such a very wide swing from one part of the province to another in terms of our soils. We shift from these very heavy clay soils that are kind of a beast to work with. Farmers know how to deal with them. We can’t do no-till easily on those soils, but we can do it really well in the west.

Even within a provincial standpoint or Prairie standpoint, we have to recognize the small pieces of variability there too. In Alberta, with all the irrigation that happens there, they have issues that aren’t the same as what we’re dealing with. As a comparison, our irrigation acres are much smaller in Manitoba. So I think it is really important to even bring it down to a Prairies level, look at those regions and then break it down even further to be able to pick out those differences.

However, the pressure to make it happen almost needs to be from a higher level because the issues are the same issues, basically, across Canada, but how the issue is realized is different.

Senator Klyne: What I’m hearing with you being here is that with the gravitas of soil health and food security, it almost comes down to that hard or easy has nothing to do with it, and perhaps the senior level governments should collaborate with providing resources that allow these people to find the time to do this, collaborate and have these discussions.

Ms. Riekman: I’m glad to hear you say that about providing the resources too because it doesn’t just come down to the idea of whether we have, say, the economic resources. We need them. It costs money and we need funding to do this. However, we also need people to do it, right? We need to be able to have that — the people available as well as the funding to be able to see these things happen.

Mr. Wallace: I completely agree with Ms. Riekman on that. Do we have any time left?

The Chair: You have 30 seconds.

Mr. Wallace: I completely agree with that. You said it perfectly in the sense of the funding, that spark to get things going in the right direction and that long-term commitment to help take this important issue forward so it can be delivered regionally with experts on the ground in those areas. I think you captured it very nicely — both the senator and Ms. Riekman. Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you very much.


Senator Petitclerc: My question is for you, Ms. Reikman. If I have time, I’ll ask Mr. Wallace a question as well.

In your opening statement, you said something quite interesting. You talked about changing practices and the challenges around those changes. That’s coming through here. How do you tell people that, yes, there are environmental benefits? Obviously, the goal is to have healthy soil and a healthy environment, but perhaps there isn’t enough focus on the economic benefits. That really interests me.

I wonder whether there is enough research on those benefits. On one hand, are you looking for that information? On the other, can you get it out to people on the ground in an effective way? Are you able to show them the benefits of adopting this practice or that practice? Are you able to say how much of a profit they can expect to see one year, five years or ten years down the road? Are you doing all that? If so, are you doing it well?


Ms. Riekman: Good question. Yes, we do have some studies looking at economic benefits, but we’re missing some, too.

One of the struggles is that when there is economic benefit to the farmer — I’ll use as an example taking land out of production from an annual crop because maybe the soil is highly erodible. It’s not a very good crop to grow under an annual situation. We want to put it into a perennial to protect it. We might be able to look at that and say, “Okay, I was making X number of dollars growing canola and wheat on it, but I also recognize that the yield was poor, and I had all these different management strategies I had to put into place. Now, I am putting in a perennial.” We could look at the economic gain from being able to graze that — what the dollars and cents are to the farmer.

That is one where we have the ability to look at a private benefit to the farmer and what that private benefit is. The next question is whether we can then document the benefit to the public in having the grassland there, sequestering more carbon and what that looks like. I know we’re looking at carbon trading and carbon benefits that can also provide dollars to a farmer if there’s a situation where they can cash in on the carbon that they’re storing in the soil. But what about the other things long‑term that might come from that? It benefits the public, and we don’t always know how to put a dollar value onto that.

Valuation of environmental goods and services is complicated. It is definitely not my area of expertise, and it is something we need to look at better. We need to be able to have that documentation for a number of different practices — specific soil health practices — that we’re looking at doing on the farm. How do we do that? I don’t know that we understand all that yet — to know enough about all the different kinds of full economics for what the farmer gains versus what the public gains. Once we have that information, if we’re allowed to get that information and grant that, that’s where people like us in extension are able to provide that information and get it out.

Especially if it’s happening in our backyard or locally, we know that the regional kind of nature of the research means that it applies to our farmers. We get that information out through our provincial extension. Again, that doesn’t exist everywhere at the same level as it used to. Gone are the days when we had local agents everywhere across the Prairie provinces, as well as in other provinces too. We don’t have that same type of situation anymore.

We do have a lot of collaboration with commodity associations and other organizations that are at the table. They’re often the ones driving the need for research and funding research themselves as well. It’s something that I think is still important to look at or mention as well in terms of also bringing in this idea of collaboration and how we fund these research programs. A lot of the commodity associations who take in check-off dollars from the sales of crops within the local area, farmer-driven research is coming out of that where they then decide we want to put money into this, so that we get that data back and we understand kind of what the impact is.

So there are multi-levels of extension, but one of the problems with soil health, and soil in general in that aspect, too, is soil doesn’t have check-off dollars. Soil doesn’t have — we don’t have an influx of dollars that are coming in from the sale of a commodity to drive research specifically on soil health.

We need to be able to still figure out the economics of it. We need to be able to still drive that research. In terms of being able to deliver, in a lot of areas we have that delivery, we have the extension specialist and we have different agencies that are out there doing the work. I think that there are still better things that can be done, and a lot of it comes down to demonstration. Once we know the research happens, can we demonstrate it with a few key farmers, different organizations that have demonstration farms, things like that, and then we can further get the information down to the farming client.

Senator Petitclerc: Thank you.

Senator Duncan: Thank you very much to the witnesses that have come before us today.

Senator Klyne essentially asked my question. I was thinking along the same lines, and Ms. Riekman, you focused in your remarks — sorry, you included in your remarks — a national perspective. You didn’t just look at the Prairies, but you were looking wide. Mr. Wallace, you mentioned technology and the use of technology. Do you have a recommendation for the committee as to how we could have a spark and how we could ignite a national study on soil health, a national perspective and coordination?

I understand the regional perspective and I appreciate where that comes from. How do we ensure that information is traded across the country, including the North? It’s not solely focused on agriculture, northern Manitoba would certainly have different challenges than the south.

Ms. Riekman: I focus a lot on the south because that’s the area that I work in, but there is a lot to consider, too, in terms of in northern Manitoba and the North as well. A lot of the soil health practices there are quite often within the forestry industry, and things like that — looking at how we maintain or manage whether it’s peatlands, dealing with carbon sequestration and kind of a balance or understanding of what is going on in those regions.

In Manitoba, right now, we have a small project looking at soil carbon stocks, essentially, across Manitoba Agriculture, as well as in the peatlands and in the forested areas. When we look at things like national strategies, I know quite often we look at how we can map, create or have information to feed into the system. That’s where I think sometimes that national level of information or that kind of drive to gather information on a national scale is helpful and beneficial to be able to say, “Okay, this is where we’re at right now.” This is not necessarily just a starting point, but this is kind of a checkpoint of where we’re at. We can then add on that regional level various layers of information to build on that regionally and build on those discussions regionally.

There is something to be said for having that idea of gathering, whether it’s things like soil carbon or soil health issues, whatever the indicator is. Having that piece of information is useful. How we use the information might not be used on a national scale, except for where that helps to drive policy. A lot of times when we have that, that’s what we’re doing: We’re driving national policy with it.

Because I bring up things like indicators and the next question then often becomes what, on a national scale, do we actually use as an indicator. That is a difficult thing to pick because what ends up being an indicator of soil health — I know we’ve talked about some of these things like soil salinity — it’s not necessarily a problem seen everywhere across Canada, so trying to pick a number of indicators or whatever they are on a national scale is not an easy thing to do. Quite often, we look at things like organic matter and carbon because those become some critical things we talk about.

Maybe change is more the documentation as opposed to what the level is right now. Because, again, you could look in the Red River Valley area of Manitoba and then compare it to the southern part of Alberta, and say, “Well, Manitoba is looking really good because we’ve got great levels of soil organic matter,” but they started with higher levels of soil organic matter. So it becomes not so much the question of what the number is, but what the change has been over time. I think that becomes the question. From the national level, yes, we can look at gathering information, trying to figure out what these benchmarks are, but how often do we go back and check in on those benchmarks in order to document change as opposed to just a number at one of period of time.

Senator Duncan: What I’m hearing you say, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that a starting point in a recommendation about soil health in Canada would be documentation throughout the country and sharing the data. Is that correct?

Ms. Riekman: Yes, documenting, and documenting what people already have. There are a lot of initiatives already going on, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel with a lot of this stuff. There are a lot of initiatives already happening where we could pull information together. I think that becomes a really big thing, at a national level, bringing the key people together to be able to figure out — whether it’s working groups, whatever it is — and to try to document these things, and key people are not just researchers. It’s people who are on the ground doing the work, right?

It’s really important to remember that farmers and land managers have a big investment — an emotional, physical, economic investment — in this land. They want to see change, and there are a lot of really key movers and shakers who are doing great things, and those are the types of people that can be brought up to that level as well to be able to highlight the work that they’re doing. They have a lot of feedback that I think is important.

One of the things I did mention when we were talking about scales of information, or how we are looking at indicators, is also indicators on the farm for farmers. What do they see? It’s one thing to be able to say here is what we can see across Canada in terms of an indicator that a researcher cares about, but what is the indicator that the farmer cares about and the land manager cares about? Those are two different levels of indicators, and those are also very helpful and they can also help to drive adoption of practices too.

The Chair: Next round?

Senator Cotter: Thanks to both of the witnesses for elaborating in such a clear way the roles and responsibilities you have, and the work that you and the producers in your provinces are doing.

My question is more along these lines: The federal government, for example, has identified agriculture and agri‑food as a pillar of our economy going forward. The more we look into this study, the stronger that argument seems to get.

Agriculture is a shared jurisdiction between the federal and provincial governments, and one would therefore hope that there’s a significant amount of collaboration to make this component of our economy, going forward, stronger, more powerful and more responsive to the environmental and economic challenges we face. Can you speak a little bit about whether that actually is a working partnership and, if not, what can be done to strengthen the partnership going forward? Maybe, first, Ms. Riekman?

Ms. Riekman: We do have partnerships. I would say, if I may, that a lot of the partnerships —

Senator Cotter: I feel like there’s a temptation for you here to — what is the American phrase — take the fifth on this?

Ms. Riekman: Exactly. I would say that we have seen a decrease in that partnership over time. Prior to working with Manitoba Agriculture, I worked with the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, or PFRA, for a period of time. That was one of those organizations that was on the ground federally in the Prairie provinces, and it had a lot of impact.

We’ve seen a bit of a decrease in that. We see the same thing even within relationships, sometimes, with the universities and researchers there as well. What ends up happening is that a lot of the relationship-building between these kinds of shared jurisdictions or shared levels comes from the individual’s drive to work collaboratively within the region. It becomes less of maybe a top-down mandate and more about who we have these working relationships with.

As an extension specialist, I have a drive to connect to the local researchers, whether they are my colleagues in Agriculture Canada in Brandon where they’re doing soil health work, whether it is my colleagues at the University of Winnipeg or University of Manitoba. That is something that I want to do because I gain a lot out of that as someone who is trying to take this information from the science or academic level and bring it down to farmers and interpret it to their level.

A lot of that right now is really happening on a case-by-case basis, but we truly don’t have the same kind of working relationship that we used to have with the federal government.

Mr. Wallace: I would also agree that we don’t have that relationship that we used to have.

We used to be working really closely with Agriculture Canada researchers, with Lacombe or Lethbridge, and we still have good partnerships with several of them. We’re working closely with them in the field. I think there’s been a slight pullback with the number of staff available to do that cooperation.

I don’t want to say there are just competing priorities. There’s so much work on the table and so few people delivering it, that’s one of the things that goes down. I don’t think we get together like we used to, and the fundamental underpinning of a relationship is having a conversation with people. We used to do that with the Prairie provinces quite frequently and on a couple of topics where we would bring researchers together. That may still be working in very similar fields, but we don’t have that opportunity to connect between one institution and another or connecting them with the extension staff on the ground.

We have a network of applied research associations, or ARAs, and forage associations in the province, as well as extension staff within municipalities. We are trying to do a better job of bringing them together and connecting them with the research. That was the idea. It hasn’t always happened. We still have improvements to make. I agree that, with the loss of PFRA, we saw a shift in how we interacted with the federal government on activities. It is a personal thing. I think that’s the only way we can get it going.

Senator Cotter: Thank you very much. I have a related question, but let me state a proposition, which is a kind of federal-provincial-relationship proposition. I invite you to indicate whether, from your perspective, this seems to be the case or isn’t the case.

Under Conservative governments led by Mr. Harper, there was a philosophy of what I call roles and responsibilities. This is often a principle and tends to be a Conservative philosophy, which is that governments, federal and provincial, should stay in their own lanes. That is, they have a certain degree of authority, and mixing or merging those authorities — what is sometimes called a constructive entanglement of jurisdiction — is not the proper philosophy in our federation.

That’s an argument then for drawing back from partnerships, not in any kind of illegal way but as a matter of philosophy of the federation.

A second model, which I have the impression exists presently, is a theory that is much more constructively entangled under the present leadership, but that the tensions that tend to exist and are richly existing right now in the federation have made that concept of constructive entanglement very difficult to make happen at the highest levels of government.

Am I describing a pattern with which you would agree? Or am I just making stuff up out of whole cloth here?

Ms. Riekman, is this one on which you want to take the fifth?

Ms. Riekman: Mr. Wallace, do you want to take that one first?

Senator Cotter: We have a breakthrough here, Mr. Wallace, but I don’t know whether it can be achieved. I’d be interested, without putting you in too much of a difficult spot, if you have a take on it.

Mr. Wallace: I don’t have a silver bullet or a lot of comment on that one. I don’t think that’s my lane to be in.

Patti Rothenburger, Assistant Deputy Minister, Manitoba Agriculture, Government of Manitoba: Senator, I can comment briefly on that and describe some of what you’re seeing. As we’re looking at the research and innovation continuum, we see a lot of the scientists at Agriculture and Agri‑Food Canada more in that basic upstream discovery science, whereas our provincial governments fall, as we go along the continuum, into applied research, demonstration, knowledge and technology transfer.

Over time — and we’re starting to see a shift now — Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has been staffing knowledge and technology transfer staff, which I think will eventually work closer with our provincial governments. A transition is happening. What you’re describing is that, over time, we’re seeing that shift to them focusing more upstream on the science that’s happening. Meanwhile, provincial governments are moving more towards the end and commercialization, where we’re working closer with producers on the extension side, wanting to adopt and translate that knowledge for producers on what’s happening earlier on with basic and discovery science.

Senator Cotter: [Technical difficulties] by using up all our time. Thank you.

Senator Woo: Good morning to the witnesses. I wanted to make the connection between soil health and the oil and gas industry. For that reason, this question is probably best directed to Mr. Wallace.

The connection, of course, is through the manufacturer of fertilizer, particularly nitrogen-based fertilizers — ammonia and urea — which are problematic for all the reasons this committee has discussed over many months.

Can Mr. Wallace comment on progress and development of slow-release nitrogen fertilizers, particularly oxamide-based fertilizers, which are high efficiency, less water soluble and ultimately better both for the soil as well as for the environment?

Mr. Wallace: Yes. We’ve done a lot of work, not just on the slow-release fertilizers but on the use of some inhibitors, which help us with our fertilizer products to not only change their impacts but to improve our efficient use of them. Then we can reduce the volume we are using or reduce emissions coming from them. We’ve also changed how long that fertilizer is available to the crop instead of being all available right away and at greater risk of being lost or causing damage to the crop, which is a downside of it. We can actually spread that out longer into the season, get the plants using it more and that results in better yields.

We’re also not just manipulating the fertilizer. We’ve seen a lot of changes in the technology and how we can put that fertilizer on in season. The same thing goes with our manure management. Coming from a province with a lot of livestock, I would be remiss not to mention how we manage our manure, which is the same way: with some inhibitors and improved application right up into standing crop. That reduces risk of loss, reduces impacts and gives us not only a greater yield boost but benefits to the soil.

Yes, there have been a lot of technologies and we’ve moved light years ahead on how we used to fertilize to what we’re doing today.

Senator Woo: Can you comment on the state of the technology vis-à-vis world standards and the potential for best-in-class, slow-release nitrogen fertilizers from Canada, Alberta in particular, being available and used worldwide? Because this is a worldwide problem, of course.

Mr. Wallace: Yes, and we’ve done a lot of work, and the companies providing fertilizer products in Alberta have done a ton of research. We have a lot of experts who are used around the world on how we can deliver and improve our fertilizer delivery technologies. Between here, the United States, Europe and Asia, it has been fantastic to see. A lot of that work was started here between not just companies, but Agriculture Canada, Alberta Agriculture back in the days when we did this fertilizer work and saw where we could utilize it to not only improve our yields and our production benefits but reduce our environmental impacts and then eventually our carbon footprints because of our doing a better job of managing and reducing the volumes and our emissions. A lot of that came out of the Prairie provinces with work out of Jeff Schoenau, Ross McKenzie down in southern Alberta, Regis Karamanos, and the list goes on, International Plant Nutrition Institute. We have been really proud of what we have achieved coming out of Canada. We need to be. The technologies, not only the ones specific to fertilizer, but even the equipment ones between North America and the rest of the world, we’ve had a lot of advances in how we manage our resources here. Our farmers have benefited greatly on the investments made by government.

Senator Woo: Thank you. Do the other witnesses want to comment?

Ms. Riekman: I think Mr. Wallace covered that very well. The one thing I would add — because I know you mentioned slow-release fertilizers and different technologies — there has been a lot of on the ground research on the use of and trying how to best utilize the technology. What are the nitrogen emissions reductions we see from it, but what is the practical stand of how we can apply or utilize the fertilizer technology in the field?

One of the cautions when it comes to things like slow release is that we want to make sure that the release is still fast enough that it gets into the crop at the time that it is seeded. That is one of the things that we have to think about.

There are some very interesting technologies. Mr. Wallace mentioned inhibitors. They are a shorter time frame versus some of the polymer-coated ureas and things like that we have to be able to slow that release out to the crop. But you can actually run into problems if you don’t use a slow release appropriately because then you start having the release after the crop has stopped growing, and that can also cause additional issues later. There is some very good work being done in this. Obviously, there is a lot of interest right now when it comes to nitrogen reduction emissions on furthering the use of these different types of products.

Senator Woo: Could I go back to Mr. Wallace to ask him to talk specifically about the collaboration between the oil and gas industry and the agriculture or soil industry, the farm industry. Both industries are in profound transition, oil and gas in particular, and whether there is an active thinking around how oil and gas can provide a solution, if you will, to some very profound farming challenges, not just in Canada but around the world.

Mr. Wallace: I don’t think I am qualified to comment on that. I’m sorry, senator. From the oil and gas industry, my interactions with them are usually on the reclamation and soil improvement side of the world and not so much on their contributions towards the collaborations. The one comment I can make, a lot of the advancements we’ve made in oil and gas or you could even say space exploration eventually trickle down and benefit Canadian producers. Things that are economical in the high‑value industries eventually get cheaper. We look at GPS and our high‑end technologies that we’re using in farming, they started in other industries and moved down. From a technology point of view, the advancements they make eventually benefit us.

Senator Woo: With fertilizer, of course, which is directly a product of that industry, but that may be a different committee discussion.

The Chair: I have a few questions. I will direct this to Ms. Rothenburger to start. We heard earlier about soil mapping in the Prairie provinces. It was the 1970s and 1980s that they were dated and had been done. I can assure you that here in Ontario, some of the ones we are still using are dated in the late 1940s and 1950s.

I am assuming in those early days that mapping was done by government. Especially since we’ve heard that the technology that is available now, is there an opportunity and a willingness to engage in public-private partnerships to see soil mapping redone? I know you can only speak for your province, but what is your thinking? Is there an opportunity there?

Ms. Rothenburger: Thank you for the question, senator. Here in Manitoba, as part of our primary agriculture branch, we have a soil survey crew who are actively mapping soils throughout the province. We are working in two different rural municipalities right now. There are capacity limitations, the willingness to want to advance and how quickly we’re working on that reconnaissance and detailed level of soil mapping. We have been contracting a third party to assist us with our soil survey mapping. We were able to cover — no pun intended — literally a little bit more ground over the last several years. That has benefited us.

I think there is opportunity to participate in that kind of a 3P partnership going forward.

The Chair: Thank you very much. Any comments from our other two witnesses? If you have nothing to add, that’s fine.

Ms. Riekman: I can add too. As someone who uses the soil survey information in Manitoba, we also have some from the 1950s that we are still using too. Don’t worry, it’s not just you.

Across Manitoba, we have reconnaissance-scale soil survey, which is a very broad kind of scale that isn’t appropriate to be used on a field scale decision-making level. That covers all of Manitoba Agriculture that we have that level. That was the earliest level of soil survey that was done in the province, and a lot of that in collaboration with the federal government.

What Ms. Rothenburger was just speaking about with regard to the soil surveys that are happening right now is enhancing that level to have detailed levels to be able to have farmer-level information. Unfortunately, at this current time, we don’t have detailed scale or that farm field-level scale soil survey across all of Manitoba Agriculture. We’re still trying to get that done, and those are the initiatives that have been spoken about.

We’re using a lot of technology, but it takes a lot of time because the ground truthing of this, you actually have to go and dig a pit in order to identify every soil. They are doing 36 pits per section, so per square mile, in order to do a detailed soil survey. To complete one of these on a municipal basis — because we do them on a municipality basis — it can take 10 years to be able to complete that full report from the time they are investigating and doing the initial survey to going into the field, to creating the map, to going back to the field in order to be able to double-check the work and make sure everything lines up and then to when we actually go out and publish it.

It’s an intense thing, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of people in order to make it happen. We can add a lot of layers of technology to it. I think the layers of technology can perhaps speed up some of the efforts and can also, potentially, add those extra pieces of information. It never takes away from actually going out, boots on the ground, digging those pits in order to validate what’s going on in that soil.

The Chair: Thank you. Mr. Wallace, anything to add?

Mr. Wallace: A couple of small points. I agree with everything that has been said. It is very expensive. How it translates or benefits at a field level can be debated. Remember, we are talking about soil health and the maps can help, but really we’re trying to look at some different factors now and different soil conditions. We’ve got one project we’ve done years ago, which was a soil benchmark project across the province, that gave us a sense of how the soils were at the time under a couple of different production systems. There were 24 sites across the province.

We were excited because Dr. Derek MacKenzie here at the University of Alberta, who fortunately moved over from a forestry focus to an agriculture focus, is now reviving those sites, going back to them and starting to get more information on evaluating soil health and the trends, so we can now look from the 1990s to 2022 to see how things are going.

Yes, I think there are opportunities for partnerships. It may not be the kind of soil mapping we’ve done in the past. That might have to shift. We’ve had organizations like the International Plant Nutrition Institute, or IPNI, or the Global Phosphate Institute that have worked with labs to bring information together to be able to report on conditions or soil nutrient levels. That took a lot of negotiation back and forth. One of our difficulties is that not everybody is collecting the same type of information or the same type of background, so you can’t interpret it the same. But there are opportunities, and that requires more conversations.

The Chair: I would like to ask each of you — and I know Senator Duncan posed the question partly — but if you were the authors of this final report, what is one recommendation each of you would like to see in it? We will start with our assistant deputy minister.

Ms. Rothenburger: Okay, that’s a good question. I think I would have to say a point that Ms. Riekman has mentioned multiple times around the importance around regionality. It is important to have that national perspective to have consistency in our approach related to the framework, indicators and metrics, for example. However, as we are looking at different options going forward, and how to address soil health into the future, I think it is important that really do have that regionality that will address some of our local conditions that are seen not only within our province — as Ms. Riekman talked about, the kind of sub-regions within the province of Manitoba — but working together collaboratively to have that overall approach, whether it is a national strategy that gets proposed as a recommendation.

The Chair: Thank you. Mr. Wallace, quickly, followed by Ms. Riekman.

Mr. Wallace: Given the pen for a day, the regionality would stand. Financial support for this long-term commitment; bringing the regions together. Where I see as a national effort to get some decisions on generalities, indicators, how we are moving forward, dividing it up regionally, but at the federal level somebody still aggregating that regional input, with long-term funding to support the delivery — not just the development — of a strategy.

We need to be cooperatively working on this. I think that’s expected from the provincial, federal and even regional level — to deliver on something. I think we start with that overall discussion, identify some key things, leaving out aggregating until later because we are going to report it and then go down to regionality, where we will be funding a whole new initiative around soil health. It would be part of the Sustainable Canadian Agriculture Partnership or the new program coming up. How that gets built and having the right people around the table from the provinces, which eventually the regions may be broken down to networks within the province, but that’s a detail.

Ms. Riekman: Just to add, because I think both of those are really important points, my third add into this would be recognition of who soil health benefits. I think the big thing around soil health, we have that private benefit to the farmer, obviously, by protecting the soil and being able to create that, but there are also benefits from farmers managing soil health that are seen to the public as well. That can help to drive a lot of the financial decisions that Mr. Wallace has just talked about.

When we look at that in terms of who benefits, we also then have to look at who has to do the work on the ground, and then how can we actually marry these two things, recognizing the benefit — whether it is private benefit or public benefit. It is usually the private citizen who has to end up putting boots to the ground to do the work, and so how do we compensate that or encourage that to be happening on that ground level.

The Chair: Thank you very much. We are moving into second round.

Senator Simons: A couple of weeks ago, I guess months ago now, I had the privilege of talking to folks with the Agricultural Financial Services Cooperation in Alberta who are — as a thought experiment now, but it may become practical down the road — thinking about adjusting crop insurance premiums based on soil organic carbon. So you would have an absolute price incentive built in and you would be indemnifying the insurance sellers by reducing premiums for people who are farming on soils with high organic carbon and encouraging them to enrich that soil.

I wondered, for both Ms. Riekman and Mr. Wallace, what you think of that idea of using insurance as one way of encouraging new farming techniques and minimizing risks to provinces?

Ms. Riekman: Yes. It takes a complete shift. It is a complete shift in how we’ve done business before, in order to look at things in that way. I think insurance is one of those places where we can definitely look at how farmers, based on a change in how crop insurance is managed, may look at how they could change cropping decisions. We already use soil-based information in terms of figuring out what the crop insurance coverage is for certain areas, based on productivity. That takes the soil data into account, as well as climate data for the area. But I think looking at it as a broader picture is definitely important.

One of the number one things I often hear from farmers when we talk about doing these types of projects is a comment like, “I pay taxes on that land and because I pay taxes on that land, I need to make money on that land.” Sometimes we then have to sit back and say you can pay taxes on that land and make money off that land, but you could be losing more by trying to crop it than you are actually gaining. It takes a mindset shift again, the behavioural stuff we talked about earlier, but if the system changes to where we put the influence, I guess, and the importance on how we manage it. Right now, farmers are dealing with crop insurance, taxation and all that kind of stuff as being the driver for how they are making cropping decisions. But if we change that, then that could have an influence on behavioural changes too. It’s a big thing, and I’m quite impressed that Alberta is looking at that as a pilot.

Mr. Wallace: I think with the insurance, there are a couple of options. And I completely agree; it can be a tool to help. One of them is about business risk management insurance. It helps protect, if I do make changes, that there is some kind of backstop that’s going to support me if there are losses with or because of those changes. That’s one of them.

Now, the suggestion here of carbon — it’s not a bad idea. The problem is our soil sampling and the variability in the soil and across the landscape that introduces into the system can be very hard to manage, to find trueness or rightness. We’d have to have some really good protocols on that, especially around the sampling of carbon. One of the risks with that approach, which I’m sure they’ve considered, is how we top up the funding. It is fine if I’m doing practice A or soil carbon levels A and I get reduced premiums going into the pool that will go out for payouts if no other institution is covering that reduction of income when there is an insurance payout, that will lead to some problems. That may be one of the reasons why instead of looking at that carbon or soil sample, which is the ultimate litmus test of what’s going on, we’ve often looked at if you are doing practice A, B and C because they know they have benefits, we can monitor the practice easier than the variability of the soil sampling. I can see it going down that road. I see you nodding, senator. You must have the same thinking.

Senator Simons: Rather than mapping the entire section, to say, okay, you are doing the thing that increases the soil organic carbon therefore we assume that your soil organic carbon rates are going up. You don’t have to sample the entire section.

It is funny. This is where I thought Senator Woo was going to go, talking about Alberta and the oil industry. One thing that we’ve not had an opportunity to delve into yet with our study is the issue of soil pollution and soil reclamation. In Alberta, of course, where farmers often don’t own the subsurface mineral rights to their land. Usually they don’t. They don’t really have rights if an oil company comes and wants to drill on their farmland. They have rights to compensation, but not rights to say no.

I’m wondering how big a problem it is to have agricultural land potentially vulnerable to the polluting effects of having resource extraction on the same site. Has your office looked into issues of soil reclamation after extraction?

Mr. Wallace: It’s an excellent question. You are right. The footprint is often small, but it is still very significant. There has been a lot of work in the past on the reclamation of those sites. We’ve done a lot of work with manure as being a reclamation additive that brings the sites back. Legislatively, there is a requirement to do that. There are sampling and testing requirements to bring the sites back up to be reclaimed. I don’t think that, from a farmer’s perspective, they feel they are reclaimed as quickly as they could or should be. There is always a funding gap with regard to reclaiming sites, and many sites are not abandoned but just put on hold because of economics. They may or may not be extracting from that site for various periods of time.

So there are a lot of things going on. We have done a lot of work. We feel we can do a really good job of reclamation. There are a lot of other issues other than soil health that we have to deal with on a regular, annual basis — things like weeds and invasives, et cetera, and moving them off sites. There’s also the movement of pathogens like clubroot, which is a soil-borne pathogen that can move off-site. Those are the activities that we need to work more on, and on a regular, everyday basis, too.

Senator Simons: It’s really interesting. I don’t think I ever realized that before. It is not just a question of the leaching of the petroleum, it’s that the disruption of the site can bring other contagions or pathogens.

When a well site is abandoned or orphaned, what recourse does the farmer have, especially if it is a small producer who has gone bankrupt?

Mr. Wallace: We have that problem across the province. As a province, we’ve put together a large package over the last few years to help address those orphaned wells with reclamation companies getting the funds to cover those wells where the companies have gone bankrupt. They cover them off. It’s just that it is a slow process to get the number that we have through the system. You’ve hit the nail on the head. This is an ongoing issue that we in Alberta are actively trying to address — at least in the last few years — with this new initiative.

Senator Duncan: I’m a relatively new member of this committee, so forgive me if this has been dealt with before. I’d like to ask about the Indigenous or First Nations element to this discussion and to soil health in Canada. In the Yukon, we don’t have reserves, so some of my questions may not fit with the southern element. I’m wondering about the soil health on reserve land. Where does that fit into your work and your discussions?

There is a national organization called Indigenous Guardians. It’s the land guardians program. I’m wondering if the committee has heard from them before or if you, in your provinces, might link with the land guardians where soil health fits in that discussion.

Ms. Riekman: From my level as an extension person, a lot of what I end up doing is speaking to landowners who are carrying out land management practices. Unfortunately, I have not been involved in direct communication with a lot of the Indigenous organizations. I know we have a number of Indigenous groups who are working to improve a lot of their land management soil health and are thinking around the area of soil health. There is an increased engagement right now with the University of Manitoba through the School of Agriculture diploma program, where they are working together with a number of Indigenous communities to try to bridge some of those knowledge gaps.

Ms. Rothenburger may be able to add a bit of comment from a policy standpoint in terms of what we are doing from a Manitoba perspective.

Senator Duncan: Sorry to interrupt. If the lands are reserve land, who has responsibility for that soil health? Is it the Government of Canada? Is it the First Nation community? This is what I’m asking.

Ms. Riekman: I don’t think I can answer that directly. If they are the land managers — if they are doing the ranching and the farming, and there are a number of Indigenous organizations like First Nations that are working and farming actively — then they are often attending a lot of the extension events that we are putting on. We engage with them that way through our department.

Ms. Rothenburger might be able to comment a little bit further.

Ms. Rothenburger: What I can add to what Ms. Riekman is saying — and according to my understanding — is that, for example, with the agricultural Crown Lands programs, we would be working closely with the First Nation communities who are farming them for agricultural purposes.

The department does have a priority to continue to build these relationships and to develop programming that’s going to assist in, for example, making the lands in the agricultural Crown Lands programs more productive. This would involve soil health. Recently, our province has offered a rent reduction given the extremes of moisture we have had in Manitoba ranging from extreme drought in 2021 to excess moisture a year ago in the spring when we were having those spring storms. We implemented a rent reduction just to have the funds that would go into paying rent going into agriculture production practices, like seeding to rejuvenate the stand to ensure that those lands are going to be productive.

I may not be directly answering your question, senator. I’m not 100% sure of the responsibility. I just know that when we are working with our agricultural Crown Lands program, for example, it’s a joint relationship. They are leasing the lands and we’re responsible for the oversight of that program.

Senator Duncan: In terms of documenting the soil health on those lands, who is responsible?

Ms. Rothenburger: As part of our lease allocation program, our Crown lands farm production extension specialists do an assessment on that land to determine animal unit months. So they are monitoring the productivity of the land that way. We’re also working with the federal government through the Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership — previously through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, or CAP — to develop programming that’s going to enhance and make those lands more productive, whether that’s through beneficial management practices — a pilot program that was conducted last year on those ACL lands to extend different opportunities, knowledge and to enhance productivity on those lands.

Senator Duncan: It’s productivity, but it’s not soil health.

Ms. Rothenburger: Depending on the crop that’s being seeded or grown, there may indirectly be benefits to the soil health.

Maybe Ms. Riekman can comment in more detail on that pilot program.

Ms. Riekman: Again, I can’t answer the question of who is documenting soil health on First Nations land, but with private landowners, it is the private landowners who are documenting soil health. As a province, we don’t go out and make the documentation. Private landowners are going out and documenting for themselves as change is happening. We spend a lot of our time encouraging adoption of practices and may assist them in trying to figure out what the appropriate documentation for them is at their level to be able to determine if change is happening.

I definitely don’t know where, officially, the responsibility lies. We as a province and myself as a soil health extension person are available to build those relationships to assist with the documentation, but the documentation is not something we go out specifically to do on a farm.

Mr. Wallace might have a comment.

Mr. Wallace: Two comments. The First Nations, we treat them as a general audience for producers. The responsibility is the nation’s. The land itself, we see it as federal. It’s nation land.

When it comes to some of our legislation, it doesn’t apply to their land. But from an extension and information point of view, they’re treated exactly the same as producers. In fact, we’re very proud of our new Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership, or SCAP, program, which is targeting more resources to First Nations producers for the adoption of practices.

The land itself, from a regulatory point of view, is treated differently. It is a nation. It is separate from Alberta privately owned land. But as an operation, we interact with them exactly the same as any other producer.

Senator Duncan: Alberta wouldn’t necessarily have the documentation of the soil health on treaty land, is that what you’re saying? Did I hear that correctly?

Mr. Wallace: We wouldn’t have the documentation of soil health on anybody’s land unless we were working together on some projects. As Ms. Riekman mentioned, it’s private producers who are doing it, not us. We wouldn’t have the soil health documentation unless we were engaged with them on some research or field projects, which we’ve done in the past.

Senator Duncan: Thank you.

The Chair: I have a question, but first a comment.

Ms. Riekman, you mentioned earlier that soil doesn’t have a check-off, which in my mind says there’s not somebody looking after the soil throughout the country. My colleague Senator Cotter and I met last summer with Australia’s soils advocate. The Prime Minister has appointed a soils advocate and a small secretariat to look out for soils.

Is that something whose time has come here in Canada? I want to ask all three of you. It can be a short yes or no, or it can be further comments. We do have time.

Ms. Riekman: I think that having a body or some type of organization that is essentially advocating for soil in a way, but also is maybe an overseer of trying to then gather the people together to engage those conversations. There are so many small organizations or small groups of people who are doing the work — again, regionally; it’s not always seen at a national scale.

We have the Soil Conservation Council of Canada, of which I’m a member. In the past, under a previous structure, I was representing Manitoba on the board. That is one organization that exists.

In previous work, before starting with the province, I also worked with an organization called the Manitoba Zero Tillage Research Association. There was also the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association. None of these organizations exist anymore. They were all grassroots organizations that did a lot of work, again, talking about soil. The reason many of these organizations no longer exist is because there’s not a source of funding to continue them.

These small regional organizations are critically important, especially when they’re trying to look at specific issues. Because they’re often farm based, farmer based and farmer driven, that’s where you get the most uptake by farmers listening to the information because it’s coming from a peer as opposed to a top‑down approach.

I think there is a lot of benefit to having somebody who might oversee or engage the conversation, trying to pull together those smaller organizations that are still trying to do the work. But these organizations struggle because, again, they don’t have a continuous source of funding.

Mr. Wallace: I would agree with Ms. Riekman. We’ve had organizations like Reduced Tillage LINKAGES. We’ve made a lot of great gains in reduced tillage. Of course, because there are no dedicated funds for the organizations, they’re not there anymore.

We’ve had rural direct seeding, legume or pulse organizations doing the same thing, and advancing them. They get to a point where they partially achieve their goal or the funding runs out.

I think there is some sort of overarching body — not from a research point of view but from a coordinator point of view — if you look across the border at the Soil Health Institute in the U.S. as a way to keep the conversation going. Yes, it helps with some research and helps direct an extension or information source, but they’re the ones that are keeping the fire lit with regard to the issues around soil.

We mentioned there’s no check-off for it. There are no dedicated funds in the long-term, whereas with check-off funds, we can keep the Alberta Pulse Growers, the Alberta Canola Producers Commission or the Canadian Canola Growers Association moving forward and bringing those issues to the table. That is a shortfall. Granted, all the commodity organizations — livestock or crop — do feel that soils are important and often bring forward those issues. But in terms of a dedicated speaker at the table, we don’t have that.

Ms. Rothenburger: I agree with Ms. Riekman’s and Mr. Wallace’s comments. I would add — in general, around the urgency to have resources and capacity dedicated to the smaller associations. When they apply for provincial or federal programs, there is a dollar-matching requirement. That’s where these smaller organizations struggle. They don’t have a check-off or dollars to put towards the important research and the advocating what needs to happen around soils.

Soils play a critical role. In a number of the opening comments, we heard about the ability for us to grow certain crops based on the regions within our provinces. The short answer is that, yes, we definitely do need someone to play this role and we need the resources and capacity dedicated to support it.

The Chair: Thank you very much.

Seeing no other questions, Dr. Rothenburger, Ms. Riekman and Mr. Wallace, thank you so very much for your time with us today. I know it’s early in Alberta. Thank you for participating today. Your assistance in our study, which is ongoing, is very much appreciated.

I want to thank the committee members for your thoughtful questions and active participation.

I also want to take a moment to thank the folks who support us around the room — our interpreters, the folks who transcribe this meeting, the committee room attendant, our page, multimedia service technicians, our broadcasting team — who make sure that we all look good, as well as our colleagues in our offices. Thank you very much.

Our next scheduled meeting is Thursday, April 27, at 9 a.m. Deputy Chair Simons is going to chair the meeting. I won’t be here. If there’s no other business, I will declare the meeting adjourned.

(The committee adjourned.)

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