This SOS meant Save Our Soil

Farmers fancy calling themselves the original and ultimate environmentalists, and for good reason. If they aren't careful with the land, water and air around them, they have big problems.

For example, without sound soil conservation, their land can wash away, taking with it nutrients and reducing fertility. Sometimes they can take fairly simple measures to help ensure environmental health, such as maintaining what's called a riparian — or a buffer zone of grass around streams.

But not all problems are easy to fix.

A quarter-century ago, Marden-area farmers Doug and Jean Fletcher were dealing with a significant erosion problem on the sloped hillside of their 96-acre operation. Rainfall was slicing gullies up to a metre deep, making planting and harvesting up and down the slope a nightmare. Precious topsoil was being washed away in buckets.

On many farms, such woes would be dealt with mostly out of sight, by the landowner.

But not on the Fletchers' farm. Almost anything that happens there is quickly and unwittingly a matter of public record.

The Fletchers and their son John farm the highly visible and gorgeous piece of contoured land on the east side of Highway 6, at the bend in the highway just before the Elora Road intersection. They're nestled in right at the elbow in the bend, growing top-notch hay and cash crops and raising beef cattle on what have become patchwork quiltlike fields — called strip cropping — that literally rise above their farm.

If you're driving either direction on Highway 6, you can't miss them. Their farm looks like a post card from France or Switzerland, countries where strip cropping is essential because there's so much rolling farmland.

In the early 1980s, the Fletchers' situation caught the eye of land resource scientist Professor Tom Lane, then a faculty member at the University of Guelph's Ontario Agricultural College. On a drive by their farm one day, he stopped, introduced himself to Doug Fletcher, and the pair trekked off to assess the severity of erosion. Lane was convinced the situation was being caused by rainfall water running, not "walking," down the field.

Lane suggested the Fletchers try strip cropping. It's a practice that soil conservation engineer Jim Arnold from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs says can reduce soil erosion by up to 75 per cent. And equipment operation on the contour requires less horsepower and fuel.

Lane recruited Arnold to get involved with rehabilitating the Fletchers' property. The team worked with the Fletchers to introduce 100-foot-wide contour strips across 30 eroding acres on the hill, alternating crops such as wheat, soybeans and corn with hay to keep the soil in place.

The results were dramatic. Before the strip cropping, the Fletchers were realizing about 30 bushels an acre for wheat. Now, thanks to better soil management as well as improved crop varieties, they're getting up to 100 bushels an acre, without excessive fertilizer.

To recognize the Fletchers' efforts, Harold Rudy, executive director of the Guelph-based Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, presented them with a certificate of recognition last week, commemorating 25 years of soil conservation on their farm. As Rudy says, every farm is unique, and the Fletchers are to be congratulated for incorporating a management system suitable to their land.

The attractive certificate will likely be seen only by the Fletchers and their family and friends.

Their efforts, however, will remain clear for years to the thousands of people who drive on Highway 6 North every day, whether they're farmers or not.



About The Author

Urban Cowboy

Raising awareness and promoting dialogue about current food and agriculture issues.


Headshot of Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts is a faculty member in the Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications program at the University of Illinois. As an agricultural journalist, he is the past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists and a lifetime achievement award recipient from the Canadian Farm Writers' Federation. His programs and research papers have been recognized nationally and internationally through awards from the Journal of Applied Communications, the National Agri-Marketing Association, the Association for Communications Excellence, and others.