Traditional solutions to modern environmental problems

For this Cultivate feature, we visit Harrcroft Acres Ltd dairy farm. north of Fergus, where the Harrop family uses processes passed down through generations to capture and store carbon.

There is a lot of focus these days on capturing carbon from the atmosphere to reduce the impact of climate change and this is leading to many technological advancements, but many farmers were already using a technique as old as agriculture itself. same.

“On our farm we grow a lot of plants and the only living things that absorb carbon dioxide are plants,” said Janet Harrop, dairy farmer and president of the Wellington County Federation of Agriculture. “If you look at the numbers in Wellington County, because of the quality of our soil, we are actually a negative carbon emitter.”

Harrop is a multi-generational farmer who, with her husband Ian and son Ryan, operates the Harrcroft Acres Ltd dairy farm on Side Road 5 north of Fergus.

“I grew up on a dairy farm and always loved it,” she says. “I married a guy who also loved dairy farming and our son works with us and he loves dairy farming, so we’re pretty lucky.”

They are always open to new ideas to increase their productivity and reduce their environmental impact.

For example, they support the “buy local” movement, which encourages consumers to promote local businesses and, in doing so, reduce carbon emissions.

“Dairy was in a sense one of the first local foods,” Harrop said. “It’s grown locally, it’s shipped locally. It is processed locally. It is consumed locally. I think 96% of Canadian dairy products are produced and consumed domestically because of this balance between supply and demand.

Their efforts to reduce greenhouse gases do not stop there.

“There’s been a lot of talk about the role of farmers in protecting the environment,” Harrop said. “There is talk about the role farmers play in emitting greenhouse gases, but I think our role in sequestering greenhouse gases isn’t discussed as much.”

It is being discussed by researchers such as Cameron Ogilvie and his colleagues at Soils at Guelph, an international research program based at the University of Guelph.

“The conversation we’re having around regenerative agriculture right now recognizes practices, especially soil management practices, that are not only good for agriculture, but also good for society, the environment, and the climate,” Ogilvie said. “How can we make sure that once the research is done, it doesn’t sit on the shelf? »

Terms like regenerative agriculture and carbon sequestration are essentially new names for things the Harrops have been doing for generations.

“My dad was doing that in the 1970s,” Ian Harrop said. “So when all of a sudden it’s become a catchphrase, I look at my dad and say, ‘Were you just ahead of the curve? and he said. ‘I think so.’ And it’s not just us. There were many farms.

The Harrops cultivate approximately 160 hectares (approximately 400 acres) of forage crops such as alfalfa, corn, wheat and soybeans each year to feed nearly 300 purebred Holstein dairy cows. Crops are rotated and the fields are fertilized with manure from their barns.

Growing healthy, fast-growing green plants is the most efficient way to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Crops are harvested to feed animals, but the roots remain in the ground.

“All that root is carbon,” Janet said. “That’s where you really sequester carbon and put air pockets and nutrients into the soil. Through manure, you put good bacteria back into the soil. It’s a type of self-sustaining system that’s constantly evolution that is very efficient at sequestering carbon.

It’s a process that combines traditional techniques used by farmers since before the Bronze Age with digital and even space-age technology.

“There’s so much technology out there,” Janet said. “There is satellite space photography which allows you to take a space image of the field to find out which areas might be nutrient deficient. There are equipment with probes that can measure nutrient value as you plant and apply varying rates of fertilizer if you add fertilizer.

Janet is certified in Nutrient Management by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and this training has allowed her to combine the latest research and technology with years of experience and wisdom. legacy and apply them to all aspects of their dairy operation from growing and stocking to rearing and feeding and everything in between.

“If you compare now to 40 years ago, we are probably producing three times as much milk a day with only twice as many cattle,” said Ian Harrop. “A fellow farmer explained it to me this way. These animals are like Olympic athletes. Everything you do for them must be the absolute best. The best fodder, the best housing, the best environment for them to produce as they do.

This increase in production and efficiency translates into less operational use of fossil fuels on the farm as well as less greenhouse gas, “biogenic carbon,” emitted by the livestock themselves.

“Methane is emitted by livestock and eventually breaks down into carbon dioxide,” Ogilvie said. “This is eventually taken up by the plants which are either sequestered in the soil or again consumed by livestock. It’s a cycle and if you don’t increase the herd size, you won’t release new carbon.

This is an important distinction to make when measuring greenhouse gas emissions.

“So when you’re looking at the greenhouse gas contribution of agriculture, you really have to take biogenic carbon out of the equation,” Janet said. “When you get a clearer picture of what contributes the most carbon and it’s basically vehicles and industry, right. The burning of petroleum products.

Researchers continue to explore various new ways to reduce emissions, such as improving energy efficiency and exploring alternative energy sources.

“They’re thinking about how we can reduce Co2 emissions and that’s really important, but I’m thinking about how we can take that carbon dioxide and put it in a factory,” Janet said. “Some say it’s new and reinventing itself, but it’s an expansion of practices that have been going on for a very, very long time.”

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