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Sustainability focus for regenerative farming in Wellington County

This year, there are 21 farms taking part in the Experimental Acres Pilot, which provides supports for the first year of trying new regenerative farming practices

A County of Wellington pilot program is helping farm operators introduce new regenerative practices.

Now in it's second year, the goal of the pilot is to limit risk, develop a community of support, and assist in capturing the business cases that demonstrate best farming practice that is worth repeating.

In the spring of 2022, 15 local farmers joined the Experimental Acres Pilot, which provides supports for the first year when introducing new regenerative farming practices.

This year, 21 farms are taking part in the pilot.

“We are excited to be working with 11 farms in Wellington County as they trial new, regenerative agriculture practices. These farms will be joined by 10 farms in Dufferin and Grey Counties,” said Jordan Grigg, sustainability program coordinator at the Country of Wellington.

The goal is farming in harmony with the natural environment.

“As a soil scientist, I find that many of the practices are overlapping and similar, but I think that the approach you have to take, is seeing your farm as part of a greater ecosystem," Grigg said.

"It's looking at farming in a more holistic way. What you do on the surface affects what happens below the ground including the roots, and the microbes in the soil."

Regenerative agriculture is an outcome-based food production system that nurtures and restores soil health, protects the climate, water resources and biodiversity, and can enhance productivity and profitability.

Grigg says there are many different reasons why regenerative farming can help make a difference, especially when it comes to climate change.

“Our climate, of course, is a big one. How can we improve that whole connected system? I think the Experimental Acres Pilot can help you learn to do it. Things don’t always work out the first year because we are seeing such variability with our climate. But you can start now, and start small," Grigg said. 

“This year we were seeing dryness at the beginning of the season, and now, there's lots of rain. So, its about trying to adapt our systems and to a variable climate. It does take time to build the soil. If you are doing practices that are inputting all of that organic matter back into the soil, then you are making a more improved farming system for the future.”

The County of Wellington and the City of Guelph work together on the federally-funded Our Food Future project, which envisions a circular food economy. It encourages regenerative agriculture practices on a small scale, offers monetary and educational supports to producers interested in applying regenerative agricultural practices, and provides a social support group to help producers adopt regenerative agriculture practices.

“This is part of a larger picture, to create a circular food economy in Guelph Wellington. And the county took on the part of starting at the very beginning of the food system by looking at agriculture, because we are such an agriculture heavy municipality,” Grigg said.  

“Each farm has a unique question they are trying to answer, based on their interests and goals. In addition to financial support, we offer soil testing and community building events.”

It all began in 2020, when the County of Wellington began working with students from Western University to do an environment search to see what programs were out there.

“And then working with the Arrell Food Institute here at the University of Guelph in 2021, the framework for the Experimental Acres Farm pilot was developed, In 2022, I was brought on as the leader of the project,” Grigg said.

Regenerative practices in the program have varied between farming operations with some farmers using practices such as planting cover crops, rotational grazing or silvopasture, an ancient practice that integrates trees and pasture into a single system for raising livestock.

Grigg says there are many different regenerative farming practices taking place in 2023.

“I’ve done a lot learning and research. There is one farm in Grey County this year, that I’m really excited about. The farmer is growing corn for his cattle. He has a mix of grass and two types of clover growing in between the corn rows which is an example of inter-seeding. This isn’t a very common practice just yet, but he came to us because he was interested and he modified his own equipment to be able to do it,” Grigg said.

That project is exciting and inter-seeding, Grigg says, keeps the ground covered longer.

"There are more roots in the ground so it is building soil structure and providing more biodiversity than a normal corn field might. There is also a farm in Dufferin County doing companion planting for a market garden. This is looking at what different combinations of plants can be planted closer together so that you can make the most of the space that you have, and maximize what grows," Grigg said.

There are also a number of outdoor vertical planting practices happening in Wellington County as well.

Grigg says, so far, projects have gone really well.

"There were a few challenges last year due to a very dry season. So, we do need to be flexible. One of our farmers from 2022 said that he learned a lot and that he’s still practicing. I was super excited to bump into him and hear that," Grigg said.