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Traditional solutions for modern environmental problems

For this Cultivate feature we visit Harrcroft Acres Ltd. dairy farm north of Fergus where the Harrop family are using 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 it is leading to many technological advances, but a lot of farmers were already using a technique as old as agriculture itself.

“On our farm we grow a lot of plants and the only living things that take in carbon dioxide are plants,” said dairy farmer and president of the Wellington County Federation of Agriculture, Janet Harrop.  “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, along with her husband Ian and son Ryan, operates Harrcroft Acres Ltd dairy farm on Side Road 5 north of Fergus.  

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

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

They, for example, support the 'buy local' movement, which encourages consumers to promote local business and, in the process, reduce carbon emissions.

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

Their efforts to reduce greenhouse gases don’t stop there.

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

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

“The conversation we are having around regenerative agriculture right now is recognising practices, specifically soil management practices, that are not only good for agriculture but are good for society and the environment and climate as well,” said Ogilvie. “How do we make sure that after the research is done, it doesn’t stay on the shelf?”

Terms such as regenerative agriculture and sequestering carbon, are essentially new names for things the Harrops have been doing for generations.

“My dad was doing this in the 1970s,” said Ian Harrop. “So, when all of a sudden it became a catch phrase, I am looking at my dad and asking, ‘Were you just ahead of the curve?’ and he said. ‘I guess so.’ And it’s not just us. It was lots of farms.”

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

Cultivating healthy, fast-growing green plants is the most efficient way to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The crops are harvested to feed the animals, but the roots remain in the soil.

“All of that root is carbon,” said Janet. “That is where you are really sequestering carbon and you are putting air pockets and nutrients into the soil. Through manure, you are putting good bacteria back into the soil.  It’s a constant evolving, self-containing, kind of system 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 is so much technology,” said Janet. “There’s satellite spatial photography that you can actually take a spatial picture of the field to know what areas might be nutrient deficient. There is equipment that has probes that can measure the nutrient value as you’re planting and apply variable rates of fertilizer if you are adding fertilizer.”

Janet is certified in nutrient management with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs OMAFRA and that training has allowed her to blend the latest research and technology with years of experience and inherited generational wisdom and apply them to every aspect of their dairy operation from growing and sowing to breeding and feeding and all things in between.

“If you compare now to 40 years ago, we are probably producing three times the milk on a daily basis with only twice the number of cattle,” said Ian Harrop. “A fellow farmer explained it to me this way. These animals are like Olympic athletes. Everything you do for them has to be the absolute best. The best feed, the best housing, the best environment for them to be producing the way they are producing.”

That increase in production and efficiencies translates to lower operational use of fossil fuel on the farm as well as less greenhouse gases, “biogenic carbon”, being emitted by the cattle themselves. 

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

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

“So, when you look at greenhouse gas contribution of agriculture you really need to take the biogenic carbon out of the equation,” said Janet. “When you do you get a clearer picture as to what is contributing more carbon and it is essentially vehicles and industry, right. The burning of petroleum products.”

Researchers continue to explore a variety of new ways to reduce emissions such as improving fuel efficiency and exploring alternative energy sources.

“They think about how we can cut Co2 emissions and that is really important, but I think about how we can take that carbon dioxide and put it into a plant,” said Janet.  ‘Some say it is new and it is re-inventing, but it is an expansion of practices that have been going on for a long, long time.”