It was the summer of 2007 when Derek Axten found himself in central South Dakota looking to buy a low disturbance seeder. He knew that if he could disrupt the soil less, and save more moisture, his crops would benefit in the dry lands of Saskatchewan. 

When buying the seeder, the store’s general manager asked if he was interested in other things that would improve his farm’s soil health. Axten said he didn’t know much regarding the topic, so he went back to his Saskatchewan farm with the drill and spent the winter researching.

The next summer he returned to South Dakota, ready to learn. There, he met with Dwayne Beck, the research director at Dakota Lakes Research Farm who took Axten to the research farm to show him what they did. 

“He showed us some things that I didn’t even think were possible,” Axten says. “That one visit was so life changing that I just needed to come home and try to change so many things.”

In 2021, Western Canada faced a drought that hindered the agriculture sector. Farmers struggled against the extreme weather and, as a result, produced well below average yields. Axten, who has adopted many new practices since 2007, believes his farm is more resilient against the changing weather than other farmers who have not prepared for it.

With atypical practices such as intercropping, control traffic farming, using a no-till seeder, harvesting with stripper headers and less use of synthetic fertilizers, Axten has been able to improve his land’s soil biology. 

“The better we can [make our soil], the more resilience we’re going to build in the system so that we can capture rainfall for longer periods of time. Then we can make the nutrients in the soil more available to the plant, and therefore, there’s less stress on the plant.”

Not only does improving soil health increase water holding capacity, it allows for increased carbon sequestration — the process of capturing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in soil. 

“Certain [agricultural] practices drive carbon sequestration, and sometimes by practices I mean not doing things,” says Axten.

Techniques for improving soil biology include using a no-till seeder, stopping the use of synthetic fertilizers, adopting control traffic farming, intercropping fields, and harvesting with stripper headers. PHOTO: Tannis Axten

He says there has been increased interest in the agriculture sector to adjust farming practices to be a solution to climate change through sequestration.

Beck, the Dakota Lakes Research Farm director who is also a professor of agronomy, horticulture, and plant science at South Dakota State University, says agriculture controls most of the land in the world.

“We got to take out some of the carbon that’s there that shouldn’t be. We’re using 10,000 years of carbon in 100 years. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense.”

Beck says the most important change that needs to be made in farming is stopping tillage — the overturning of soil for crop preparation — as the destructive practice wipes out soil biology. Tillage also releases carbon held in soil, allowing it back into the atmosphere.

“Mother Nature doesn’t do tillage,” he says. “[We need to look at] how the native systems work and try to mimic those versus trying to take what we’ve been doing and modify it to do less damage.”

For farmers who adopt no-tilling practices and join the effort to sequester more carbon in their land, carbon markets exist for them to realize benefits for their actions.

Kim Haakstad, vice-president of stakeholder relations at Terramera, says different types of carbon markets exist for farmers in the U.S. and Canada. In Alberta, there was a framework, but it expired at the end of 2021.

She says Terramera has developed technology that will measure and quantify the amount of carbon sequestered in soil. They hope to convince farmers to be a part of carbon markets and help them by giving farmers the tools they need.

“It’s badly needed that we look to support those farmers. We talk about farms and agriculture but forget that the most important piece of that to all of us as individual Canadians is our food system,” says Haakstad.

After last year’s drought and extreme heat, many farmers may be looking to build more resilience in their land by adjusting their practices. 

The final Alberta Crop Report for 2021 outlined that yields were about 37 per cent below the five-year average. Additionally, surface soil moisture was rated 35.6 per cent poor – six times lower than the five year average.

Axten says maximizing yield is not his goal anymore. Instead, he has focused on his soil, and maximizing its long-term resilience. Being a generational farm, he says it makes more sense to invest in his soil rather than advancing the short-term outcomes.

“My wife coined the term ‘loyal to the soil’ about 10 years ago. As sing-songy as that is, it really is [what we do] when we’re making decisions.”

Derek Axten, pictured above, has changed the management style of his farm to focus on improving the health of his soil so that it holds better resilience against the extreme weather farmers in Western Canada face. PHOTO: Tannis Axten

Going forward, Axten will continue to grow his soil’s resilience, giving him an advantage in farming against climate change. It’s a shift that changes the management style of a farm but one that will have its benefits.

With growing interest in the techniques, Axten says he is doing his part by trying to make resources available for those interested in making a change. 

Not only does this allow for farmers to renourish their soils to make for better farming outcomes, but it’s a way for them to be a solution to climate change by taking carbon out of the atmosphere and keeping it in the soil.

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Julie Patton is a fourth year journalism student at MRU and newsletter editor at the Calgary Journal. She is also the news editor at The Reflector.