Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/1/2015 (2254 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It was eerie driving across the southern Manitoba prairie the night the power went out Dec. 30.
Familiar farm sites, normally brightly lit by yard lights and made extra-friendly by festive holiday lights, were dark and abandoned-looking. Towns with no street lights appeared as ghost towns. Even the fields, uncharacteristically black for this time of year, appeared more barren in the hazy moonlight.
And even though one knew there were still people in those places, huddled around candles and flashlights and considering their next steps if the outage continued much longer, you got a sense of how lonely this space would be if those farm sites were truly emptied of people and the lights in those homes were suddenly and permanently extinguished.
There was a time in our history when that was a distinct possibility -- a time when a vast portion of the Canadian Prairies was at serious risk of becoming a desert, un-farmable and virtually uninhabitable, a time when people were literally packing what belongings they could carry and leaving, blowing out the lights for good.
It was a time when people had forgotten that what really keeps the lights on in farm homes -- and for that matter, much of our economy -- is our soil.
"The Palliser Triangle in 1935 was in truth well on its way to becoming the Great Canadian Desert," writes James H. Gray in Men Against the Desert, a book chronicling the massive publicly funded extension effort in the dirty thirties.
Soil was so degraded from excessive plowing combined with a prolonged drought, it was drifting into rolling dunes that progressively choked the life out of ever more land. Beating back the desert and restoring the Prairies to productivity is one of the greatest achievements in Canada's history.
"It was prevented by the fortuitous combination of the intelligent application of scientific knowledge, the incredible patience and fortitude of the people of the land, the dedication of brutally underpaid employees of the Experimental Farms and other governments departments and a break in the longest siege of atrocious weather since, in all probability, the times of Joseph of Egypt," Gray wrote.
And it's something the rest of the world -- including modern-day Canada -- can learn from as attention becomes more focused on what it's going to take to meet the world's growing demand for food with increasingly limited resources.
Awareness of soil's importance is undergoing a bit of a renaissance as the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization recognizes 2015 as the International Year of Soil. The extra attention is long overdue.
"Generally speaking, we are not doing such a great job: One-third of our soils have already degraded," FAO director-general José Graziano da Silva said in a statement launching the Year of Soil. "If the current trend continues, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will be a quarter of what it was in 1960."
It can take up to 1,000 years to form one centimetre of topsoil, which can be washed away in an afternoon with one rainstorm.
"I always remember my first soils class in university," da Silva said. "The professor said that soils were made up of about one-third water, one-third minerals and one-third organic materials. He took these three elements, mixed it in a pan. He showed it to us and said that that was not soil: Soil is a living organism."
The notion soil is alive -- it is now said one shovelful contains more living organisms than there are people on this planet and it functions as a distinct ecosystem -- is relatively new in the lexicon around farming and food.
It changes the discussion and establishes a new framework for benchmarking success in agriculture.
The traditional focus has been on what to feed plants via the soil. Increasingly, the focus is on how caring for the soil contributes to healthy plants and more nutritious food.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.