A unique view on production - working with producers to grow more than food

Prairie grassland by Aleksandra Dolezal

 

By Annalisa Mazzorato, M.Sc. Candidate

Although prairie grasslands cover approximately 20% of the Earth's land surface, they are currently a rare landscape in Canada occupying only <1% of their prior range (Conant, Paustian, & Elliott, 2001; Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, 2015; Ward et al., 2016). This has not always been the case. During surveys of temperate ecosystems in Canada in the late 1800s, many naturalists, such as Catherine Parr Traill, described the vast range of grassland habitat--

       “Before the plainlands above Rice Lake were enclosed and cultivated, the extensive grassy flats were     brilliant with the azure of the Lupine in the months of June and July, but the progress of cultivation sweeps the fair ornaments from the soil” – Catherine Parr Traill, 1885 (Bakowsky & Riley, 1994).

Intensification of land use and changing management practices have resulted in dramatic losses of Canadian prairie grasslands. Accompanying these losses are also the benefits grasslands would otherwise provide. Prairie grassland systems can yield multiple ecosystem services associated with soil quality as well as increased biodiversity, biomass production, pollinator populations, and increased rare and endangered species. They are also renowned for their ability to store carbon, including their high root production to depths greater than two meters, and are increasingly the targets of marginal land “carbon farming” initiatives (Fargione, Hill, Tilman, Polasky, & Hawthorne, 2008; Tilman, Hill, & Lehman, 2006).

Comparatively, marginal lands are areas where cultivation is financially challenging due to undesirable characteristics such as nutrient poor soil, excessive sloping, or poor water supply. Therefore, these lands generally require excessive amounts of inputs to be profitable. Recently, the research and practice of modifying marginal lands to accommodate ecosystem services, such as creating pollinator habitat and restoring rare habitats such as grasslands, has increased due to the benefits to both the producer and to society (ALUS Canada, 2016). This opens the potential for “carbon farming” where marginal lands are converted from croplands to "zero input" cover types.

The realization of marginal land restoration and the marginal land model has been documented in the past and large strides have been made, yet adoption of these management practices is relatively low. The need for economic incentives and evidence-based support for implementation at the production level is necessary for success – insert ALUS! Alternative Land Use Services Canada (ALUS Canada) is a community based, non-profit organization, that has implemented an agricultural stewardship program where marginal lands are converted from croplands to either high diversity native prairie grasslands, wetlands or restored woodlots. Payments are awarded to farmers on a per acre basis for taking marginal lands out of agricultural production. The purpose of this program is to invest in ecosystem services on agricultural landscapes and empower producers to reduce their ecological footprint while adding environmental value to the land.

For my master’s thesis, under the supervision of Dr. Andrew MacDougall at the University of Guelph, I am testing the effectiveness of the marginal land model for soil carbon accumulation on a diverse set of farms in Ontario’s Norfolk and Elgin counties, two of the most intensely farmed regions of North America. The 22 landowners I am in collaboration with are all members of ALUS and have converted either a portion or all of the marginal lands on their farm to prairie grassland.

The ultimate goals with my research project are to quantify soil carbon as well as determine the major drivers of carbon accumulation in marginal lands that have been converted to prairie grasslands through the ALUS program. The results from this work will help support landowners that are interested in exploring carbon farming as a viable option for converting their marginal lands.

Please contact me at annalisa@uoguelph.ca or check out https://annalisamazzorato.weebly.com/ and @acmazzorato for updates on my research project.

 

References: 

ALUS Canada. (2016). Program Overview.

Bakowsky, W., & Riley, J. L. (1994). A survey of the prairies and savannas of southern Ontario. Thirteenth North American Prairie Conference.

Conant, R. T., Paustian, K., & Elliott, E. T. (2001). Grassland management and conversion into grassland: Effects on soil carbon. Ecological Applications. https://doi.org/10.1890/1051-0761(2001)011[0343:GMACIG]2.0.CO;2

Fargione, J., Hill, J., Tilman, D., Polasky, S., & Hawthorne, P. (2008). Land clearing and the biofuel carbon debt. Science, 319(5867), 1235–1238. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1152747

Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. (2015). Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark government response statement. Retrieved October 24, 2016, from https://www.ontario.ca/page/bobolink-and-eastern-meadowlark-government-response-statement.

Tilman, D., Hill, J., & Lehman, C. (2006). Carbon-negative biofuels from low-input high-diversity grassland biomass. Science, 314(5805), 1598–1600. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1133306

Ward, S. E., Smart, S. M., Quirk, H., Tallowin, J. R. B., Mortimer, S. R., Shiel, R. S., … Bardgett, R. D. (2016). Legacy effects of grassland management on soil carbon to depth. Global Change Biology, 22(8). https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.13246