In some ways, soil health conferences are like recipe swaps â€” with attendees always on the lookout for a mix of ingredients that will produce better results.
One of those recipes presented at the sold-out Western Canada Conference on Soil Health & Grazing last month came from a Colorado potato grower who farms in high-elevation, near-desert conditions and no longer uses chemical inputs.
Brendon Rockey calls the set of practices employed by himself and his brother as â€œbioticâ€ farming. And itâ€™s proved to be a winning formula, he told the 550 people who packed a hotel conference hall.
â€œWe were able to maintain the yield of the crop, but we managed to reduce the number of inputs to grow that crop,â€ said Rockey, a third-generation producer who grows table potatoes and 25 varieties of certified seed potatoes. â€œAnd we were increasing the quality of the crop at the same time. That approach has a huge economic impact for us as well.â€
The family decided about 20 years ago that conventional farming was no longer paying off.
The amount â€” and cost â€” of inputs was a big part of the problem, prompting them to question their use of insecticides, herbicides, nematicides (used to kill nematode worms) and fungicides.
â€œWe were trying to kill off our problems, but it wasnâ€™t just that simple,â€ said Rockey. â€œWe were forgetting about a lot of other factors â€” like beneficial insects and life that lives on the soil and in the plant. We were really forgetting about carbon capture.
â€œThose were things we werenâ€™t having conversations about, and thatâ€™s where we were running into trouble.â€
Fertilizer was another issue. Adding synthetic fertilizer would produce a bump in yield but then the yields would start diminishing. The problem, the Rockeys concluded, was that they were inadvertently shutting down nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil, hurting mycorrhizal fungi and adding more salt.
Because they irrigate, they were also concerned about water infiltration â€” and didnâ€™t like what they were seeing.
â€œWhen we had poor soil structure with tight aggregates and little pore space, when we irrigated, the water did not go where it belongs,â€ said Rockey. â€œSo we ended up putting more water on the soil.â€
All of these issues had a common denominator, the brothers concluded.
â€œWe had to accept that we were the source of the problem,â€ said Rockey.