In some ways, soil health conferences are like recipe swaps — 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 “biotic” farming. And it’s proved to be a winning formula, he told the 550 people who packed a hotel conference hall.
“We were able to maintain the yield of the crop, but we managed to reduce the number of inputs to grow that crop,” said Rockey, a third-generation producer who grows table potatoes and 25 varieties of certified seed potatoes. “And we were increasing the quality of the crop at the same time. That approach has a huge economic impact for us as well.”
The family decided about 20 years ago that conventional farming was no longer paying off.
The amount — and cost — 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.
“We were trying to kill off our problems, but it wasn’t just that simple,” said Rockey. “We were forgetting about a lot of other factors — like beneficial insects and life that lives on the soil and in the plant. We were really forgetting about carbon capture.
“Those were things we weren’t having conversations about, and that’s where we were running into trouble.”
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 — and didn’t like what they were seeing.
“When we had poor soil structure with tight aggregates and little pore space, when we irrigated, the water did not go where it belongs,” said Rockey. “So we ended up putting more water on the soil.”
All of these issues had a common denominator, the brothers concluded.
“We had to accept that we were the source of the problem,” said Rockey.