Agricultural Restoration: A Major Climate Solution for Turbulent Times

Restoring degraded land for food production is a major global challenge.

The turbulent waves of extreme weather experienced across western North America over the past year continue to shake agricultural producers. Farmers need to deal with both extreme rainfall and drought while still maintaining financially viable and ecologically sustainable systems. Improving soil quality, and in particular increasing soil carbon, has the potential to offset greenhouse gas emissions while also improving soil fertility, increasing yields, and future-proofing rural livelihoods.

Despite the potential, numerous challenges remain. Many farms continue to focus on industrialized systems of production which consolidate ever-larger pieces of land to grow input-intensive cash crops. This is a major barrier to access for many farmers and, while large farms are part of the solution, more space needs to be created for small to mid-sized farms growing a diversity of locally adapted products. Developing climate-ready production systems which are financially viable and culturally and environmentally sensitive is at the frontier of agriculture. 

This research project seeks to identify the most appropriate and financially viable agricultural methods for improving soil quality and sequestering carbon in a heavily degraded site. Research will be conducted at the Sandown Centre for Regenerative Agriculture (SCRA) on public District of North Saanich and traditional Tseycum land in North Saanich, BC. This was formerly a horse racing track which is now being managed as 83 acres of forest, wetland, riparian area, pasture, and arable land. The project explicitly asks the questions “what is the degree to which improving soil quality, carbon sequestration, and financial viability relate to each other for conventional and regenerative techniques?” and “can improving soil quality also benefit climate mitigation and increase productivity? What are the co-benefits and trade-offs?”

Developing climate-ready agricultural solutions is paramount.

Sandown management zones. Zone 1: arable farm plots. Zone 2: pasture. Zone 3: vernal pond. Zone 4: wetland pasture. Zone 5: winter animal housing. Zone 6: hawthorn scrub/riparian area. Zone 7: forest. The research zone in blue is provisional.

Research Phases

All research will be conducted on 1.5 acres at the SCRA. The site was formerly used as a horse racing track and is in highly variable condition, making this an ideal candidate for experimental farming methods and climate mitigation. Research will take place over three phases.

Phase One: the first research priority of this project is to create a baseline of soil quality conditions to compare the results of the experimental manipulations against. Phase One will therefore consist of a detailed analysis of the research area. a survey of soil quality indicators will be conducted to determine the baseline state of the site. A minimum dataset of soil quality indicators covering a range of crucial biological, physical, and chemical parameters will be measured across the research site.

Phase Two: initiate the experiment. Each treatment will grow the same marketable crops with the major differences being in how they are managed and incorporated into rotations. The practices listed above will inform the different treatments. The effects of each of these techniques on the soil quality indicators will be monitored closely for at least two years. Key financial viability metrics such as implementation costs, profit margins, and annual cost per tonne of C sequestered per acre will tracked as well. These will include a whole life cycle analysis for any inputs which will price their full cost from manufacture to distribution and utilization. This research will work alongside the daily management of Sandown as well as the commercial farming operations that occur on site.

Phase Three: the results will yield the optimal and most financially viable forms of agriculture for maximizing farm productivity, sequestering carbon, and restoring soil quality. The results of this experiment will be used to inform management decisions at Sandown and will be shared widely with the regional community of farmers. The results will also be shared with solution seekers from the federal and provincial governments as well as agricultural associations and farmers.

This PhD project is a collaboration between the Ecogastronomy Research Group at the University of Victoria with the supervision of Dr. John Volpe and the Sandown Centre for Regenerative Agriculture. The principal researcher is Matthew Kyriakides.