Advancing Sustainable Agriculture at the Trent Experimental Farm
The latest developments from this year’s growing season at the Trent Farm
A new system of drainage tile has been installed at the Trent Experimental Farm that will allow researchers to set up interesting experiments linking water quality and soil health.
Tile drainage is an important tool for managing water levels in crop fields. The tile itself is black plastic tubing installed underground and designed to remove excess water from a field. In doing so, the tile forces plants to grow deeper roots early in the season (when it’s wet) so that later in the season those plants are better able to absorb water and nutrients (when it’s dry). This results in better yields. A common side effect of using tile drainage is that it causes higher quantities of fertilizer and other nutrients to enter local watersheds.
Researchers at the Trent experimental farm are splitting the fields in half to allow tile drainage on one side and no tile drainage on the other. This side-by-side comparison allows them to look at how different management treatments will impact both the soils and the quality of water coming off the field via the drain tile.
“This is our opportunity to make an interesting experimental setup. As far as I know, there's not really a paired set up like this at any other university or institution in Canada,” says Dr. Karen Thompson, associate professor at the Trent School of the Environment and Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems program coordinator.
Certain areas in the field will have tile drains that go to a single outlet, with around 12 outlets total, enabling flexibility with experimental design, and allowing researchers to test water draining from particular plots of land.
The disruption to the soil from installing the tile is significant—a huge tractor cutting a blade into the earth to lay the tile drain tube down, then sealing it back up—so the fields will need a season to let it settle.
The installation of drainage tile is one of several larger projects Trent researchers are hoping to undertake to further the goals of supporting experiential learning and generate new knowledge about sustainable agriculture. These aspirations include a new structure that will include a barn, a space for food preparation, a teaching and research space, and equipment to help students in their work growing crops.
Field trial looking to reduce the use of fertilizers
Professor Thompson recently completed a cover crop field trial with the educational collective, Common Earth. Her team planted a selection of cover crops—plants that won’t be harvested and are instead used to slow erosion, improve soil health, manage weeds, control pests, and increase biodiversity. The cover crops were planted in a randomized complete block design, so that plant types are grown either by themselves or in different mixtures. In addition, two different fertilizers were used: a synthetic fertilizer, and a biological nitrogen solution.
Common Earth is particularly interested in regenerative agriculture and building carbon-rich soil by using alternatives to synthetic fertilizer. The biological solution used in the field trial contains living microbes in a solution that includes a food source. These microbes are able to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere if they are in symbiosis with their host plant. The hope is that by applying this solution to plants, and increasing the potential for symbiosis to occur, the plants will get more nitrogen without the need to apply fertilizer of any kind.
Second growing season at Curve Lake market farm promoting food sovereignty
Matt Porter, farm operations coordinator, and Trent student farm workers continue to collaborate with Curve Lake youth to develop a market farm on a five-acre plot just outside the Curve Lake First Nation. Curve Lake council asked Porter to consult on developing the farm business after a trip to see the Trent Experimental Farm. The collaboration has been ongoing ever since.
“We started small and we’re trying not to grow too fast. We’re figuring out what residents want to eat and looking into processing food to make it easier to prepare for elders in their kitchens. We grew tobacco this year and will try some other medicines next year,” Porter explained.
Over the past two years, the project has expanded, now including a hoop house to extend the growing season. Produce grown here has both been sold for profit and donated to the Curve Lake food bank. One of the central goals of the market farm is to practice food sovereignty—the right to define one’s own food and agricultural system—and take back control of food security by eliminating the need for off-res donations to the food bank. Other goals include growing medicine, including those for ceremonies that currently have to be purchased, and teaching youth how to grow their own food.
“We’re there as an extra hand,” said Cameron McQuaid, Trent social work student and farm employee. “Keyra and Keyanna, Curve Lake youth managing the farm, decide what to plant and where, and we help prepare the beds, and get seedlings ready. We have a list of things that we that we know people in the community like, and that includes yellow beans, lettuce, spinach, squash, cabbage, and then corn as well—really, staple foods.”