It was the May long weekend and that was reason enough for a road trip to Montreal. Well, who am I kidding? I was there for a crop tour.
After a seven hour drive, I pulled into a short laneway just off the Trans-Canada highway east of the city. It was the farm of Jocelyn Michon, a long-time no-tiller and a memorable speaker at the 2014 Innovative Farmers’ conference in London.
“You brought the sun,” he smiles as he shakes my hand. Michon farms 600 acres near Saint-Hyacinthe and he grows corn and soybeans, as well as double-cropping peas and green beans for Bonduelle. He is also an inductee of the Soil Conservation Council of Canada’s Hall of Fame. And I was about to find out why.
Through no-till and cover crops, Michon has raised his soil organic matter from 1.5 per cent to 3-4 per cent since the early 1990s. But the proof is in the uniformity and consistency of his high yields, he says, and especially on dry years. While Bonduelle has dropped half of its other producers in the area, Michon’s vegetables continue to make the top grade. “The problem on many of the other fields around here is compaction and it’s not allowing water infiltration.”
“At the beginning, they may have thought I was crazy, but now they invite me to speak at their production meetings,” he adds. And Michon accepts, enthusiastically sharing his research and experiences.
He uses smaller machinery, controlled traffic and alleys for trucks to minimize soil compaction, and relies on a home-made strip till unit to lightly clear crop residue ahead of the twin-row Monosem precision planter. He spreads chicken litter into a living cover crop every six years and his mix consists of buckwheat, fava beans, oats, forage peas, phacelia, radish, flax, sun hemp, camelina, lentils, sunflower and mustard. Last fall, he had an overwhelming mass of cover crop growth and decided to roll the crop at the end of September as it flowered, and by planting time this year the residue had all but disappeared (see photo).
“It’s all down here,” Michon laughs as he stoops down to examine the surface of his soil, just littered with earthworm middens.
“I have 20 to 30 middens per square meter, which means approximately 400 to 900 earthworms in that space. With an average of 25 middens per square metre, that means I will have about 1.5 billion earthworms on my farm,” says Michon, who works closely with Odette Ménard from Quebec’s agricultural ministry, a renowned expert on earthworms.
“Textbooks say that with the one tonne of earthworms I have per hectare, I could reduce my nitrogen rate by 60 units. I have actually reduced it by 63 units, so that’s pretty close,” says Michon. He then quotes USDA soil health guru Ray Archuleta: “It’s not the fertilizer, but the eco-system that feeds the plant.” This has been Michon’s experience over the years. He has reduced nitrogen and phosphorus rates by half, and potash by a third.
But he didn’t stop there. Sustainability can also add value to the product, he might argue. Michon worked on a pilot project with the provincial agricultural ministry and the Union des Producteurs Agricoles (UPA) to become the first cash crop farm in Canada to be certified under ISO 14001. All aspects of production were evaluated for their environmental impact, including fuel and fertilizer delivery. “In that case, it was the farm that was certified, not our products so it didn’t mean an added value to us,” says Michon. “And another problem was that there was no consideration for soil conservation.”
So, Michon tried another approach. He and other no-tillers had formed a group called Action Semis-Direct 25 years ago. In addition to hosting conferences and farm tours, they created a certified brand for their no-till cereal grains in 2008 and for their livestock in 2009. The brand is Terre Vivante (Living Earth) and it was well received in Quebec. “The only problem now is that we can’t provide enough volume for the industry,” says Michon.
Ever innovating, Jocelyn Michon has proven that no-till can work. And it benefits not only the soil and the environment, but also his bottom line. “Going no-till makes me an extra $100,000 a year,” he says, and that comes from savings due to reducing equipment, fuel, maintenance, labour and fertilizer.
My visit left me with a lot of food for thought as to how we can better incorporate no-till practices to build soil organic matter levels into vegetable production here in Ontario. If you have a good example, please get in touch with me. You know I love a good road trip!
Melisa Luymes is Farm & Food Care environmental coordinator.