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Soil quality, management practices & farmer health — are they connected?

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In 2022, I completed a JCURA project during the fourth year of my undergraduate degree titled, “Soil Quality, Management Practices & Farmer Health in British Columbia.” This collaborative study, conducted with Ph.D. student Brooke Hayes and Dr. John Volpe, sought to gain a deeper understanding of the agricultural industry in BC by focusing on the perspectives of farmers.

BC farmers operate in a challenging environment, particularly due to the impacts of climate change. They face immense pressure to produce local, sustainable food while simultaneously dealing with factors such as aging demographics and financial constraints. It is crucial for us to respond effectively to these challenges and provide support during these turbulent times.

Research questions

To better comprehend the condition and needs of BC farmers, our study sought to answer three key questions:

  • Does a farmer’s demographic influence their stated values and chosen practices?
  • Are there practices or values associated with whether a farmer is financially successful?
  • Does the quality of a farm’s soil correlate with a farmer’s self-assessed physical health or mental well-being?

Data sources and analysis

Our research utilized two main sources of data. First, we distributed a survey to 779 farmers across the province, enabling us to gather valuable insights directly from the farmers themselves. Additionally, we conducted physical teabag experiments by planting teabag samples on selected farms to assess soil quality based on their decomposition over time. A control site on Vancouver Island, at the Sandown Centre for Regenerative Agriculture, was also included.

The green and rooibos teabags, representing bacterial and fungal activity in the soil, were buried and spent between 35 and 133 days underground. By calculating the difference in weight between the initial and final stages, we could measure decomposition rates, a proxy for healthy and biologically active soils. This method allowed us to assess soil quality using samples from individual farms.

Key findings

The survey data provided us with important insights into the characteristics of the respondents. We discovered that BC farmers were generally older, highly educated, and inclined towards organic farming. They exhibited good health and optimism, and prioritized environmental protection and food security. However, financial returns had the most significant influence on their management style.

Statistical analyses revealed correlations within our dataset. Education was strongly associated with stated values, location correlated with management practices, and profitability was linked to the use of organic fertilizer and tillage. Notably, farmers who were able to generate profits using conventional practices overwhelmingly stated that they did not plan to stop using these practices in the future. This reinforced our earlier findings on the importance of financial considerations.

Limitations and future directions:

While our research provided valuable information, there were limitations to the study. To overcome these, we plan to develop a generalized linear model to analyze the relationships among variables simultaneously. This will enable a more robust assessment of correlative relationships. Additionally, we intend to conduct a policy review to evaluate how our findings align with current legislation and policy initiatives.

This research project sheds light on the challenges faced by BC farmers and the factors that influence their decision-making processes. By understanding their condition and needs, we can develop targeted strategies and policies to support and sustain the agricultural industry in the face of climate change and other challenges. As we continue our research, we aim to contribute to the development of a more resilient and prosperous farming sector in British Columbia.

To learn more about this project or watch Kayla’s JCURA presentation, click here.

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    Ecogastronomy Research Group

    I and my students use quantitative analyses of food and wine production systems to reveal linkages between ecological and social sustainability, “quality”, and the primacy of place … “Ecogastronomy”

    Dr. John Volpe

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