Fields of Dreams

THE MICROSCOPE IN TANNIS AND DEREK AXTEN’S FARM OFFICE IN MINTON, SASK., IS A GOOD CLUE THESE THIRD-GENERATION GRAIN GROWERS ARE MANAGING THEIR LAND A LITTLE DIFFERENTLY THAN THEIR NEIGHBOURS.


Derek and Tannis Axten farm 5,000 acres of land in Minton, Sask. The family keeps their acreage green for more than 200 days of the year with cover crops that protect the earth from sun and wind and feed the soil with their roots.RANDY RISLING FOR THE TORONTO STAR

A more obvious sign is found while walking the rows of flax and lentils, mustard and forage peas, chickpeas and flax. In a province known for fields of gold thanks to a monoculture mentality that prizes growing a single crop in a given area, the Axtens are seeding 13 different combinations of grains and legumes.

While many of their neighbours stay true to a 100-day growing season, leaving the land almost bare after fall harvest, the Axtens work to keep their acreage green for more than 200 days of the year with cover crops such as sweet clover, chickling vetch and oats whose main jobs are to protect the earth from sun and wind and feed the soil with their live roots.

When the couple took over Derek’s family farm in 2006, part of which his grandfather worked more than a century ago, they inherited a rich history but also some incredibly fragile soil and no dependable source of water.

The 5,000 acres they’re farming is almost smack dab in the heart of North America’s “geographic centre,” which (according to the 1931 U.S. Geological Survey) is Rugby, N.D., — 422 kilometres southeast of Minton following Highway 18.

You can’t get any farther from the ocean.

Climate variation between seasons on the prairies is among the most dramatic on Earth, characterized by repeated wet and dry cycles. With warming temperatures, future droughts are projected to be “more frequent and intense” across the southern Canadian Prairies, according to Canada’s Changing Climate Report, which was released in 2019 by the federal government.

International and Canadian researchers are predicting warmer winters for the region, potentially one of the few great news stories to come out of climate change research because it would bring a longer growing season, the promise of significantly higher yields for farmers and a big bump to the national economy. But a hotter climate without adequate moisture in the soil could also spell disaster. Moisture is a transformative element driving the physics, chemistry and biology of healthy soil. Water brings life. Without it, you’re looking at a pile of lifeless, and increasingly useless, dirt.

That’s why the Axtens are among a small but growing group of farmers across the province — some supported by commercial agricultural players known as “Big Ag” — who are working overtime on this challenge. A big part of their solution requires turning their soil into the world’s biggest sponges. MORE

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SOIL HEALTH IS FINALLY STARTING TO GET THE ATTENTION IT DESERVES

Grassroots movement to address climate crisis


Organic farmer Brenda Hsueh introduces the Green New Deal to people in her barn at Black Sheep Farm outside of Scone. PAT CARSON

The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres does not talk about climate change, he talks about a “climate crisis,” adding that “we face a direct existential threat.”

The Paris Agreement on climate was signed by 195 nations, including Canada, in 2017. On April 2, 2019 the Government of Canada announced in a news release that Canada’s climate is warming twice as fast as the global average. The report added that Canadians are experiencing the costs of climate-related extremes first hand, from devastating wildfires and flooding to heat waves and droughts.

In January of 2019, the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) reported that climate change is linked to depression, anxiety and stress disorders in Canada.

There is a grassroots movement afoot to address the climate crisis in Canada and it’s called the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal is a political idea to tackle the climate crisis.

There have been more than 150 Green New Deal town hall gatherings across Canada this month alone, in cities like Toronto and Vancouver and smaller communities like Barrie and Wiarton. On May 25 there was one in a barn on a farm outside of Scone on Grey Road 3.

“In part it comes out of the LEAP manifesto and a lot of different progressive groups wanting to push society to make changes, not just on climate issues, but on social justice issues too,” explained Brenda Hsueh, an organic farmer who hosted the event at Black Sheep Farm.

Hsueh decided to take up the challenge of hosting a town hall because as an organic farmer most of her work is done in isolation and she wanted to see who else in her community was as angry and frustrated with society’s lack of action on this major issue.

Twenty-four people from different walks of life and different ages, including several local organic farmers, showed up as concerned as Hsueh about the climate crisis and the need for action now.

The Green New Deal calls on workers, students, union members, migrants, community organizations and people all across the country to gather and design a plan for a safe and prosperous future for all. It is a vision of rapid, inclusive and far-reaching transition, to slash emissions, protect critical biodiversity and meet the demands of the multiple crises.

In her opening remarks, Hsueh asked people to be “mindful that we are gathered today on the traditional land of the Three Fire Confederacy of the Ojibway, Potawatomi and Odawa people.”

Before beginning small group discussions she explained the concept of “green line” statements as a way to identify what people want to see and support in communities and the country. “Red line” statements identify what people do not want to see or support. The statements might be about labour, Indigenous peoples, food, disabilities, public transportation, health, agriculture, war, youth and faith to name just a few social justice topics. MORE

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Biodiversity crisis is about to put humanity at risk, UN scientists to warn

Apart from human overconsumption, agriculture, transportation, and energy production are the clear drivers that are leading to mass extinction and threatening human well-being.

‘We are in trouble if we don’t act,’ say experts, with up to 1m species at risk of annihilation


Students protest in Adelaide. UN experts warned people alive today are at risk unless urgent action is taken. Photograph: Kelly Barnes/EPA

The world’s leading scientists will warn the planet’s life-support systems are approaching a danger zone for humanity when they release the results of the most comprehensive study of life on Earth ever undertaken.

Up to 1m species are at risk of annihilation, many within decades, according to a leaked draft of the global assessment report, which has been compiled over three years by the UN’s leading research body on nature.

The 1,800-page study will show people living today, as well as wildlife and future generations, are at risk unless urgent action is taken to reverse the loss of plants, insects and other creatures on which humanity depends for foodpollination, clean water and a stable climate.

“We need to appeal not just to environment ministers, but to those in charge of agriculture, transport and energy because they are the ones responsible for the drivers of biodiversity loss.”

“There is no question we are losing biodiversity at a truly unsustainable rate that will affect human wellbeing both for current and future generations,” he said. “We are in trouble if we don’t act, but there are a range of actions that can be taken to protect nature and meet human goals for health and development.” MORE

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An Australian start-up is using robots to pull weeds and herd cattle

  • The company, called Agerris, uses tech that has been developed at the University of Sydney’s Australian Center for Field Robotics.
  • One of its robots has the capacity to herd livestock and will be able to monitor the welfare of animals.

h/o: digital farmhand australia

  • An Australian start-up that develops robots which use artificial intelligence is hoping to soon sell its technology to the wider market.

    The company, called Agerris, specializes in both “air and ground field robotic systems” for agriculture. It uses tech that has been developed at the University of Sydney’s Australian Center for Field Robotics.

    Earlier this week, Agerris secured 6.5 million Australian dollars ($4.64 million) in funding in the hope of developing and trialing products that can then be commercialized.

    Early stage investment fund Uniseed said the money would be used to commercialize “robotics platforms, intelligent automated tools and artificial intelligence” with the aim of boosting agricultural productivity and sustainability. Uniseed, together with Carthona Capital and the BridgeLane Group, co-ordinated the investment.

    “Farmers worldwide will need to increase production through enhancing agricultural productivity, yet many often struggle to afford the best customized advice for their farm, leading to sub-optimal yields and efficiencies from their crops,” the CEO of Agerris, Salah Sukkarieh, said in a statement issued on the University of Sydney’s website. MORE

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New autonomous farm wants to produce food without human workers

Down on a new robot farm, machines tend rows of leafy greens under the watch of software called “The Brain.”

Machine learning is making pesto even more delicious

Researchers at MIT have used AI to improve the flavor of basil. It’s part of a trend that is seeing artificial intelligence revolutionize farming.

What makes basil so good? In some cases, it’s AI.

Machine learning has been used to create basil plants that are extra-delicious. While we sadly cannot report firsthand on the herb’s taste, the effort reflects a broader trend that involves using data science and machine learning to improve agriculture.

The researchers behind the AI-optimized basil used machine learning to determine the growing conditions that would maximize the concentration of the volatile compounds responsible for basil’s flavor. The study appears in the journal PLOS One today.

The basil was grown in hydroponic units within modified shipping containers in Middleton, Massachusetts. Temperature, light, humidity, and other environmental factors inside the containers could be controlled automatically. The researchers tested the taste of the plants by looking for certain compounds using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. And they fed the resulting data into machine-learning algorithms developed at MIT and a company called Cognizant.

The idea of using machine learning to optimize plant yield and properties is rapidly taking off in agriculture. Last year, Wageningen University in the Netherlands organized an “Autonomous Greenhouse” contest, in which different teams competed to develop algorithms that increased the yield of cucumber plants while minimizing the resources required. They worked with greenhouses where a variety of factors are controlled by computer systems.

Similar technology is already being applied in some commercial farms, says Naveen Singla, who leads a data science team focused on crops at Bayer, a German multinational that acquired Monsanto last year. “Flavor is one of the areas where we are heavily using machine learning—to understand the flavor of different vegetables,” he says.  MORE

Breakthrough Energy Ventures collaborates with Climeon to accelerate deployment of geothermal heat power

Image result for Breakthrough Energy Ventures collaborates with Climeon to accelerate deployment of geothermal heat power
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Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investor-led venture fund backed by some of the world’s top business executives, has invested in Baseload Capital, the private investment company which Climeon owns part of, to speed up the global deployment of low temperature geothermal heat power.

– Working together with Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Baseload Capital we can now take leaps, rather than steps, toward our vision of becoming the number one climate solver, says Thomas Öström, CEO of Climeon.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures is an investor-led fund created to accelerate the transition to clean energy. The team funds cutting-edge companies with the potential to eliminate a half gigaton of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per year and invests across five grand challenges: electricity, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing and buildings. These are the broad areas of activity that contribute most to GHG emissions. The Fund’s investment team has identified low temperature geothermal heat power as one of the most significant opportunities available to address GHG emissions in the production of electricity.

– Geothermal energy from low temperatures has the potential to transform the energy landscape. We believe that the combination of Baseload’s implementation expertise and Climeon’s Heat Power technology has the ability to unlock the large potential of low temperature geothermal resources and result in the deployment of significant quantities of renewable electricity, says Carmichael Roberts, Breakthrough Energy Ventures. MORE

How to feed the world by 2050? Recent breakthrough boosts plant growth by 40 percent

Image result for photorespiration

“Plants have to do three key things to produce the food we eat: capture sunlight, use that energy to manufacture plant biomass, and divert as much of the biomass as possible into yields like corn kernels or starchy potatoes,” Ort said. “In the last century, crop breeders maximized the first and third of these, leaving us with the challenge to improve the process where sunlight and carbon dioxide are fixed — called photosynthesis — to boost crop growth to meet the demands of the 21st Century.”

This landmark work is part of Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), an international research project that is engineering crops to photosynthesize more efficiently to sustainably increase worldwide food productivity with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), and the U.K. Government’s Department for International Development (DFID).

“Land plants evolved with a biochemical glitch whereby a photosynthetic enzyme frequently captures oxygen instead of carbon dioxide, necessitating a convoluted and energy-expensive process called photorespiration to mitigate this glitch,” said Ort, who is also the deputy director of the RIPE project. “Crops like soybean and wheat waste more than 30 percent of the energy they generate from photosynthesis dealing with this glitch, but modeling suggested that photorespiratory shortcuts could be engineered to help the plant conserve its energy and reinvest it into growth. MORE

Virtual fences, robot workers, stacked crops: farming in 2040

Population growth and climate change mean we need hi-tech to boost crops, says a new report


 An AI-powered platform called Dick that can spray chemicals and fertilisers exactly where they are needed. Photograph: NFU/Small Robot Company

It is 2040 and Britain’s green and pleasant countryside is populated by robots. We have vertical farms of leafy salads, fruit and vegetables, and livestock is protected by virtual fencing. Changing diets have seen a decline in meat consumption while new biotech production techniques not only help preserve crops but also make them more nutritious.

This is the picture painted in a report from the National Farmers Union which attempts to sketch out what British food and farming will look like in 20 years’ time.

“The Future of Food 2040 report is a catalyst to encourage us all to start the debate about our food and our future so we can plan ahead,” said Andrea Graham, NFU’s head of policy services and author of the report, who interviewed 50 experts across Britain’s food chain to gauge their views. “It is also a reminder for government, at a critical time in British history, to make domestic food production a strategic priority in all policy making.” MORE

These probiotics for plants help farms suck up extra carbon dioxide

A mix of fungi and bacteria added to the soil makes agriculture more productive–and helps stop climate change.

[Photo: Locus Agricultural Solutions]

On thousands of acres of orange groves in Florida, farmers are adding beneficial fungi and bacteria to the soil, which makes the oranges grow bigger and sweeter–and makes the soil suck up enough extra CO2 so that each acre offsets the emissions from a passenger car. Call it probiotics for soil.

“Agricultural soils are one of the world’s largest carbon sinks,” says Paul Zorner, CEO of Locus Agricultural Solutions, the startup that makes the particular combination of probiotics in use on the farms. “If they’re treated right, you’re going to absorb a lot of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.”

Unlike the ocean, which has absorbed the brunt of human emissions so far–becoming more acidic and hotter and threatening marine life as that happens–soil can benefit from extra carbon. “Soil is the exact opposite,” Zorner says. “Soil actually enriches its productivity when you’re sequestering carbon, and so the soil and crop and ultimately the growers benefit by sucking as much CO2 from the atmosphere to the plant into the soil as possible.” MORE

How an Oregon Rancher is Building Soil Health—and a Robust Regional Food System

Fourth-generation rancher Cory Carman holistically manages 5,000-acres which serve as a model for sustainable meat operations in the Pacific Northwest.

Cory Carman holistically manages 5,000-acres which serve as a model for sustainable meat operations in the Pacific Northwest.

Distinct from most cattle operations in the U.S., Carman’s cattle are 100 percent grass-fed well as grass-finished. (The term “grass-fed” is not regulated, so it can mean that animals have only been briefly pastured before they’re sent to a factory feedlot to be finished.) The ranch primarily produces cattle and pigs, which it mostly markets to wholesale accounts, though it sells a lesser amount of meat as “cow shares”—or quarters of beef ranging from 120 to 180 pounds purchased directly by consumers.

“You don’t have a ranch so that you can sell it and retire; you have a ranch so you can pass it on—that’s sort of in the DNA”

Equally if not more important to Carman, however, is the focus on what she calls the “holistic management” of her land. This involves constantly moving the cattle and paying careful attention to the rate of growth of the animals and grasses. By this system, the steers select the forages they need to grow and gain weight, and the grasses get clipped, trampled down, and fertilized with manure, resulting in fields that are vibrant—they retain water, resist drought, contain abundant organic matter, which contributes nutrients and carbon, and are highly productive without the addition of fertilizer.

Carman began to research and implement a practice called holistic management, which is based on the idea that grass is your crop, and a portion of it needs to go back into feeding the land and the soil microbes. A tool of regenerative agriculture, holistic management integrates social, economic, and environmental factors to help the farm or ranch succeed economically, improve the health of the land, and provide local communities more nutritious food. MORE