Unhealthy soil ‘a nightmare’ for farmers in Ontario and Southern China

Whether they’re running vineyards in Ontario or tea plantations in China, farmers have a common enemy: chemically contaminated or poor quality soil leading to fewer crops.

“Globally, most farms that have used agrochemicals for decades to boost crop production can remain polluted at various levels due to persistent accumulations of contaminants,” says Brock University biologist Liette Vasseur.

“These contaminants ultimately result in yield reduction and loss of income for farmers. In tea plantations, pesticide residues can also have an impact on quality.”

It’s a nightmare that Vasseur, with Wilfrid Laurier University and a number of industrial partners, want to find sustainable solutions for.

Vasseur is overseeing a team of scientists, technicians and students examining sustainable alternative agricultural strategies to improve soil health in Ontario grape vineyards and tea plantations in the Fujian province of Southern China. Vasseur and Laurier Professor of Biology Frédérique Guinel received a grant of $250,000 from the provincial government’s Ontario-China Research and Innovation Fund to conduct their research.

Their partners on the research project include Boreal Agrominerals, Mikro-Tek, and Hughes Vineyards.

After testing the soil quality in the selected vineyard sites in Ontario and Oolong tea plantations in China, the research team is adding agrominerals, cover crops and beneficial microbes — all in an attempt to improve soil health.

The research started earlier this year indoors and is now moving outside into the vineyards and tea plantations.

“This combined methodology of testing under controlled conditions and in the field will allow for complete understanding of the interactions among the various strategies,” says Vasseur.

She explains why tea plantations and vineyards were chosen for the study.

“Chinese Oolong tea is still challenged by pesticide residues, raising concerns about health safety and limiting the potential export to foreign countries,” says Vasseur. Tea is one of Southern China’s most important exports and most farmers are now working to convert to organic tea plantations.

In Ontario, some of the massive wine industry has been moving away from chemical fertilizers and has been adopting integrated pest management and organic farming techniques.

But “many questions remain on how to optimize the agroecosystem in a way that the soil remains healthy and fertile,” says Vasseur.

The expectation is that the results of the research will help farmers across many types of crops.

“We anticipate our results will provide alternative soil remedial solutions that will directly benefit farmers looking to transition into organic farming and that have the potential to be used by the private sector,” she says.

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