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Getting to the root of it: How an Alberta scientist is changing the way farmers see soil

In a nondescript building tucked away in northeast Red Deer, the phone is ringing off the hook. 

At least that’s how Melissa Werkema, an upstart young scientist trained in Israel, describes how business has been since word spread about her new soil testing lab, which gives farmers from Alberta and across the country a whole new picture of what’s going on beneath the surface. 

Rod Olson, a regenerative agriculture specialist at a local co-operative YYC growers, has been talking up the lab and Werkema to anyone who will listen, especially in light of the challenges currently facing farmers.

A year ago, a heat dome wreaked havoc on crops and livestock across the Prairies.

While that memory still lingers in the minds of many, this growing season has been coloured by skyrocketing fertilizer and gas prices, in part due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

36-year-old Melissa Werkema at her soil testing lab in Red Deer, Alta. (Submitted by Melissa Werkema)

Olson hopes that Werkema’s new ideas can help boost Alberta’s readiness for heat waves of the future brought on by climate change, and create a better food system. 

“Everybody can learn from Melissa. I come from an organic [farming background], but a conventional farmer can learn the same things and kind of adjust their practices … What [her work] does at the end of day is put farmers back in the driver’s seat.”

A change in perspective

Werkema, 36, learned her soil testing techniques in Israel, where a three month archeological dig turned into a three year study of native plant nutrition. 

She said that while conventional soil testing in Canada has stagnated, countries with less land and access to conventional fertilizers — like Israel and much of Europe — have faced more pressure to innovate.

“They get more creative in what to do. It’s a very different way of thinking.”

Where traditional soil tests measure just inorganic nutrients, Werkema said her tests measure primarily organic nutrients, or nutrients readily available for plants to absorb. 

Obviously in a drought you’re going to do worse off if your crop isn’t healthy in the very beginning.– Soil scientist Melissa Werkema

While plants need inorganic nutrients to survive, analyzing the organic nutrients present in soil gives a more general picture of overall soil health, and can determine what “missing links” exist that plants will need in the long-term. 

This allows farmers to apply individually needed nutrients — copper for example — to fields in a tailor-made approach, instead of returning to a broad-spectrum fertilizer year after year.

Werkema said some of her clients have saved $40,000 to $60,000 this growing season alone on total fertilizer costs.

“We’re after the balance. What’s happened right now with so [many] steady inputs, is that the soil has become very unbalanced. And farmers know that. They know that there’s something wrong. And yet the current labs aren’t always necessarily addressing those issues.”

By giving farmers the knowledge of what specific nutrients each field needs, they can increase the organic matter in their soil faster, leading to higher crop yields and a more resilient ecosystem over time, said Werkema. 

“Obviously in a drought you’re going to do worse off if your crop isn’t healthy in the very beginning,” Werkema said.

Put into practice

Craig Cameron runs Peony Farms west of Lacombe, Alta., alongside his father-in-law. They raise Piedmontese cattle and grow feed crops for their herd, including barley, peas and oats over 1,200 acres of land.

Since getting his farm’s soil and plants tested by Werkema, Cameron said they have dramatically reduced the amount of traditional fertilizer they use on their crops.

“We’re saving money and putting down significantly less fertilizer and still getting as good of yield as we were before.”

From Cameron’s perspective, using Werkema’s techniques supports the long-term health of their whole agricultural system. 

Exactly a year ago, a heat dome wreaked havoc on crops and livestock across the Canadian prairies. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

“From my understanding, the plants are also what’s feeding the microbiology in the soil,” he said. 

“So the healthier the plants are, the healthier the microbes and stuff in the soil will be and the better able they’ll be to kind of do their thing, sequester carbon, provide other benefits.” 

One of these other benefits is creating a more drought-resistant crop over time.

As Olson puts it, soil health equals water retention. This means for a crop to be able to survive through dry conditions, the soil needs to be able to hold moisture. 

Olson said that certain farming techniques, like over-cultivation of the land, can strip soil of its natural moisture barrier, but that the bottom-up approach Werkema focuses on can lead to a stronger soil foundation in the long term.

“When you elevate soil health, you can actually do things that increase water holding capacity,  increase carbon capture, and increase the functionality of the soil so that there’s more nutrition that’s being passed into [our] food. It’s going to take [farmers] a few years to get there, but it’s [a step] in the right direction.” 

Combining years of knowledge

It took Werkema years to get to where she is now as well — and it all began with a single passion. 

“I absolutely love chemistry,” said Werkema. “Ever since my eyes first got laid on a chemistry textbook when I was a little girl, I just fell in love with it.”

She said she hopes to be part of a growing number of people trying out new methods within the agriculture industry. 

“We need more independence outside of industry because the farmers I think are craving something like this.”

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