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TAKING STOCK OF OUR SOILS

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When Entrusted to my Care was first published in 1966, Grand MacEwan raised conservation issues not yet discovered by the media and public. These concerns included dwindling natural resources, water conservation, air quality, industrial wastes, animal rights, soil fertility, and too rapid development. Entrusted To My Care
Copyright 1966 Western Producer Prairie Books
243 pages,
ISBN 0-88833-175-4.

If serious mistakes are to be avoided, men in the medical profession need to understand thoroughly the intricate structure and workings of the human body. Foresters must have a broad knowledge of trees; prospectors need familiarity with the rocks and those who till the soil should understand that soil.

Serious errors in land settlement could have been prevented had there been a prior assessment of soil quality. In the absence of reliable information and guidance, landseekers could settle just about anywhere and, as it happened, many of them accepted inferior land. It happened too often that homestead buildings constructed with the best of home-making intentions were ultimately abandoned to become decaying monuments to the mistake of trying to farm without some basic knowledge of the soil. The mistakes were costly, often leaving both the settlers and the land poorer.

In selecting farms or formulating either land-use or conservation programs, the first need was for a proper inventory or soil survey. Canadian soils varied to a degree unsuspected before classification was attempted. As the observant traveller noted long ago, they could be grey at Athabasca, brown at Medicine Hat, black at Melfort and red in Prince Edward Island. They could be supremely fertile in the Red River Valley and change to almost pure sand not far to the West. They could range from acid to alkali, deep to shallow and stoney to stone-free. But soil science was to go far beyond these generally obvious characteristics and, for persons so inclined, it was a study to prove of absorbing interest.

Specialists say there is no such thing as the "perfect" soil, any more than there is the perfect horse or perfect herd bull. But the same experts will explain the qualities such a soil would possess. It would be rich in all the needed plant food elements. Vegetable matter would enter adequately into its composition and it would be porous to allow for water absorption and proper aeration. The conditions would favor the activity of soil micro-organisms and the alkali acid reaction would be optimum. There may be no such thing as the perfect soil but, at least, some Canadian soils come close to the ideal.

Soil formation - occuring only at the surface of the earth - begins with the disintegration of rock and then there is need for organic residues such as plants and animals can supply. Bacterial organisms are attracted. Earthworms and burrowing animals come to "plow and cultivate" in their own way and the soil becomes a dynamic community filled with wonders.

Sand in dunes is parent material without benefit of organic matter and the needed organisms. Clay from a pit is likewise unsuited for crops until conditioned by weather and the reSidues from vegetation. Good loam, on the other hand, is a mature product containing the various components - sand, clay, vegetable matter, micro-organisms and other living things.

It's not surprising, therefore, that soils differ widely from light to heavy, grey to black, acid to alkali, and poor to good. Each soil, by its characteristics, expresses something of its origin, parent material, the climate under which it developed and the kind of vegetation which grew on it. Some 1500 different soils have been described and technical classification has become quite involved. But distribution of the more important types makes a general zoning pattern possible.

Soils of the maritime provinces, St. Lawrence River Valley and Southern Ontario are generally podzols _ those which developed under forests. Soils of the North are zoned Canadian Shield and those of British Columbia - an extremely varied group - carry the zone name, Cordilleran.

Finally, there are those of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, accounting for three-quarters of the useful soils of Canada, and, here, the zoning holds special interest. The three zones - brown, dark brown and black - give Canada its special capacity for grain growing. The brown soils of southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan are products of semi-arid conditions with limited vegetation. Much of the land in that "short grass" area has proven better suited to ranching than farming.

Like a crescent-shaped band on the east, north and west of the brown soil is the dark brown zone where climate has been somewhat less arid and additional plant growth through the years has given the soil a darker color. From those dark brown soils has come much of Canada's fame for wheat production.

And beyond the dark brown belt is the horseshoe-shaped black earth zone in which Innisfail, Edmonton, Melfort and Dauphin are situated - highly productive soils to which the better moisture conditions long ago invited trees to grow. There, circumstances for soil building were extremely favorable - lush growth, a big return of vegetable matter, everything to encourage bacterial activity and, consequently, an unusually favorable depth of black, loamy soil.

Beyond the midwest's black soil - generally northward - the grey soils were laid down, covering the northern half of Alberta and smaller proportions of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. These podzol soils were found to be deficient in organic matter and nitrogen. Their shallow surface layer of incompletely decomposed leaf material and the six or eight inches of leached grey soil have often proven disappointing as farm lands unless special thought and imagination were brought to them.


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