Environment, Our Work
Woody Van Arkel: Innovating for Sustainability
Curated by Barry Marshall
Storyteller: Woody Van Arkel
October 30, 2021
Many farmers across Ontario still plough their fields regularly to ready them for planting, but Woody Van Arkel walks a different path as he seeks to build a more sustainable model excluding tillage and incorporating alternative weed control solutions. Woody took over his family farm in Dresden, Ontario from his dad in 1991 and has invested the last 30 years into farming the land and has been busy building his knowledge and craft to make Van Arkel Farms Ltd. a sustainable model of agriculture. Woody describes his three goals for soil sustainability: “do as little soil disturbance as possible, keep a cover crop or crop residue, and keep a living root system growing as much as possible, and still be economically feasible. If at all possible, try to establish a cover crop after harvest.”
Interest in soil and soil sustainability began in high school for Woody. His light bulb moment occurred while ploughing down the corn stalks as he thought something seemed wrong about pulling up last years' stalks. Part of the issue was he did not have a particularly good plough, but Woody had a notion that other problems existed with his approach to soil management. Annually churning the topsoil through aggressive ploughing disturbs the delicate balance of organic matter and microorganisms by introducing oxygen and can boost yields in the short-term, but the long-term sustainability of the soil suffers for it. Woody started to experiment to solve the problem of degrading soil health through traditional tilling. Trying reduced tillage and alternative methods were his first steps.
These changes to the Van Arkel farms happened slowly and cautiously. Woody lives in an area of Ontario that has historically seen heavy tillage. In the 1990s, reduced-till and no-till operations on cash crop farms were rare and there was no consensus on whether reducing tillage was worth the trade-offs – the equipment is more expensive and no-till introduces greater pressure from pests, especially weeds. He and his father felt that their tillage system was not right and set out to make amends despite the challenges ahead. About 30 years ago, they tried a mulch plough as a less aggressive alternative to conventional ploughs. A few years later, they stopped tilling soybean stubble after harvest, which helps to maintain the soil structure and returns precious nutrients to the soil. About 20 years ago he started no-till in both the wheat and soybean fields, which were Woody’s first experiments in no-till. These crops make sense to start with since wheat is essentially its own cover crop and can adapt to no-till relatively well, and weeds in soybean fields can be dealt with using herbicides seeing as they are a relatively low-growing crop. Thirteen years ago, Woody began strip-tilling his sugar beets, which reduces the tillage and thus soil degradation. The year after that he also switched his corn to strip-till; adding in a cover crop came later. The benefits of cover crops are many; they maintain the soil structure and prevent erosion, help build healthy topsoil, outcompete weeds, invite biodiversity in the soil, and in some cases can even reduce pressure from pest insects and microorganisms.
Recently, Woody has been experimenting with different ways to improve the sustainability model he has slowly built. He is interested in looking for alternative weed control methods that do not involve spraying. Woody says: “I don't believe herbicides are sustainable. Reduced tillage or no-till on their own, do rely on herbicide control.” Establishing an alternative program to herbicides is a multi-part process that Woody is working on. His most recent invention to help replace herbicides is a set of Honda motor-driven lawnmower blades to cut between the rows of crops like soybeans. Mowing keeps the weed pressure down until the crop canopy grows high enough to cast shadows on the weeds later in the season, naturally inhibiting weed growth. Woody is hoping to marry robotics with the mowers to develop an automatic mower that will implement a combination of GPS guidance and row sensing to keep the mowers on track. In the future, Woody is hoping to incorporate other technologies too; automated robotics like this solar-powered robotic weed picker are becoming a reality in Europe. Having multiple alternatives to conventional tractor-pulled boom spraying greatly reduces herbicide use.
Woody is always challenging himself by brainstorming or trying methods for reaching his personal soil sustainability targets of maintaining soil structure, cover crops, and living root systems for challenging or new crops. Currently, he is trying to develop a method for sugar beets. He is experimenting with spreading cover crops on the field and then planting the sugar beets into it to demonstrate that sugar beets can work in a sustainable model without tillage. Sunflowers are a more recent venture that Woody is embracing; the seeds are sold to Ontario processors to make sunflower oil. He is also experimenting with sesame for Ontario processors as extraordinarily little sesame is produced in Ontario – a market that Woody feels may have some potential.
Woody has also partnered with the Living Laboratories Initiative. Living Labs was just announced in Canada in May of 2021 and is partnering with Agriculture and Agri-Good Canada to achieve some truly commendable goals, increasing focus on climate-smart technologies, fostering an international community of living labs partners, and most notably making contributions to methods in sustainable agriculture. Living Labs farmers act as co-developers on projects aiming to sustain or improve soil and water quality, carbon sequestration, and soil quality assessments, to name a few. Living Labs have already begun working with a handful of enthusiastic farmers in Ontario right now, from organic and small-scale to large scale 8000-plus acre farms. Farmers like Woody are using their agricultural knowledge and experiences in co-developing sustainable methods to preserve the land for the future.