Collaborating with UBC Building Operations to Improve Soil Quality at UBC's Research Fields

March 9, 2021

A collaboration between UBC’s Plant Care Services and Building Operations is improving soil quality for researchers at Plant Care Services’ Totem Field and providing an environmentally friendly outlet for compost on campus.

Field Services Manager Glen Healy talks about the unique partnership.

In late 2017, as field services manager for the nascent Plant Care Services, I was approached by Dr. Marie-Claude Fortin, soil scientist and UBC’s manager of shared research facilities in the Office of Vice-President, Research and Innovation, to discuss the strategic direction for Totem Field. We agreed that we should invest our energy and available resources to improve the soil quality at Totem Field to provide better conditions for researchers who conduct their work there.

In creating our sustainable field management strategy, I was fortunate to be able to draw on the expertise of many UBC’s specialists, namely agrologists, field managers and members of the Building Operations team. I was able to adopt a living laboratory approach that integrates UBC’s research and operations.

My first step was to consult with Arthur Bomke, a professor emeritus in Land and Food Systems and a passionate soil scientist whose generosity, expertise and enthusiasm were fundamental in developing a soil improvement plan. Dr. Bomke, who is a two-time recipient of UBC’s Killam Teaching Prize, is also one of the founders of UBC Farm. This makes him an ideal person with whom to consult and develop the initial approach for improving our soil quality.

Soil science can be complex.

Our soil analysis revealed that we had variable levels of nutrients in our soils which we needed to address. The most problematic was our low levels of organic matter. Organic matter is just one of many complicated variables in the formula that creates a healthy field, but it can prove to be the most difficult to amend. Drs. Bomke and Fortin and I discussed how to improve organic matter levels in our research fields, ultimately designing a three-pronged approach to address the challenge.

The plan

Organic matter is the component of soil derived from more-or-less decomposed and degraded plant and animal tissues as opposed to the mineral components of the soil (sand, silt and clay).  We came up with three different ways to improve the organic matter of our soils. One of these methods, referred to as cover cropping, consists of growing a crop that feeds the soil. After harvesting the plants that were grown for experiments during the spring and summer, the late summer and fall cover-crop protects bare soil during the off-season and sustains the soil organisms. Optimal soil conditions require a biologically diverse ecosystem ranging from large earthworms to the tiniest microorganisms. This ecosystem must be fed and protected. When a cover crop is eventually turned, all its organic matter returns to the soil. While the top part of the cover crop can out-compete any weeds that want to grow there, the roots are where the true magic happens. In addition to preventing nutrients from leaching into groundwater, the plant pulls carbon from the air and stores it within its roots and leaves.

Our second method consists of avoiding tilling as much as possible. Tilling is a process where I use a tractor with an attachment called a rototiller to break up the soil into finer particles and/or to remove weeds. Following tilling, oxygen penetrates the soil and the existing roots (left over from previous plantings) and other organic matter breaks down faster than if the soil had been left untouched. Tilling has a time and a place, but it can reduce organic matter.

Applying compost is the third method we employed to increase organic matter. It can produce a relatively quick and easy result but it can also be the most expensive of the three methods. While it’s possible to purchase different compost products throughout the Lower Mainland, the product itself is often very expensive and transporting it to the farm site is both financially and environmentally costly.

A collaboration with Tamas Weidner and UBC Facilities’ Building Operations

Faced with the challenge of acquiring local compost, I reached out to Tamas Weidner, the manager of Building Operations’ Waste Management team in Municipal Services, to learn if he might know of any options for a cost-effective and environmentally friendly supply of compost for our campus-based field station.

UBC has been running a campus composting program since 2000. Tamas’ waste management team collects compostable materials from across the Vancouver campus and has it processed at a regulated composting facility on campus. UBC has a closed-loop system where food waste from campus and its various neighbourhoods is processed for local use.

As a result, in recent years, the composting facility had started to produce more than enough material to share with other users on campus. Tamas and his team were even faced with the prospect of having to transport some of their compost off-campus! Tamas was fully supportive of exploring how to support my soil improvement plan using Building Operations’ surplus compost.

Tamas generously agreed to provide us with 80 cubic-metres of compost (about the same as 500 bathtubs’ worth) in 2020.  And because Building Operations’ composting facility is located down the road from our fields, we would also be saving the fuel emissions of transporting UBC’s compost off-site and preventing Plant Care Services from having to buy and transport compost from off-campus. This is a nice example of how the operations side of the university can help support the research side!

A better soil for UBC research teams

I am looking forward to testing the soil in a systematic manner in the coming years to quantify its improvement as a medium for plant growth.

As I have been learning, the best way to improve soil quality is through consistent and well-researched field management practices. I am expecting that each of our 13 fields that received a compost application will show an increase in organic matter next year. In the coming years, we hope to continue to raise the concentration of organic matter across our research fields.

When Marie-Claude Fortin first asked me to devise a five-year soil improvement plan for Totem Field in the fall of 2019, the task seemed daunting. However, creating this collaborative approach with Dr. Bomke and Tamas proved to be both personally and professionally gratifying. I hope that the partnership between Building Operations and Plant Care Services can continue for years to come.

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First Nations land acknowledegement

We acknowledge that UBC's Point Grey campus is situated on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm.

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