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Regenerative Alberta

Living Lab

  • Writer's pictureBarb Sheldon

Kris Nichols at the 2023 South Dakota Soil Health Conference Panel Discussion

Updated: Apr 3

Kris Nichols joined Rick Clark, Bryan Jorgensen, Dan Forgey and Roy Thompson on the panel discussion at the 2023 South Dakota Soil Health Conference. Keep reading to learn what Kris and the other panelists have to say about excess soil salinity, CO2 pipelines, cycling phosphorus, how to have productive conversations with people you disagree with, and the value of community.


Saline soils are a concern in South Dakota and in many places in Alberta. Excess salinity, which can be caused by poor water management, inhibits the ability of plants to take up enough water even when there is an adequate amount of moisture in the soil. An audience member asked the panelists if they have any advice for dealing with salty soils.

“We need to grow our way out of it,” Kris responded. We need to utilize plants as a tool to keep the land living and improve soil health holistically. To address salinity, you should grow salt-tolerant crops, especially plants with deep roots that will help pull the water back down and improve soil porosity and aggregation.

She added that a technique like tile drainage, intended to reduce excess salinity, is not necessarily an effective solution. Often, salinity issues occur in soils which are naturally high in mineral salts in the parent material and which have poor infiltration rates due to compaction, high clay or silt content, and/or are heavily tilled. Low infiltration rates in these soils means that water will sit on the surface and slowly evaporate, leaving salts to diffuse up into the sitting water behind. If water does not infiltrate below the top 3-6 inches, then tile drainage, which is placed about three feet or a meter below the surface, will not remove the water. In addition, relying on tile drainage allows producers to continue the practices that damage the soil and increase compaction for a short period while salinity issues increase; instead, we need to restore balance in the soil ecosystem and prevent salt seeps before they happen.

Dan asked an audience member to explain how he’s tackled salinity on his own farm. A big part of it, he explained, is your mindset. You may need to treat each acre differently, rather than farming the land uniformly. It comes down to “time and progress and patience,” he added.

The pipeline debate

Two carbon dioxide pipelines have been proposed in South Dakota. These pipelines sequester CO2 by channeling super-cooled, highly concentrated carbon dioxide and storing it deep underground. The project is facing tough debate, igniting concerns about the damage it will cause to the land and environment.

An audience member pointed out the issue and asked the panel speakers for insight. The question asker explained that infrastructure, like CO2 pipelines, requires digging up and damaging valuable land that could have been used to achieve the same goal.

“What we end up doing with these carbon dioxide pipelines,” he said, “is create a so-called civil war out here in the countryside.”

Kris explained that the issue is our overconfidence and desire for immediate gratification: we see a problem, we rush to fix it, and we ignore the negative consequences. “We in our hubris think that this is how we’re going to fix the problem.” The underground isn’t a blank space that will take whatever we throw at it; there are living things deep underground that may be impacted by the pipelines. “I’m a little bit afraid for all of those little microbes,” she added.

Instead of seeking fast but potentially ineffective solutions, we should spread awareness and adoption of regenerative practices. It may be difficult, but not impossible. “I look around this room and we have power,” she said. “We have power in numbers.”

Bryan added that focusing our attention on soil health is a good way to keep things in balance. It’s not about building new machines and infrastructure but about living in harmony with the natural world.

Cycling phosphorus

Dan presented a question for the other panelists: what do you think about a mixed sunflower and corn system to cycle phosphorus?

Kris responded that legumes (with the exception of soybeans, she explained earlier) are excellent at cycling phosphorus if they’re planted with grass species; farmers can also plant buckwheat or legumes on their own. Sunflowers can help to cycle phosphorus, but only if they’re planted alongside another crop, like corn.

“I really think that’s the future here is co-mingling the cash crops,” Bryan said, listing yellow peas and wheat, peas and barley, and peas and rye as mixed systems that he’s tried on his own farm. Some crops can be harvested together, like milo and soybeans, and sold as a mix or separated out before being sold.

But it’s logistically difficult to harvest certain crops together, like corn and beans, making it hard to plant these two together in rows that are close enough to see the benefits. This is where engineering comes in, Kris said. If there are any young people who are interested in agriculture but don’t want to work on a farm, they might want to consider agricultural engineering. Now more than ever, innovative technologies are needed to keep up with the transition towards regenerative agriculture.

Conflicting views

“Our focus on the y-word [yield] has led us to wish evil on our neighbours,” Kris said. The goal of regenerative agriculture is not to demonize conventional agriculture, but to open up a space for growth, improvement, and support.

Later in the discussion, an audience member recalled an encounter where someone had told him that anyone in agriculture is the problem. As long as you’re driving trucks over the fields, you’re contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, she said. “She wanted to change what I did, and all I’m doing is providing food,” he said. “I’m providing food for people that really don’t like what I do.” He asked the panelists, how do you respond to this mindset?

Kris commiserated. “It’s hard to engage when the other person doesn’t want to engage back with you.”

She recommended taking a soft approach and avoiding argumentation. In a conversation like the one he described, it’s best to explain where you’re coming from and perhaps talk about the nuances of farming if the person wants to engage. A calm and gentle attitude is essential to avoid arguing – even if that means leaving things unsaid or in a mutual disagreement.

It’s about community

“How we rely on each other,” Roy said, “makes us all more resilient.” He compared our human community to those in the soil and in our gut: networks of symbiotic relationships above and belowground that help us tackle adversity.

The sense of community that Roy mentioned showed up in the speakers’ closing remarks. “You’re the seeds that will get planted [and] will increase every year and get bigger and better,” Bryan said to the audience.

Kris explained that she’ll never be a farmer, and can’t do what the audience members do. “[I] really value you, so please make sure that you value yourselves,” she said.

Watch the full discussion here.

Note: some edits have been made to the article's wording and to add more information about soil salinity.

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