The proof was on the shovel.
The darkest, most porous soil Derek Axten had ever seen was on the land of a North Dakota rancher in roughly 2010. It was nothing like the dry and lumpy, light brown soil on his farm near Minton.
Axten says he had one question: "What do I got to do? What management changes do I got to make?"
Looking back, it was a defining moment as he adopted regenerative agriculture on his farm.
After the Supreme Court of Canada's split 6-3 decision in March allowing the federal government to impose carbon pricing on provinces, work like Axten's may sketch an early blueprint of how farmers could adopt new sustainability practices.
"Regenerative agriculture is a loose set of practices aiming at improving soil functionality and health, such that it will be better for farmers, the environment and everybody else at the same time," said Lana Shaw, who heads the South East Research Farm in Redvers.
In its quest for better soil, regenerative agriculture has five broad principles: Keep roots in the soil longer, cover that soil with residue, minimize soil disturbance, diversify plant life and integrate livestock where it's possible, she said.
It's also aspirational. Shaw says some believe that it could lead to better, more nutritious food. As far as its potential to reduce greenhouse gasses, that's unclear, but Shaw thinks more research is needed.
Axten and his wife Tannis nevertheless have dived into the practice — a move they say has improved their soil more in the past five years than the decade before they made the switch.
Few clear answers on a Saskatchewan carbon plan
While many farm groups voiced their disappointment with the Supreme Court decision upholding the carbon tax as constitutional, it's opened the door to questioning which farming practices Saskatchewan should encourage when it creates its own carbon plan.
Agricultural economics Professor Peter Slade at the University of Saskatchewan says the current carbon tax is comparable to the cost of a bump in fuel prices, but those expenses will become more meaningful down the road.
The tax hit $40 per tonne in 2021. Once it hits $50 per tonne in 2022, the tax will then increase by $15 per tonne annually, until it reaches $170 per tonne in 2030.
Where farmers incur carbon costs most — in areas like transportation — there's few available alternatives. Meanwhile, areas that produce a significant chunk of greenhouse gas emissions from farms — methane and nitrous oxide — aren't fully addressed.
"There's not a lot that farmers can do," he said.
Compared to the stick of pricing emissions, Slade thinks a carrot approach, offering incentives to mitigate emissions, will likely be put in place. But he notes it's difficult to measure those efforts, making policy design difficult. Carbon offsets may also play a role, he said.
Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan President Todd Lewis says getting credit for carbon sequestration is a key goal that also reflects ongoing investments and improvements on existing practices.
"It's convenient to say it's business as usual, but this year, farmers all across Saskatchewan will be towing new drills around the field that will be an improvement for their carbon footprint and what they sequester," Lewis said.
A 2019 Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association report found Saskatchewan growers who use minimal or zero tillage sequester about 8.75 million new tons of CO2 every year on more than 23 million acres of farmland.
However, U of S agricultural economics Professor Tristan Skolrud, who studies the carbon tax and sustainable farming practices, says it's unlikely that the government will reward older projects.
He says with the carbon tax decision finalized, efforts should now focus on finding a plan that is better suited to Saskatchewan — one that also includes strategies for mitigation and adaptation.
"We need to also be preparing ourselves for the changes in weather and climate that we know are coming, before it becomes too hard to fix," he said.
Regenerative agriculture may also have potential. In one case, General Mills recently sought Saskatchewan regenerative farmers for a pilot project. Skolrud suspects this will become more common as consumers take interest in food they think is grown more sustainably.
From soil to plate
Lee Moats of Riceton says most carbon produced on his farm ends up on a dinner plate. He also sees a role for producers in reducing agriculture emissions, which currently account for about 24 per cent of the province's 76.4 million tonnes total of emissions, according to a 2020 National Inventory Report.
Part of that sustainability could be implementing new technology to make delivery of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer — which is produced with natural gas — more precise so that less is used.
Moats noted producers in Saskatchewan have widely adopted zero tillage farming, marking a clear sign of past success. He thinks consumers should be woven more into the conversation. His idea is consumer price signals that value more sustainable practices could help push a wider industry transition.
"What we need is a marketplace that values lower carbon content (food)," he said.
Axten thinks there could be a consumer push for regenerative agriculture-sourced food to emerge as a middle path between organic and non-organic options.
As more evidence becomes available, it may appeal to health-conscious diners looking for sustainable food, Axten said.
"It's already starting. I know it is. It's just going to be a matter of how it gains traction," he said.
A cleaner future in the dirt?
Lana Shaw thinks regenerative agriculture encourages farmers to engage with their land in new ways, experimenting at home to chart a new course for their crops. Because of that, supporting it could be a policy win to get behind a homegrown trend that represents a new face in Saskatchewan agriculture, she said.
Anecdotally, she's seen the profile regenerative agriculture farmers building up. Many are younger couples, often with advanced educations, who are relatively comfortable with raising neighbours' eyebrows doing farm experiments.
"Arguably, it's also a more welcoming space for farm women," she said, though she noted this is only her experience.
Axten sees another, more personal level to the practice.
"I'm sick of watching my town die," he said, noting he has twice as many employees as ever, with an eye to add more down the road. He hopes more specialized processing facilities — like the one he's opened on his farm — could offer jobs and revitalize smaller communities.
"I think there's a ton of opportunity."