Farming with Nature

By Nikki May

In mid-September a large group of Saugeen field naturalists and members of the public toured the farms of Byron Monk and his family. The Monks described the various methods they are using to work with nature. They spoke to us about what they are doing to; sustain the productivity of their soils over the long term, keep the water that flows through their land clean, and restore marginal farmland to its natural state in order to provide ecological services to society and habitat for wildlife.

Before the tour started, Byron gave us a short history of the farm which has been in his family for 4 generations. He read us a letter written by his great great grandfather to his great grandfather about farms that were for sale in the area. Even back in the 1880s when the letter was written, the Monk family valued the presence of a good woodlot on the property.

At the first stop, Byron showed us small woodlots that had been planted by his father and himself on land that was too low and wet for farming or difficult to reach with the new larger equipment. These areas are unprofitable for cash crops or hay but over time these small woodlands will provide services such as absorbing CO2, conserving and cleansing water, wildlife habitat, wood products, and outdoor recreation.

The next points of interest featured a series of small ponds that had been put in with funding from Ducks Unlimited. These ephemeral ponds had been made by enlarging portions of ox-bows that had been formed by the creek. Their purpose is to hold water for a time, slowly releasing it into the creek after cleansing by the vegetation in the ponds. Additional benefits include the availability of extra moisture for the nearby soils during dry periods and breeding habitat for amphibians such as Spring Peepers. Byron also pointed out the buffering vegetation that surrounded the ponds. The buffers are left to grow wild next to the waterways so that any run-off from the fields is filtered before it goes into the stream.

Lastly, Byron talked about good soil management practices to conserve the soil for future generations. He spoke of five methods that are used for sustaining and enhancing the soil; fast rotation of crops to reduce disease and pests and depletion of soil minerals, reduced tillage, cover crops to improve tilth by keeping living roots in the soil and feeding soil micro-organisms, windbreaks that work with cover crops to reduce wind erosion, and manuring and ploughing unused crop residue back into the soil to renew the levels of organic matter and minerals. He showed us his soil health indicator, a well-rotted pair of cotton underwear that had been buried in the soil to measure microbe activity.

All of these activities enhance the productivity of the farm and the lives of Byron Monk and his family as they work the land. Members of Saugeen Nature were impressed by the work the Monks put into this endeavor, and the beneficial results they could see on the farm. The outing took place on a glorious late summer day and is one of many that Saugeen Nature holds every year. For more information go to

Bryon Monk with underwear

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