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Net-positive farm research taps into farmer knowledge

David Rourke, a 67-year-old grain farmer from Minto, Man., made it clear he’s not in competition with his mother, but he’s obviously cut from a similar cloth.

After earning a master’s degree in education and then a master’s degree in nursing, Rourke’s mom went back to school in her 50s to pursue a doctorate in nursing.

Rourke got started a little later than his mom but, at 65, he began working on a PhD thesis from the University of Manitoba. The topic is sustainable grain farming with the title, “In Search of Net Positive Carbon Grain Farming in Western Canada: Innovation in Policy and Practice.”

The idea behind the thesis is less complicated than the title.

Why it matters: David Rourke’s operation in southwestern Manitoba is a hub of on-farm research on sustainable and profitable practices.

Rourke plans to interview farmers from the Prairies and northern U.S. Plains who want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cropland, store more carbon and still produce robust yields. He refers to many of these practices as “zero till plus.”

The reasons they’re pursuing those goals might be multidimensional, he noted. Maybe they’re trying to improve land for the sake of soil health and their bottom line. Maybe they’re trying to do their part against climate change.

“We do have the responsibility to feed a certain number of people … and [produce] fuel to some degree, and we have a responsibility to fix the harm we’ve done to the Earth,” Rourke said.

“This is trying to find that balance and trying to find farmers who are taking [this] seriously; to figure out, on a scalable basis, how we might tackle this responsibility.”

The premise of his thesis is to talk to producers rather than academics or idealists. He hopes to identify realistic and progressive solutions instead of fringe ideas.

“What I’m grappling with right now is how to handle all those different types of voices. I think I have to, because there isn’t a single solution,” he said.

He is now on the hunt for potential interviewees.

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