These in-their-own-words pieces are told to Patricia Lane and co-edited with input from the interviewee for the purpose of brevity.

Tori Waugh helps farmers share their wisdom on soil health. As executive director of the Ontario Soil Network, she uses soil science, adult education principles, facilitation and conflict management skills to support farmers to move into leadership in their communities. Tori also advises other groups interested in soil health and was recently named a Clean50 Emerging Leader for her influence on the way an estimated 2,500 Ontario farmers treat the soil across 180,000 acres.

Tell us about the Ontario Soil Network.

In 2019, agriculture emitted 72.7 MT of CO2e in Canada. One of the most effective ways to cut these emissions is to rebuild organic matter in our soils and sequester more carbon. This also improves the quality, yield and sustainability of our food systems.

But change proposed by outsiders is often resisted by the tight social networks that are such important parts of life in rural communities. The Ontario Soil Network (OSN) equips its farmer members across southern Ontario to lead their communities into a better future for everyone. Agricultural science might caution against tilling but a dairy farmer who has always tilled will be more likely to stop if he hears a fellow dairy farmer's positive experience with the change.

Innovators often attract negative feedback from those resistant to change and this can feel isolating and risky. If you are at the local coffee shop and hear disparaging remarks about the much more productive, but messier, cover crop you just planted, that can feel hurtful. Our social networks matter to us. Our training equips farmers ready to innovate to use these moments as opportunities for relationship building and deeper connections, rather than face discouragement and divisive anger alone.

In any innovation there are risks. We offer farmers a community to consult when they run into the inevitable snags that are part of any transition.

How did you get into this work?

I was raised in urban Oakville by parents who worked in the world of data and ideas. During my first semester at the University of Guelph, I was concerned about people going hungry in this country of plenty and began volunteering at a soup kitchen and food bank. I took a summer job growing and harvesting fresh produce in local backyards for the food insecure. It was transformative for me to make the hands-on connection between the soil and food we eat.

Tori Waugh helps farmers share their wisdom on soil health, as executive director of the Ontario Soil Network. #farming #Ontario

After I finished school, I wanted to farm. I worked as a roaming farm hand and then rented land to work on my own. I almost starved. I made no money at all the first year. In the second year, I just about made back my initial $2,000 investment. There had to be a better way.

I worked for a farmer who taught me everything he knew about his way of farming. Because I was now paid an hourly wage, I could afford further education and I took courses on soil science. I became fascinated with the intricacies of the eco systems within healthy soils. But at the same time, I was tilling wet earth and could see the damage I was doing as I left behind a trail of packed mud.

I realized I was more interested in soil than farming. A local conservation authority took a chance on me and hired me to provide outreach and education about soil health to local residents. I am forever grateful. I reached 3,000 people in three years and I am proud to say their gamble paid off.

In my current work, I combine my passion for soil health and my understanding of community organizing with my profound respect for the people who work our land to bring us food.

Tori Waugh with a farmer's 5-foot-long earthworm found in Coteau des Prairies during a summer storm. Photo credit: Woody Van Arkel

What makes it hard?

My skin is not all that thick. I still doubt myself when I hear older farmers cast doubt on new approaches. But I like to think this allows me to listen respectfully and work with them to include their concerns rather than brushing them off.

What do you see if this goes well?

We are preparing to reach out across Canada. Re-generation will become synonymous with our country’s agriculture.

What gives you hope?

An amazing team and so many farmers all moving in the same direction. When I hear the work we did has helped our members transform negative chat at the coffee shop into a community-building moment or they have been approached by another farmer for advice about soil health, I feel a profound sense of satisfaction.

What would you like to say to other young people?

My path has been meandering. But I have found my passion and understand my skill set. Take the time to discern how and where you can make a difference. You will be happier and more productive than if you just follow along a convenient unquestioning route.

What about older readers?

I would be nothing without my mentors and those who have connected me to others. When you do that for young people, you multiply their effectiveness.

Keep reading

This article says all the "right" things but gives no details. Farmers have been on the conservation road for over thirty years. Here in Alberta, we have switched to minimum till or zero till since the 1990's and increased organic matter in the process. Yields have doubled and tripled. Farmers are smart people, they will follow the latest science and methods towards sustainability. Perhaps you can follow up with an article with details (?)