Dr. Tarlok Singh Sahota, Director of Agricultural Research at LUARS and Bioenterprise SIAC Advisor, speaks about soil health and nutrient management, regenerative agriculture, and challenges faced by farmers in northern climates
By Tabitha Caswell for Bioenterprise
Dr. Tarlok Singh Sahota has assumed a role beyond that of a traditional researcher; he’s been an instrumental leader and a devoted partner to the farming community of Thunder Bay, Ontario and beyond. Spanning multiple countries across the globe, his story is a wholesome one – and from the beginning, his approach has always been, and continues to be, unique.
While many experts remain confined to labs and offices, Dr. Sahota believes in the power of personal connections. He walks alongside farmers, and he feels the soil beneath his feet, listening to the stories they tell. Here, as a distinguished member of the Science and Innovation Advisory Committee (SIAC) with Bioenterprise, this expert shares a few valuable insights with us from his compendium of work.
Farm Boy to Hall of Fame
If we could travel back in time to the 1950s, to the village of Phalpota in the Punjab State of India, we would find a young boy named Tarlok Singh Sahota. Young Tarlok had a dream – one that grew naturally alongside the crops he tended on his family’s farm. It grew beyond the soil and the fields, beyond the bounds of his imagination.
In pursuit of his dream, this farm boy embarked on an academic journey, earning his PhD from the renowned Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana. His thirst for knowledge also led him to the Netherlands to complete the intensive International Course for Development Oriented Research in Agriculture.
Although academia gave shape to Dr. Sahota’s vision of the future, his heart remained in the fields. From the lush, green landscape of Shillong in northeastern India to expansive agricultural projects in Nigeria, he applied his knowledge and honed his skills.
Up to that point, and from a distance, that young man’s journey might appear impressive, yet average in the context of agricultural science. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes quite clear there is something special about this scientist – something that sets him apart from others in his field. This agrarian has a gift.
You see, soil and plants speak to Dr. Sahota and he instinctively interprets their language in a way others cannot. He is a translator, an intermediary, a finely tuned connection point between humans and their environment. This unique ability, paired with a touch of fate, brought him to the Thunder Bay Agriculture Research Station (LUARS) in Ontario, Canada in 2004. Here, his work has evolved into its full expression; a legacy of understanding, compassion, and collaboration.
Dr. Sahota’s dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed. Among numerous accolades, his recent induction into the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame stands as a symbol of the collection of his contributions to farming – not only in Ontario, but in Canada and around the world. While awards are gratifying, however, for him, the true reward has always been the trust, camaraderie, and success of the farmers he supports.
Dr. Sahota finds great joy in helping to solve issues within the world of agriculture, and when it comes to climate change, many of the issues faced by farmers in northern Ontario are shared by farmers everywhere.
Evolving Through Climate Change
In the face of climate change, the agricultural industry is on the cusp of a seismic shift. Northern regions like Thunder Bay District are particularly vulnerable. With its already short growing seasons becoming increasingly erratic, the traditional crops that once flourished are now grappling with adaptation, and the team at LUARS is addressing these challenges head-on.
Dr. Sahota’s experience underscores the ever-evolving nature of climate change. “Every year presents a new challenge. We may address one issue, only to be confronted with another the following season,” he reflects. However, implementation of certain practices has proven highly effective.
Fundamentals of Nutrient Management
Early on, Dr. Sahota identified a critical gap in the fields surrounding his new home in Thunder Bay: the lack of attention to comprehensive soil health. Recognizing the importance of both macro and micronutrients, he introduced routine soil testing as an essential practice for local farmers. This wasn’t just about determining the levels of common nutrients but probing deeper into the often-overlooked micronutrients that play a pivotal role in crop health.
Dr. Sahota explains “Back then nobody was testing soil for micronutrients, so I began advocating for its importance.” After proper soil testing, he identified and addressed the deficiencies which led his team to introduce new, customized fertilizers tailored to the specific needs of the soil.
Beyond synthetic fertilizers, increasing soil resilience is a fundamental pillar in Dr. Sahota’s strategy, and so he champions methods of ecological enrichment. “Organic matter plays a pivotal role. By adding manure and ensuring proper nutrient management, we enhance the soil’s capacity to support crops, even in adverse conditions,” he emphasizes. This practice not only boosts nutrient levels but also improves soil structure and moisture retention.
He also advocates for alternate tilling methods, which reduces soil erosion and preserves its natural structure. Dr. Sahota explains that minimal tillage practices save not only the integrity of the soil, but also 30 to 40 percent in time and fuel – making positive impacts on the environment and the bottom line.
Under Dr. Sahota’s guidance, soil health in Thunder Bay transformed from a mere afterthought to a central focus, ensuring that nutrient management became a cornerstone of sustainable and productive farming. The foundation of successful yields relies on the input: soil. And with this foundation laid, farmers can then turn their attention toward the output: plants.
The Power of Healthy Plants
Despite recent climate trends, the farmers of Thunder Bay District have consistently achieved impressive yields, often surpassing regional averages. This success is attributed to the aforementioned attention given to building healthy, nutrient rich soil, and amplified by using a combination of high-yielding, drought-resistant crop varieties. What does this mean? Farmers must source varieties of healthy, hardy, and resilient plants.
“A healthy plant, much like a healthy human, is better equipped to withstand adversities,” Dr. Sahota analogizes. By focusing on plant health, he believes we can bolster crops’ resilience against the unpredictable challenges ahead. He says, “To combat climate change, we need robust strategies. This includes introducing winter crops, rotating crops, using high-yield and drought-resistant varieties, and fortifying the soil with manure and multiple nutrient sources. A healthy plant can weather adversities far better than a weaker counterpart.”
The introduction of cold hardy crops with their deeper root systems, has proven highly beneficial. As we plan for a future of climate change, choosing the right crops to plant is paramount, as is diversification.
Resilience Through Diversity
In the fields of Thunder Bay, the agricultural landscape was once dominated by a limited selection of crops. Alfalfa, corn, hay, and barley for feed were the primary choices, grown predominantly to meet the needs of hungry cattle. Cash crops were virtually non-existent. However, Dr. Sahota’s arrival heralded a transformative shift in this narrative. Using his research, he built a case that persuaded farmers to test new crops on small portions of their land.
His vision led to opportunities and Canola, a crop previously absent from the region, emerged as a prime example. Unaffected by the killing frost and maturing well before winter, Canola became a staple. “Canola was not a crop here,” Dr. Sahota notes, “but its introduction, along with others like malting barley, flax, and more, brought much-needed diversity. Farmers no longer had to rely on barley year after year.”
Dr. Sahota’s relentless pursuit of innovation didn’t stop there. He embarked on a mission to screen high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties from across Canada and even the US. “I sourced varieties like ‘Prosper’ Hard Red Spring Wheat from North Dakota. As well, many of the varieties now grown here are western Canadian, perfectly suited for our climate. While winter wheat initially struggled, I introduced varieties such as ‘CDC Falcon’ and ‘AAC Gateway,’ which proved to be more winter-hardy than eastern counterparts. This allowed us to successfully introduce winter crops to Thunder Bay.”
In Dr. Sahota’s words, “Since I began my work in Thunder Bay, not a single year has seen our crops fail.” This gives us hope as we move forward in an era of climate uncertainty. By integrating practices that prioritize both soil and plant health, Dr. Sahota’s approach offers a blueprint for sustainable agriculture in the face of changing climates.
Beyond traditional plants, the team at LUARS has been researching alternative crops and farming methods that might have potential.
The Promise of Perennials
Regenerative agriculture, a holistic approach that prioritizes soil health, water management, and biodiversity, has been gaining traction worldwide. At its core, this method seeks to restore and revitalize the land, and to ensure it remains fertile for future generations.
The introduction of perennial crops is a focus of regenerative agriculture. While annual crops complete their life cycle in one growing season and must be replanted each year, perennial crops can live for multiple years and regrow after each harvest. This allows the plants time to create deep root systems that improve soil health, reduce erosion, and sequester carbon.
Perennial crops form a consistent ground cover that reduces the need for tilling while promoting biodiversity and water conservation at the same time. With fewer required inputs and the potential for multiple harvests, international research teams have been scrambling to strike a balance in order to successfully incorporate these crops in a way that makes sense for everyone.
Dr. Sahota, with his extensive research and hands-on experience, has delved deep into the potential of perennial crops like Kernza® and Galega orientalis examining their role in this sustainable farming revolution.
Kernza®, is a perennial grain harvested from intermediate wheatgrass. With its deep, fibrous roots, this plant is uniquely suited for marginal soils. “Its roots are extensive, making it fit for lands that might otherwise be deemed unproductive,” Dr. Sahota notes. While its yield might be lower initially, its dual utility as both a fodder crop and grain is noteworthy. “We’ve harvested Kernza® for silage and grain. It’s being domesticated for use in human food and it’s gluten-free, categorizing it as a specialty crop,” he says.
However, market dynamics play a crucial role in its adoption. “While it holds promise, its current market price doesn’t fetch a premium, which might deter farmers from cultivating it extensively,” he adds.
Galega, on the other hand, presents a mix of strengths and weaknesses. This plant, also called goat’s rue, is a perennial forage legume originating from Scandinavia. “It’s an early riser, emerging from the ground even before dandelions in spring,” Dr. Sahota observes. This early growth gives it an edge, allowing it to outcompete dandelions, a common competitor with crops like alfalfa. And its broader leaves and hollow stems offer advantages in terms of foliage and nutrient content.
“While alfalfa has a narrow window for harvesting, Galega offers a more flexible time frame. Its hollow stem ensures that even if harvesting is delayed, the fiber content doesn’t shoot up, maintaining its protein content,” Dr. Sahota explains.
However, G.orientalis isn’t without its challenges. “In its first year, while it’s becoming established, Galega struggles to compete with weeds and other crops. It’s still in the testing phase, and there’s much more we need to understand about its cultivation and management,” Dr. Sahota admits.
Both Kernza® and Galega orientalis, as perennial crops, hold promise in the future of regenerative agriculture. Their ability to rejuvenate the soil, reduce erosion, and promote biodiversity positions them as potential game-changers. However, as Dr. Sahota emphasizes, “While they offer solutions, there’s still research to be done to make them viable main food sources. Their strengths are evident, but the challenges they present need to be addressed for them to become real solutions in the agricultural landscape.”
Obstacles aside, the team at LUARS shares many wins with its beloved local farming community.
Stories of Success
Thunder Bay, with its unique agricultural hurdles to jump, has become a hub of innovation and collaboration, thanks to the relentless efforts of LUARS and its dedicated research team, as well as the hard work and perseverance of its local farmers. Multiple success stories have emerged from this synergy, showcasing the transformative power of research, communication, and community engagement.
A perfect example to cite is Canola. Once an unfamiliar crop in the region, Canola has now become a staple. By introducing varieties better suited to the northern climate and providing farmers with the knowledge to cultivate them effectively, Canola yields have seen a significant boost. This success story illustrates the power of adaptive research and its real-world impact.
Brule Creek Farms also stands as a shining example of how research can be translated into entrepreneurial success. This farm has adopted innovative practices, leading to enhanced productivity and sustainability. Led by Lakehead University alum, Jeff Burke, this 320 acre farm processes their own wheat, rye, Canola, and cover crops to produce a broad variety of flours, baking mixes, and cold-pressed oils. Their products can be found in bakeries, restaurants, and stores across Northwestern Ontario. Jeff’s journey underscores the importance of bridging the gap between research and practical application.
The collaboration between LUARS and Thunder Bay Cooperative Farm Supplies (Thunder Bay Co-Op) has elevated local agricultural practices. To meet the demand of nutrient deficiencies detected by the research team, the Co-Op has increased its offerings, now selling six distinct soil nutrients and catering to the diverse needs of the region’s soil. Their fertilizer blends ensure that farmers receive a mix tailored to their specific requirements, optimizing crop health and yield. Dr. Sahota also notes the introduction of new crop varieties has increased seed sales at the Co-Op – a direct reflection of collaborative progress.
These success stories from Thunder Bay aren’t just about individual achievements; they represent a holistic approach to agriculture. LUARS doesn’t operate in isolation. Instead, it fosters a culture of collaboration, working alongside farmers, businesses, and the broader community. By sharing knowledge and resources, they ensure that research doesn’t remain confined to labs but finds its way to the fields, bringing tangible benefits to the entire community.
In essence, the achievements in Thunder Bay highlight the power of community-driven research. When scientists, farmers, and businesses come together with a shared vision, the results are transformative, paving the way for a brighter and more sustainable agricultural future.
Dr. Tarlok Singh Sahota’s journey, born of a young boy’s dream and rooted in the wholesome values of a farming family, has instilled in him an innate understanding of the farmer’s world. His approach is refreshingly hands-on, always prioritizing direct engagement.
When Dr. Sahota first arrived in Thunder Bay, he recognized the importance of extension work, of taking research out of the labs and bringing it directly to the farmers. Despite initial skepticism of his cohorts, he believed that no one could better communicate the research findings than the person doing the research.
His focus on Northwestern Ontario, an area often overlooked by larger agricultural bodies, has made Dr. Sahota an indispensable ally to local farmers. His commitment to the people of the community is evident in the way he constantly collaborates with them. Whether it’s walking alongside them in their fields, identifying potential issues, or sitting down during the cold winter months to plan the next crop cycle, Dr. Sahota is always there. His dedication goes beyond research. It goes even beyond consultation; it’s a partnership built on mutual respect and trust.
As we reflect on the transformative work being done in Thunder Bay District, Dr. Sahota’s legacy serves as a powerful reminder – that true progress isn’t only about advanced techniques or cutting-edge research. It’s about people. It’s about understanding their challenges, their dreams, and working alongside them to turn those dreams into reality.
In a world where the gap between research and its real-world application can often be vast, where knowledge is easily lost in translation, Dr. Sahota is there to listen to the stories, interpret their meaning, and share the messages, connecting the farmers more closely with their land. Through him, we learn the subtle languages –the dialects – of science, nature, and humanity – and we discover the connection that will guide us toward a sustainable future for generations to come.
Tabitha Caswell, Content Writer, Bioenterprise Canada
Jordan Sidsworth, Marketing Specialist, Bioenterprise Canada
About Bioenterprise Canada
Bioenterprise is Canada’s Food & Agri-Tech Engine, a national agri-technology focused commercialization accelerator. Bioenterprise uses its 20 years of industry experience and a global network of experts, mentors, funders, researchers, and industry partners to help small and medium-sized agri-food businesses connect, innovate and grow.
About Lakehead University Agriculture Research Station (LUARS)
LUARS is committed to the establishment, operation, promotion, and transfer of agricultural research for the further development and diversification of the agricultural industry through small plot research and extension.