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Healthier, hardier crops – from a geologist?

When farmers and geologists work together, everybody wins. A group of geoscientists have formed Agricultural Mineral Prospectors Inc.

When farmers and geologists work together, everybody wins. A group of geoscientists have formed Agricultural Mineral Prospectors Inc. (AMPI) in order to use their knowledge and field experience to help farmers maximize their crop output in a more natural, organic way.

Chemist Chris Caron examines a tomato plant with a potato spliced on top of it at his greenhouse, where he is researching how to improve crops for Northern farmers. Spanish River Carbonatite (SRC) is an agro-mineral fertilizer mined from an ancient volcanic deposit approximately 60 kilometres north of Sudbury near Fox Lake. It has been mined there since 2000. Catering to organic farmers and their market, the open-pit operation has increased in sales between 15 and 20 per cent each year since its inception, says Chris Caron, chemist and partner in the operation.

Half of the annual production is sent to growers in the United States, with the remaining supply sent to farmers in Northern and southern Ontario.

The cost ranges from approximately $50 to $70 per tonne for various-sized bulk orders. To date, Caron says they’ve mined about 30,000 tonnes and “have developed two-million tonnes of ore from a resource of hundreds of millions of tonnes.” To Caron, that’s just a scratch in the 1.5 km-wide surface of the vast resource extending about 400 metres deep.

Although there are other carbonatite deposits throughout the world, this one is unique because it has no radioactive elements or heavy metals, which is characteristic of carbonatite deposits.

This specific deposit contains 70 per cent calcite, a form of calcium carbonate; 10 per cent apatite, a rock phosphate (source of calcium and phosphorous); 15 per cent biotite/vermiculite; and 5 per cent of accessory minerals such as pyroxene, chlorite, magnetite, and feldspar.

All of these elements occur naturally, making it especially attractive to the organic farmer. The chunky greyish-white rock crumbles easily into sand-like grains, allowing it to be worked into any type of soil.

Tests performed on farmers’ fields through Northern Organic Research Development Corporation (NORDC), a non-profit research company run by the geoscientists, indicated a significant reduction in aluminum in impacted soils when SRC was applied. Besides soil enhancement, other experiments showed increased crop yield, reproductive growth in plants and a boost in nutrient content in forages.

Caron, who worked up in a Yukon gold mine laboratory for five years, says he plans to set up a soils lab. Presently, his geology partner, John Slack, president of the company, provides a detailed soil analysis of farmer’s fields from the history of the soil to advising them on how to improve their crop production via soil fertility. To date, they have sent the samples to outside labs, but with Caron’s knowledge and experience, it is a logical progression for the company to provide this service.

Caron is also owner and operator of Larchwood Organics, where he organically grows tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, a variety of lettuces and herbs, and seasonal market vegetables and flowers. He sells his fresh produce to local restaurants, and also runs a landscaping business.

As an advocate of healthy living and eating, Caron uses soil amended with compost and carbonatite to grow his crops, and incorporates beneficial insects instead of pesticide treatments.

Under the organic umbrella, Caron is involved with plant breeding, with the intent to produce a hardier potato crop.

Potato plants are easily susceptible to blights and pests, and over the years, chemical pesticides have weakened many crops. He shows a tomato plant with a potato grafted onto the top, which will eventually produce seeds.

“I’ll be able to cross pollinate and produce true seed and then select the new hardy variety of potato,” he says.

Although the process takes years, he works with a network of volunteers who grow the plants and then select the hardiest. The desirable traits are cumulative.

“If we can produce something that is naturally resistant, then it will be much easier to grow organically,” he says.

With the growing demand to eat healthier, organic food growers and farming methods are gaining recognition. Caron says that if he can help organic farmers maintain sustainability and profitability by promoting safe, environmentally friendly practices, then it is good for all of Ontario.

“We’re proud to be miners and geologists in this company, but we all love farming.”