The Hummingbird

Online events have one benefit – they give me a chance to participate in presentations outside of my immediate mandate. New ideas at low cost. In January, I attended a 90-minute session on Regenerative Cities, part of a webinar series on regenerative thinking. The presenter was Dominique Hes, an Australian architect who designed The Paddock, a park-like neighbourhood in a reclaimed mine site near Castlemaine, Australia. (

Hes encouraged people feeling immobilized by the scope of a problem to do the best they can within the area they can influence. That area could be a magazine. A town. A farm. A yard. She recommended we look up the hummingbird story. So I did.

The centuries-old hummingbird story originated in Ecuador or Peru, so the Internet tells me, and YouTube has a few short versions. Some call it a parable, which implies a moral or a message, which it has. The story is about a forest fire. All the animals flee to watch from the sidelines, all except the hummingbird. The tiny bird scoops up a droplet of water from a stream and drops it on the fire. It does this over and over again. The animals ask what the hummingbird is doing, and the bird says, “I’m doing what I can.”

Rattan Lal has a similar message about small actions having mighty results, as long as we all get involved. I met Lal through Jean-Charles Le Vallée, and I met Le Vallée in the chat room during the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity’s online Public Trust Summit back in October. Le Vallée is Canada’s representative on the Inter-American Institute of Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA). IICA started in 1942 and supports agricultural development and rural well-being in 34 member countries from Canada to Chile. Le Vallée suggested I interview Rattan Lal, a renowned soil scientist from Ohio State University and goodwill ambassador for IICA. So I did.

Lal gave me a global perspective on soil health initiatives, especially the acute challenge for hundreds of millions of small landowners (farms of just a few acres) who eat the grains from their small fields, then feed the crop biomass to their cattle, then use what’s left, including manure, for cooking fuel. Soil biomass and soil health are in bad shape for many of these small farms. One IICA objective is to help small landowners in the Americas identify steps they can take to protect and improve their soil.

You can read more about my conversation with Lal in the article “People are a mirror image of the land” on page 36. At the end of our call, I asked Lal, “If you could inspire crop farmers of Canada and the United States to change even one thing, what would that be?”

Building on a Sanskrit saying – “The world is one family” – Lal said, “One member of the family cannot say, ‘I don’t care’. We should all care. We don’t live in isolation. We are all responsible. If each person does small things each year to help the planet, you multiply that by eight billion and it becomes a big thing.”

He didn’t mention the hummingbird story, but the message is the same. Individually, our efforts may seem like spitting on a forest fire, but if we each do what we can, it can add up to progress.

Farmers in Canada will benefit from clear actions on how to increase soil organic matter and soil carbon, reduce nitrogen emissions, increase biodiversity, and so on. Articles in this issue of Canola Digest describe the innovation and research needed to identify these actions and guide farming forward.

As I learned from a life online, ideas and inspirations can come from people outside Canada, like Rattan Lal, and from people outside agriculture, like Dominique Hes. It can also come from ancient parables. No matter our size, we do what we can within our area of influence. Like the hummingbird.

Canola Digest - March 2022