Organizing for Soil Health: A Project of the Northeast Organic Farming Association
This White Paper is a report on the regional “Organizing for Soil Health” project supported by Farm Aid and Clif Bar and carried out by the seven-state Chapters of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) in 2019 – 2020. Based on two years of project engagement with regional organic and conventional farmers thru conference workshops, educational events, field days, roundtable discussions, and a final survey, this paper presents a timely grassroots-up perspective for policymakers on what farmers need to support climate mitigation practices.
Faced with the existential threat of the Climate Emergency, as government entities try to craft policies that will make real reductions in the generation of greenhouse gases, it is time to listen to the voices of family farmers. Practitioners who are dedicated to soil health can guide policymakers to the most effective mechanisms to incentivize and sustain the shifts in agricultural practices that can mitigate climate change through soil carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services.
At long last, science has been catching up with farmers, validating as climate-friendly numerous longtime organic, sustainable and indigenous agriculture practices that maintain and increase soil carbon levels including cover cropping, crop rotations, composting, rotational grazing, promoting biodiversity, minimizing soil disturbance, proven techniques that foster soil health. Farmers value these practices that build farmland resilience to the increasing climate change effects of drought, flooding, wind, heat, freezing, and other weather extremes. It is to the national and worldwide good to provide public support and compensation to farmers to help bear the costs of these additional farming practices.
Regrettably, some of the current federal legislative and policy initiatives are focusing instead on privately run carbon market approaches where businesses can offset their continuing negative environmental impacts by purchasing carbon credits. Most of these carbon market schemes, structured to attract larger-scale farmers who agree to modify their agricultural practices, offer payments based on measuring the annual increases of soil carbon sequestered from the atmosphere. Because accurate soil carbon measurement is still an unrealized scientific goal, this approach is problematic with the potential for businesses to greenwash their touted net-zero reduction effects. Meanwhile, their polluting externalities continue unabated, often severely impacting the communities of color living near their industrial sites. Further, the proffered current carbon market schemes only reward new adaptors, leaving tried and true soil health practitioners to finance their own beneficial practices.
Instead of carbon markets and carbon banks, NOFA urges Congress to improve and increase funding to existing USDA conservation programs including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) that support and reward all farmers who are performing and/or transitioning to bona fide soil carbon sequestration practices that provide further eco-system services such as enhancing water quality and reducing erosion. NOFA supports the Agricultural Resilience Act in the House and the Climate Stewardship Act in the Senate, 2021 grassroots-up legislation that will speed adoption of soil health and other practices that contribute to mitigating climate change.
The Virtual Tour of Massaro Community Farm is now available on CT NOFA’s YouTube Channel.
Here’s the LINK
The 1 hour video includes visits to Assawaga Farm and Sub Edge Farm, also participating as No-Till Research Farm Sites across Connecticut.
There is also a Rain Simulator presentation by Emily Cole, Climate and Agriculture Program Manager at American Farmland Trust. To view Emily’s entire presentation here’s the LINK
This event was funded by an NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant exploring best practices for tillage reduction on organic farms, managed in partnership between CT NOFA, NOFA/Mass, and NOFA-NJ.”
Check out more of this series and other videos on our YouTube channel
Join us throughout the season for updates from the Square Foot Garden project at The Hickories’ Farm in Ridgefield, CT. Each week Jean Linville gives us a tour of what food is growing, what we should be doing in the garden now, and how to plan for the next crop. This week’s ‘tour’ features spring harvest and summer plans.
By Monique Bosch
I took a visit to a composting business that prides itself on utilizing local food waste to create a special blend of highly nutritious compost. ‘Diverting food waste’ and ‘highly nutritious’ were key words for me, so I jumped in the car to check it out. Driving into an unassuming backyard along a residential street in Danbury, I was surprised to see the orderly piles of compost and mulch, along with heavy equipment, neatly organized.
Below: Jeff stands in front of his composting facility, neatly tucked away, with no smell or mess.
I met Jeff, taking a break from moving piles and loading trucks. First question; “how did all this come about?”
“I was working in the landscaping industry when I met Don Taylor from Taylor farm, the property I’m on right now. He had woodchips, logs, and brush and I had a desire to compost. I cleaned up the site, brought in leaves, and started producing a high carbon, wood-based compost. Then the horse manure started coming in.”
In 2014, Connecticut’s legislature enacted a law that requires businesses that produce 1 ton or more of food waste to recycle it, if they’re within 20 miles of a facility that’s licensed to handle it. This new law made it feasible for Jeff to alter his permit to include food waste.
Jeff then took the formula further, adding other waste products that were locally available.
“There are some unique feedstocks out there that make for unique compost,” Jeff explained. He increased his inputs to include waste from several local businesses: Bigelow Tea (tea and botanical waste), Ideal Fish in Waterbury (whole fish, fish manure), Sunset Hill Farm (horse manure) and Lesser Evil Snack (organic popcorn). The end result was a high-quality compost product with diverse and complex sets of nutrients.
Jeff makes his compost in small batches, with great attention to detail and quality. His Thermophilic compost system is unique in that it uses a 100% solar-powered aeration system. Jeff mixes his feedstocks to correct ratios, then places the mixture on perforated pipes. Using a 1½ horsepower blower, he runs air under the rows, 2 minutes on, 28 minutes off, for 30 days. He can tweak the amount of time the blower is on, depending on the density of the pile, and temperature. This control over air and temperature ensures that the rows never go ‘anaerobic’, which leads to a higher quality finished compost.
Below: Jeff stands beside perforated pipes ready for the next load of waste materials.
The thermometer is visible in the active pile to the right, solar panels generating energy to run the aeration system on the left.
Jeff keeps the row temperature at 140-150 degrees for 30 days.
After 30 days he’ll flip the row and put it back on the air for an additional 14 days, to guarantee pathogen/weed/parasite destruction. He’ll then cure the pile for 90-120 days.
The most satisfying aspect of composting all of these local waste products is the knowledge that all of these feedstocks were destined for either landfill or would have been burned at a waste incineration plant. Instead, they are part of a unique recipe that makes Jeff’s New England Compost product highly nutritious for plants. We took a look under the microscope to examine the life in the compost:
Below: Video of finished New England Compost. Plenty of diverse bacteria & soil aggregates.
Jeff is starting to see more people wanting to do their own composting, but says the biggest stumbling block is keeping the food waste free of contaminants.
“Those who are saving food waste for pickup should lookout to produce ‘stickers’ and bags. Keep in mind ‘if you can eat it, I can compost it’.” Haulers are educating consumers on best practices and it’s starting to be evident in the food waste Jeff receives from households. “4 years ago the volume of contamination meant that I just couldn’t use it. It was too expensive to cleanout. Now more people are gardening and thinking about compost as a key ingredient in their garden soil. The importance of high-quality compost is starting to be noticed and appreciated.”
Take a good look at the living biology of soil under a microscope is a key skill in building soil carbon and healthy plants.
NOFA has teamed up with the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments, (River COG) to offer an in-depth course in soil health. In particular, the course teachers farmers about the ways in which vermicompost can enhance soil health and be critical player in a no-till growing system.
From experienced growers like Craig Floyd of Coogan Farms to new farmers, this course draws a diverse and engaged group of practitioners together to learn soil health – the basic building block of any organic farming system.
An update from NOFA’s technical consultant and “embedded” reporter, Monique Bosch
During this ‘dormant’ time of year, it’s refreshing to see cold season crops flourishing in high tunnels across the state. Some of the healthiest food we’ve seen this winter have been in high tunnels that are practicing ‘no-till.’ Let’s take a tour together above, and below ground, to see what’s living.
First stop; The Hickories in Ridgefield CT.
Farm manager Jaci Slattery gives us a look inside her high tunnel, where delicious chard, spinach, and romaine are growing well.
This high tunnel has been no-till since it was built, about 5 years ago. Broad-fork and surface rake have been the only tools used. Keeping plants growing year-round ensures the biology thrives. The space goes through several iterations through the year; propagation house in spring, followed by salad mix, summer tomatoes then winter crops. This particular high tunnel is on a slope. Jaci has found that keeping roots of plants such as tomatoes in the ground to decay helps stop erosion during heavy rains. This past year Jaci added two new inputs; beneficial nematodes, to help with flea beetles, and compost tea. We found one of the nematodes when viewing a soil sample under the microscope:
Jaci spoke about some of the challenges of no-till: “Weed control is the biggest challenge. We manage it with frequent surface tillage and some hand-weeding. This coming Spring, when tables are above the beds holding seedling trays, we are considering a cover crop below. We think buckwheat might be a good choice, with little regrowth and excellent residue after cutting to act as mulch.”
Next stop; Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge CT.
Farm Manager Steve Munno and Executive Director Caty Poole gave us a tour of their high tunnels, producing delicious winter crops with no-till methods.
We took a soil sample from the high tunnel growing a cover crop of peas/vetch/oats. It had been mowed the day before. The plan is to open the high tunnel doors as outdoor temperatures drop, resulting in a ‘winter kill’ that will speed up decomposition. The ground should be ready for sowing in early March.
Like butter, the soil lifted without a fuss, releasing a luxurious forest smell
Under the microscope the sample proved to be just as rich, with aggregates full of bacteria, a nice balance of fungi and plenty of flagellates consuming the bacteria:
Growing food year-round in the high tunnel is an optimal environment for no-till. Under these controlled conditions leaving the soil undisturbed has several advantages:
- promotes a healthy soil food web
- fewer pests, due to the healthy micro-ecosystem in and above the soil
- reduces weed populations:
- bacteria/fungi balance is maintained
- less exposure of dormant seeds
Andrew Mefferd has traveled around the world to connect with farmers and researchers about no-till farming and soil conservation. In his book he talks about growing no-till in high tunnels: “We can grow nutrient-dense foods, reduce and eliminate inputs and consequent negative outputs, and pull carbon out of the atmosphere while reinvigorating the hydrological cycle that has been so disrupted by thousands of years of over tilling, overgrazing, deforestation, and soil compaction.”
For many farmers ‘no-till’ sounds like a daunting experiment. John Kempf, founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture (https://www.advancingecoag.com/john), doesn’t think it has to be an ‘all or nothing’ approach: “We need to change the conversation. Instead of ’tillage’, we might consider ‘soil particle management’. Finding ways to nurture the soil and the microbes who inhabit it will produce resilient plants, healthier food and as a result, benefit us all.
Join us for a fall field day focused on no-till and cover crop methods, to include a presentation by Julie Fine of Johnny Selected Seeds as well as field demonstrations of no-till equipment, and a farm tour of Sub Edge Farm. We’ll also analyze soil samples with Monique Bosch and Justin Hawrysh of Wiggle Room. Lunch is provided, followed by networking and a USDA NRCS rainwater simulator demo.
Rodger has been farming in Connecticut for 14 years. Along with his wife, Isabelle, he operates Sub Edge Farm, a diversified 300-acre certified organic farm growing fruits, flowers vegetables, culinary herbs as well as pasture raised meats and eggs. The farm has a CSA program and a farm-shop open most days of the week.
The goal at Sub Edge is to always strive for improved soil health; they are experimenting now with a no-till drill and roller crimper they hope to use for growing squash and tomatoes this year.