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Carbon Program Soil Quality Testing Trials Begin

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 September Issue Newsletter

By Jack Kittredge

UMass team runs several tests at Many Hands Organic Farm, digging, sifting, sampling and measuring our soil for water infiltration, earthworm counts, microbial mass and active carbon. The infiltration rate was good, the earthworms and microbes were lower than expected (perhaps because of the extended heat and drought during July), and the active carbon was off the charts!

Many growers who have adopted soil carbon restoration methods (minimal tillage, cover crop cocktails, rotations with animals, green plants growing year-round, etc.) have expressed a desire for feedback on whether or not they are doing a good job. While arguably the best feedback is looking at and tasting the crops which are the result of your efforts, such a metric does introduce an element of subjectivity into the process and many folks would like a more objective and even numerical way to measure their progress.

In response to this desire, NOFA/Mass has been putting together a number of low cost, real-time testing protocols that can collectively measure the results of a carbon-building program. Our first opportunity to run actual tests was at a workshop on July 25 at Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre.

The workshop topic was cover crops. We had left a field fallow, instead planting it to various mixtures of cover crops suggested by New Hampshire NRCS Resource Conservationist Brandon Smith. He walked us through the field, analyzing the resultant 3, 6, 9, 12 and 15-way mixtures and how well they had established themselves in the field.  Brandon was then joined later in the day by the agency’s Conservation Agronomist Ray Archuleta, who conducted a brilliant shovel-based evaluation of our pasture, cover cropped field, and a current cropped field.

But rather than dwell on the cover crop portion of the day, I would rather describe something remarkable which happened that morning. Masoud Hashemi, a Plant Biology Extension Professor at UMass, brought a dozen of his graduate students along with him a couple of hours early to help us run soil tests.

We have developed a set of 10 testing protocols which measure things such as soil type, condition of detritosphere, aggregate stability, water infiltration, microbial mass, soil hardness, bulk density, earthworm numbers, microbial respiration and active carbon. We had been slowly acquiring the equipment and tools necessary to run these tests, and possessed what was necessary for seven of them that morning. Because it had been so hot and dry, two of those tests (which require field moisture at normal conditions) could not be run. But the grad students volunteered to help run the other five and we had a most enjoyable time with them.

We were able to test soil in three different locations (crops, pasture, permanently cover cropped side strip) and record observations and measurements. While such testing can tell you only a limited amount at the time, its real value is being able to come back to the same spots periodically, run the same tests, and analyze the progress you are making. Thus it is important to pick test locations which can be found again and again.

As I write, Julie Rawson and I are planning to talk about our testing program at the Summer Conference (hope you had a chance to hear us) and at other events during the fall and winter. If you are interested in learning more, helping, or having your soil tested, get in touch with me by email at Jack@nofamass.org. We are currently trying to build support for this work and would love to hear from you.

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