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Healthy Soil Policies Germinate After Long Dormancy

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 June Issue Newsletter

By Dan Bensonoff

After many years spent talking about changing light bulbs and utilizing energy-efficient vehicles, policy makers are finally waking up to the importance of the humble soil microbe in humanity’s efforts to keep the climate from becoming as erratic as a rickety rollercoaster. At this point, many climate action leaders and soil scientists acknowledge that agricultural (mis)management is a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, but until recently, no state or federal agency was willing to tackle this problem head on.

This year that is finally changing. Over this past year, as advocacy groups, scientists, and reporters have become more openly vocal about the importance of healthy soils, politicians in multiple states have heeded the call. First, California passed a law creating the “Healthy Soils Initiative”, which provides $7.5 million for efforts to “protect and restore soil organic matter” along with a host of other services.

Then Maryland passed a bill that created a “Healthy Soils Program” that specifically states its intent: “to increase the biological activity and carbon sequestration capability in the soils of the state by promoting practices based on emerging soil science, including planting mixed cover crops, adopting no-till or low-till farming practices, and rotational grazing.”

Here in New England a number of states, including Vermont and New York, have introduced similar efforts. Just recently, NOFA/Mass, alongside several allied advocacy groups, introduced HD.3966, “An Act to Promote Healthy Soils in Massachusetts”, that would set up a “Healthy Soils Program” tasked with enhancing “the education, training, employment, income, productivity and retention of those working or aspiring to work in the field of regenerative agriculture.” The bill also opens up the possibility for financial or other incentives to those who carefully steward healthy soils or regenerate degraded soils.

Without a doubt, there are already plenty of resources out there for the fledgling regenerative farmer: apprenticeships, sustainable ag programs, workshops, and NRCS assistance are already available. It could also be said that it is already in the best interest for farmers to keep their soils in good shape; since spongy, living soils are the primary insurance against drought and flooding. Thus, why would a farmer need additional financial incentives to maintain their soil health? Although the logic is sound, the statistics on land degradation via soil mismanagement tell a different story, and one that should spur us into immediate action.

Clearly, the status quo does not sufficiently incentivize farmers to do right by their land. This is in large part due to various socioeconomic and political forces that force farmers to prioritize short-term economic gains at the expense of long-term soil health. Like all other entrepreneurs, farmers in a capitalist economy follow market trends. If it makes economic sense to grow corn, then they will (and they have, overwhelmingly). Policies like subsidized crop insurance and other farm subsidies can add yet another short-term incentive at the expense of soil health, since many of these policies do not make farmers pay financially for bad management decisions that result in harvest losses.

Yet these socioeconomic forces are nothing new, so why the upsurge in political will to incentivize healthy soils? For one thing, thought leaders like Bill McKibben and Michael Pollanare publically vocalizing the connection between soil and climate. Even mainstream publications like the New York Times have begun reporting on the soil-climate connection. Politicians who have an environmental agenda can no longer ignore the importance of soil.

The academic community has also seen a major shift over the past decade. For years, soil scientists urged farmers to focus primarily on the chemical composition of their soils. Did it have enough nitrogen, phosphorous, or potash? By now most major agricultural institutions have become more holistic in their approach to soil health assessment; they’re looking closely at biological activity like microbial diversity, earthworm count and physical properties like aggregation, tilth, and water infiltration when making soil assessments. And so, as the tests have shifted, so has the understanding of what accounts for health.

As is often the case, political reform lags behind a shift in societal thought. The time is beyond ripe for us to make soil health, whether it is certified organic or not, a priority. To do so, we need to build social structures that make regenerative farming an attractive lifestyle by offering financial and social incentives. We need to convince our political leaders that an investment in healthy soils will actually save money in the long-term because it will mitigate our farms from extreme weather. 

To take action or learn more about An Act to Promote Healthy Soils, a bill that would promote regenerative farming in Massachusetts, please click here.


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