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Using Water Infiltration to Test Carbon Sequestration

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

by Jack Kittredge

Do you ever wonder whether you are building your land’s best possible soil health? Have you thought about the relationship between your farm or garden soil and the excess carbon in Earth’s atmosphere?

Beyond the typical mineral analysis of soil there is the question of soil life and vitality – which is a very good “proxy” for soil carbon. In most cases if you have lots of soil carbon you are going to have lots of soil life, and vice versa.

As a part of our soil carbon program at NOFA/Mass we have developed a number of tests adapted from agricultural institutions like NRCS and Cornell, which are simple and hands-on and which can be done in current or planned farms and gardens to determine soil quality, vitality, and carbon sequestration capability. The best procedure is to run these tests annually on the same ground and note changes since the last time – is your biodiversity growing, is there greater vitality, are your changes in management giving you what you want?

We are currently able to run these tests for a small number of growers at a reduced price. (It costs about $250 to send a person to your farm to run all the tests, and with outside funding we offer them at $50 to the grower). However, we also are hoping growers will run these tests themselves. Most do not require much in the way of expensive materials or equipment – those that do, we can help with. This and subsequent articles will describe the tests.

Test #4: Water Infiltration (based on work by NRCS)

Summary: The rate at which water infiltrates into soil is a measure of the health of your soil. Better infiltration indicates more pores and aggregates, which come from greater carbon and soil life. As usual, this test is best as a measure of your own soil practices over time. Obviously different soils will have different infiltration rates in part because of their very structure and composition, and comparing them is not as useful as tracking the same soil over time.


  • Find or make a cylinder roughly 6” in diameter and 3” or longer, enough to drive into the ground.
  • Clear a soil surface of residue and trim vegetation there.
  • Drive the cylinder into the soil 2 to 3 inches.
  • Cover the cylinder with plastic wrap, tucking it into the ring to form a kind of saucer.
  • carbon test Pour 450 mL of water (1” if cylinder is 6” in diameter) into ring atop the wrap.
  • Note the time.
  • Gently pull the wrap out from under the water and note how long it takes until the water has soaked into the soil at the bottom of the cylinder and the surface is glistening. If the surface is uneven, count the time until half is exposed and glistening.
  • If the soil is very dry, repeat the procedure in a few minutes. The first test wets the soil and the 2nd is a better final measure.

carbon test 3


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