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NOFA/Mass to Lead Northeast Study on Tillage Reduction for Agricultural Soil Carbon Sequestration

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 September Issue Newsletter

By Caro Roszell, Soil Carbon Testing Technician

Doug Wolcik, www.gainingground.org

Three state chapters of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) will participate in a three-year study into the soil health impacts of no-till and tillage-reduction strategies. NOFA/Mass will lead the project, working closely with CT NOFA and NOFA-NJ. The three chapters will each work with farmers in their state who are practicing tillage reduction strategies on their organic farms. This project is funded by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grant.

The project is entitledOrganic No-till on Northeast Farms:A Practical Exploration of Successful Methods, and involves nine farms – three from each of the participating NOFA Chapters. The participating farms are Red Shirt Farm (Lanesborough, MA), Freedom Food Farm (Raynham, MA), Gaining Ground Farm (Concord, MA), Waldingfield Farm (Washington, CT), Massaro Farm (Woodbridge, CT), Sub Edge Farm (Farmington, CT), Morganics Family Farm (Hillsborough, NJ), North Slope Farm (Lambertville, NJ) and Cherry Valley Cooperative (Princeton, NJ). These farmers are all driven to develop innovative soil health management strategies because of concerns about declining soil health and rising atmospheric CO2 levels.

As NOFA/Mass members know, climate change is causing more and more extreme weather as human activity releases greenhouse gases – compounds that trap solar heat in the atmosphere. While fossil fuel emissions have been an important driver of atmospheric CO2 levels, what is not widely understood is that a majority of the excess carbon (69%, according to Dr. Rattan Lal) in the atmosphere actually originated in soil. Soil carbon is largely created by and held in the living soil ecosystem, and can be lost to the atmosphere as CO2 when the living portion of the soil is reduced or exterminated through de-vegetation, chemical inputs, and tillage.

A growing international and informal network of smaller farmers and farmer-based organizations has begun to question the long-standing practice of tilling the soil. This has been spurred by an evolution in the scientific understanding of soil ecology, and bolstered by the tendency toward observational skills and ingenuity in the independent family farmer community.

As occurred with the organic movement and its move away from chemical inputs, farmers are mostly evolving their practices through mutual learning, experimentation, and skill sharing in regional farmer communities. The conversation about soil carbon and tillage reduction has been a particularly hot topic at NOFA/Mass events and conferences, with tracks on soil carbon sequestration at both the Winter and Summer Conference. Available seats are regularly filled at workshops like Intensive No-Till Vegetable Production and Transitioning to a No-Till Farm. These growers take home this learning and experiment on their farms with methods for soil management that rely on minimal soil disturbance – growing soil health along with their crops.

Nine of these innovative farmers will now participate in a project that will track their crop production, soil carbon content, soil organic matter, mineral fertility, pest and weed pressure and other metrics, over the course of three years, on tillage-reduction trial fields across the Northeast. Since all best practices in farming methods vary regionally based on temperature ranges, rainfall, local vegetation, disease and insect pressures, the data collected will help produce publications and fact sheets that provide information on what methods work best.

Chuck Currie and Marie Kaziunas, www.freedomfoodfarm.comThe three Massachusetts farms involved have each approached soil health in slightly different ways. Gaining Ground Farm, located in Concord, grows most of its produce for donation to food pantries with the help of hundreds of volunteers each year. The farm manager, Doug Wolcik, has been experimenting with no-till methods and a permanent raised-bed system. Methods used include keeping soil covered, with cover crops, mulch, intensive crop spacing, or tarps depending on the situation – all with the aim of enhancing soil biological activity. Freedom Food Farm is an 88-acre biodynamic farm located in Raynham which produces vegetables, herbs, eggs, flowers, raw honey, grain, beans, hay, straw, and pasture-raised meat. While this farm is too large for a permanent raised-bed system, the farmers, Chuck Currie and Marie Kaziunas, have been experimenting with reducing the use of tractors on their fields in order to reduce soil compaction and soil ecosystem damage. Jim and Annie Schultz, www.redshirtfarm.comRed Shirt Farm is a13-acre farm integrating no-till vegetable production, pastured heritage chickens, turkeys and pigs. Jim Schultz, who owns and operates Red Shirt Farm with his wife Annie Schultz, says: “No-till is the future of organic farming, but the techniques still need to be refined, especially for small-scale farms like ours. We’d like to be involved with experiments that determine the best practices for successful no-till on working farms.”

In addition to providing their data, these three farmers and their six cohorts from New Jersey and Connecticut will participate together with NOFA staff in a mutually supportive learning community that will help these farmers improve their practices. The nine farmers will also provide workshops to other farmers, both on-farm and at NOFA conferences, to share their practices and what the data is showing about the soil health outcomes of these practices.

“We at NOFA feel that farmers can have a major impact on climate change through using carbon sequestering practices on their farms,” shares NOFA/Mass Executive Director, Julie Rawson. “We are delighted that NRCS really embraces this innovation and is putting a lot of their governmental muscle behind this very important work.”

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