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Soil Science – From the Textbook to the Practical January 2019

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 January Issue Newsletter

By Julie Rawson, Executive Director

Noah at his tractor

This is the first of several interviews with Noah Courser-Kellerman of Alprilla Farm in Essex, MA.  Starting this year, and proceeding every month through 2019, we will provide a 12 month “course” with Noah Courser-Kellerman on soil management for the grower of all scales. Noah ran a very popular soil science course in 2018 for the folks in Essex County and we are going to offer this online version for you to access monthly via the NOFA/Mass newsletter and/or via email subscription to the series.

Next month we will lay out the syllabus, but for January I want to share with you why you would want to spend the time reading these articles from this young farmer who happens also to be a NOFA/Mass Board Member since 2013.

In 2013 Noah received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. Let’s just call it Sustainable Agriculture- that’s more or less what it turned into. His final thesis was on organic, no-till lettuce production. This year-long independent project was accomplished at a research plot at the UMass Deerfield farm. Ruth Hazzard, then from UMass Extension, was his advisor for the project and helped to make it happen.

An important professor at Hampshire, and Noah’s advisor there, was Jason Tor who taught him soil science his sophomore year. At that time, he was taking Chemistry 1 also and it all started to click for him. (Interestingly, Noah had flunked chemistry while in high school!)

I asked Noah about other forces in his life while at Hampshire that helped him in his education.

“While I was at Hampshire there was traditional book learning but also independent studies on ag and climate change and local food systems and economics. In my sophomore year my housemates and I did an independent study which involved eating from only within 150 miles of Hampshire (Amherst, MA). We figured out what we could grow on the farm and then went about sourcing what we couldn’t grow. We did a lot of thinking about diet and nutrition, and then cooking and adapting cuisine to it.”

“For my junior year abroad, I went to Vermont and really started to intensify my interest in soil science while interning at Butterworks Farm with Jack and Anne Lazor. – Jack turned me on to William Albrecht (University of Missouri Soil Scientist teens – 50’s), Acres USA, Newman Turner and Sir Albert Howard. Both Albrecht and Turner discussed reduced tillage, diverse pastures, and biodiversity for soil and animals. For both of them there was no division between soil fertility and the health of crops, cattle and right then to human health.”

From Jack Lazor he learned enough to get him started on grain processing. While sitting at the kitchen table and reading these aforementioned books, Noah would bounce questions off of Jack- a really good way to learn a lot. Anne was such a patient teacher and such a great cow person. Noah learned easily as much from her as he did from Jack.

In 2009 he grew an acre market garden on his own during summer break and in 2010 he and a friend got ready to start Alprilla farm. The main focus was to get the CSA started. During his final semester he spent 3 days in Amherst and 4 days on the farm, trying to finish his Hampshire Div. 3 thesis while also getting the farm off the ground. He has been farming at Alprilla since the spring of 2011.

Others continue to be resources for continuing education and feedback. Mark Fulford, a Maine orchardist, farmer and consultant has been important in the evolution of the farm, first as a consultant and then as a friend and mentor. Mark has offered a lot of practical guidance for building soil fertility recipes. He has a healthy skepticism for soil tests, though he thinks they are a good tool.

Noah also utilizes UMass extension and regularly picks the brain of MOFGA’s Organic Crop and Conservation Specialist, Caleb Goossen, who also happens to be a college friend from Hampshire.

At this point in time Noah isn’t reading many books on fertility but is recently intrigued by the book Human Scale by Kirkpatrick Sale. It is an interesting critique of big government and big business and an argument for a decentralized way of governing. He is definitely in the Schumacher School of Thought.

Noah in his fieldsNoah doesn’t have a single text that he goes back to for referencing soil fertility questions. Many of his mentors put effort into cautioning against a recipe, he has to figure stuff on his own. The New England Vegetable Management Guide is super conventional but good at helping to understand basic fertility, though he takes most of what is in there with a big grain of salt.

In a nutshell here is what you can expect from this upcoming year-long series of interviews. Says Noah, “I hope to share some of the awe and excitement I feel when interacting with the soil, as well as some practical information that can be used in the pursuit of growing good food and taking care of our land. Soil is a substance that we are familiar with, depend on and easily take for granted. However, the more closely we study it, the more complex we realize it is. It is much more akin to a coral reef or tropical rainforest than the inert stuff for propping up plants that it first appears to be.”

Look for the next issue of Soil Science- From the Textbook to the Practical in next month’s NOFA/Mass Newsletter. Or sign up for individual emails on Noah’s online mini course here.

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