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Collaborative Soil Health Meeting: NOFA/Mass & the Regional Soil Carbon Community

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

By Caro Roszell, NOFA/Mass Soil Carbon Program Manager & Education Director

As many in our NOFA/Mass community know, we have been working hard as an organization to understand, educate about, and assess soil carbon. Part of that effort is an on-farm testing program that uses a set of nine protocols to assess soil carbon sequestration capacity. Tests include aggregate size, prevalence and stability (resistance to weather erosion), reactive carbon (oxidizable carbon), relative compaction, bulk density, respiration and surface biology. The tests are drawn from NRCS field testing protocols, Cornell field testing protocols, private labs and other sources like the Soil Carbon Coalition.

This month I was honored to be invited by Future Harvest CASA (Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture) to present to a group of eastern-regional leaders on soil health assessment / soil carbon measuring. About ten representatives of regional organizations presented their approach to soil health assessment and technical support.

Like NOFA/Mass, many of the participating universities and organizations are also Conservation Innovation Grants recipients, and most of the participating organizations are actively involved in current efforts to quantitatively assess soil health and soil carbon sequestration, and correlate grower practices to increasing soil carbon.

However, within the groups present there were two distinct cohorts—those who are involved in collecting scientific research about soils and carbon in order to influence policy, and those who are involved in assessing soils on farms for the sake of teaching farmers how to look at soil through a lens of building soil health and carbon. NOFA/Mass was differentiated by providing a high level of direct technical assistance to farmers and by offering specific recommendations on practices and one-on-one communication with farmers. Some other groups prefer to stay agnostic on specific practices and instead let the data speak for itself.

caro testingOther organizations doing similar work to NOFA/Mass include the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension’s Soil Health Card program (essentially an easy-to-follow self-assessment instruction manual resulting in a soil health score for farmers) and PASA Sustainable Agriculture (based in Pennsylvania) who use the Cornell Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health to provide an assessment for farmers’ soil as well as an anonymous array of data points for collected data from other farms so individual farmers can compare their data to other farmers in their cohort, so that they can understand what is achievable by peer farmers in their region for metrics like aggregate stability, organic matter, active carbon and soil respiration.

Also present at the meeting were like-minded organizations like the Vermont Healthy Soils Coalition (Cat Buxton) the University of Maryland’s Harry R. Hughs Center for Agroecology and the Virginia Association for Biological Farmers (VABF) as well as representatives of agencies and funders like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and NRCS.

What I gained from the meeting were several potential innovations to our soil carbon proxy testing protocols and farm methods data collection. Ray Weil offered some suggestions:

1)     A method for more accurately measuring pressure per square inch (relative compaction / soil hardness) by moistening the area where readings are taken; as relatively small differences in soil moisture affects penetrometer readings.

2)     A basic affordable instrument that can be adapted to give more precise active (oxidizable) carbon readings.

3)     I am in touch with Ray and other contacts from the meeting for a potentially more efficient aggregate stability test.

Additionally, I am considering switching to an app that does what our surface biology test does: estimate the percentage of the soil that is covered, and what percent is in living cover. Developed by a team at the University of Oklahoma, it’s called Canopeo, and it’s pretty impressive. This app would help us control for human bias in making estimates.

 Soil testing sample areaSome of the suggestions made today will help with our efforts to cleave a subset of test protocols that are easy for growers to do at home on their land. The Maryland Soil Health Card offers some very easy tests that anyone can do and we may choose to integrate some of their methodologies with some of the ones we’re using going forward while working to improve the precision of the technician version of our tests.

Finally, on the guidance of colleagues at the meeting, I am considering collecting estimates from farmers on ‘days in living cover,’ or the number of days per year that a soil has living plant biomass covering its surface going forward as a part of our practices data. This number is used by many soil health assessors as part of their ‘scorecard’ for soil health—for our purposes I think it would be helpful as a data point for correlation with soil health outcomes. We will certainly collect this information for our CIG and MDAR grants related to soil health.

Future Harvest CASA received a generous grant to cover travel and lodging for all of us participating in the meeting; it was held at the College Park Marriot in Hyattsville MD, a suburb of Washington D.C., and the long-time home of the Future Harvest CASA Annual Conference. We so appreciated the opportunity to share, learn and work toward greater collaboration with regional partners in soil health assessment and farmer support!

To learn more about NOFA/Mass’ Soil Carbon Proxy testing program visit our website.

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