By Caro Roszell, NOFA/Mass Education Director and Marty Dagoberto, NOFA/Mass Policy Director
On February 12, 2020, 21 farmers from across Massachusetts drove in to the Statehouse to urge legislators to support the creation of a Massachusetts Healthy Soils Program. Gathering in a briefing room, legislators, staffers, press and supporters of the bill heard comments from farmers.
Representative Schmid and Senator Comerford, lead cosponsors of S.2404, the Healthy Soils Bill, started the briefing. “This is amazing to us, that the interest and fascination with healthy soils has grown so quickly here in the State House, and it’s in large part due to your advocacy,” Rep. Schmid remarked to the those in attendance.
“I want to acknowledge your work to grow and expand the possibility of this bill and the impact of healthy soils on our Commonwealth. It’s a food security issue, it’s a farmer justice issue and now we’re rightly seeing it as a climate issue,” said Senator Comerford, adding “And I want to thank NOFA for really spearheading the organizing around this, the outside push. We want to do right by our Commonwealth, and people like you make us do it.”
NOFA/Mass Policy Director Marty Dagoberto thanked legislators for coming to hear the voices of farmers and healthy soils practitioners, and recognized the leadership of Senator Jo Comerford and Representative Paul Schmid.
He explained that “under S.2404, the Healthy Soils Program will bolster the use of healthy soils practices by private and public land owners, including commercial farmers, and provide assistance such as grants, technical assistance or education on the benefits and implementation of health soils best practices.”
Introducing the panel of farmers, Marty pointed out that there were over 530 years of combined experience working with the soil represented on the panel.
Julie Rawson, NOFA/Mass Executive Director and farmer at Many Hands Organic Farm, began her comments by summarizing healthy soils practices succinctly: “Keep it green to keep carbon moving into the ground, and keep soil covered to protect biology.“
Rawson’s practices include moving poultry tractors through fallowed land and under fruit trees twice day, undersowing cover crops below cash crops to increase root diversity and carbon flow, using arborist-sourced wood chip mulch under crops, and a tractor-mounted “ripper” (like a shallow chisel plow) acquired through from Mass. Dept. of Agricultural Resources’ (MDAR) ACRE grant program to reduce compaction and create furrows for planting. Rawson shared that her increasing crop quality and yields were attributable to both her soil management practices and the use of foliar micronutrient sprays.
Chuck Currie of Freedom Food Farm shared that in college, “I wanted to pick a job to make the most change in the world, so I chose farming.” He studied agriculture at UMass and now manages 90 acres of APR land growing vegetables, mixed livestock and grain. He has seen reduced erosion, cleaner water, an increase in food production per acre, along with an increase in quality of the food he grows due to healthy soils practices. And, he shared, he is working with NOFA/Mass on an MDAR-funded grant to prove that the food grown using these methods is more nutrient dense through soil testing, crop tissue testing and farm management practices tracking.
One of the larger-scale farmers in attendance was Jim Ward of Ward’s Berry Farm, with over 200 acres in production (20 of which are certified organic) and 140 employees. Jim also graduated from the UMass Plant & Soil Sciences program. “I thought I knew how to farm,” he said, “I grew berries initially and then vegetables, conventionally farming using a plow and a harrow and doing normal veg practices on sandy soil. I saw on my soil tests that the organic matter was depleting…. As it dropped to 2% in 1998, it was a struggle to be a good farmer. I was irrigating more frequently. Every night I was out irrigating, nutrition was hard to manage, and disease was increasing. So I tried no till on popcorn—and I didn’t have to irrigate that popcorn! I’ve been doing no-till and zone till for 20 years now, and I bought in really hard to composting. I’ve brought the organic matter up to over 5% across the farm.”
Two graziers also attended, Ridge Shinn of Big Picture Beef in Hardwick, MA and Joan Walker of Walker Farm at Whortleberry Hill (New Braintree). Ridge pointed out that while many people say that cows are the problem when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture, “actually cows are the solution,” citing the evolution of the famous 8-foot-deep prairie soils, which were built from the symbiosis of huge herbivores (buffalo), photosynthesis, and the soil. When cows are properly rotationally grazed in tight herds, he said, soil is quickly regenerated, sequestering carbon and improving water infiltration, among other benefits.
Joan Walker also uses intensive rotational grazing, following the same practices as Ridge does. She tracks soil health on her farm, but added that there are other indicators of ecosystem health that should be noted too. “Before we started grazing, there were no bobolinks,” she said. “Recently I counted 200 bobolink nests on my land. Well-managed pasture conserves in many ways.”
In a discussion of what resources farmers have turned to for help and resources evolving their practices, farmers mentioned how important UMass Extension has been to the farming community and expressed disappointment that their funding has been progressively reduced over the years. Other source of information and inspiration mentioned included Ray Archuletta, (formerly of USDA NRCS) Australian soil scientist Dr. Christine Jones, Bryan O’Hara of Tobacco Road Farm in Connecticut, and acclaimed, self-taught agronomist John Kempf.
Of course, the farmers in this community also turn to each other, and to the farmer-based community organizations that bring them together. “One of the most positive things about the regenerative farming community is that people are willing to share with each other“, offered Jim Schultz of Red Shirt Farm (Lanesboro, MA).
One farmer who had planned to attend the briefing could not make it due to an unexpected early start to sugaring season, which could be a direct result of the changing climate. Casey Townsend of Natick Community Organic Farm had to stay home and tap maple trees, which ran their sap weeks earlier than usual this year.
Although the purpose of the Healthy Soils Bill is partially to help mitigate the climate crisis—arguably the most dire topic of our time—the stories that were shared by farmers were all of hope.
When Jeremy Barker-Plotkin first began farming his land in North Amherst, the soil was in a very run-down state—but through cover cropping, livestock integration, organic mulching and tillage reduction, he has seen major improvements in soil tilth and organic matter levels.
“Farmers are on the front line of climate crisis” he said, reminding legislators of the historic drought farmers experienced in 2016, followed by a season that saw two years’ worth of rain fall in about six weeks. “We are people who are dependent on the weather for our livelihood… but we are also on the front lines of reversing climate change—by returning carbon back into the soil we can help reverse it.”
“This is an incredibly exciting moment,” said Lincoln Fishman of Sawyer Farm (Worthington, MA). “This bill takes the best farming practices and the best current science and links them to public policy and acknowledges that soil health is the foundation of all human health and human industry.”
Rep Paul Schmid, lead house sponsor of the Healthy Soils Bill, acknowledged the dozens of representative and offices in attendance. “It’s amazing to me that we are having this conversation in the Statehouse—I hope you all understand how revolutionary this is.”
This briefing was originally proposed by Senator Comerford at the 2019 NOFA Summer Conference as a way to bring farmers to the State House during the “off season” so that they can speak directly to legislators about the importance of healthy soils. The event was funded through a grant from the National Healthy Soils Policy Incubator, which has an expressed mission of elevating in the state legislative process the voices of those who work with the soil. NOFA/Mass is grateful for their support.
NOFA/Mass would also like to thank the following groups for co-sponsoring the event: The MA Food System Caucus, Rita’s Catering, Regeneration Massachusetts, CISA, New England Farmers Union, Mass. Association of Conservation Districts, Berkshire Grown, Central Mass Grown and Soil4Climate.
About the Healthy Soils Bill (S.2404): In an effort to harness the power of healthy soils which can help our Commonwealth adapt to and mitigate climate change, the Healthy Soils Bill would establish a Mass. Healthy Soils Program. This program would scale out land management practices which build healthy soils and pull carbon out of the atmosphere. It would provide technical assistance, grants and education on the benefits of healthy soils best practices for all land uses and soil types, including agriculture, and promote a statewide effort to conserve and rebuild our soil. S.2404 is currently before the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. The legislative session ends July 31st, 2020 (the last day for bills to pass). NOFA/Mass is calling on all supporters to contact their State Senator and Representative to ask them to pass the Healthy Soils Bill this session. For more information and to take action within seconds, please visit: http://actionnetwork.org/letters/co-sponsors-needed-for-healthy-soils-bill
Thank you to those who came out to show support!
Farmers in attendance included:
Noah Kellerman, Alprilla Farm (Essex)
Dan Pratt, Astarte (Hadley)
Ridge, Lynne and Isaac Shinn, Big Picture Beef (Hardwick)
Cara and Michael Germain, Free Living Farm (Brookfield)
Chuck Currie, Freedom Food Farm (Raynham)
Doug Wolcik, Gaining Ground (Concord)
Matthew Dix, Island Grown Initiative, North Tabor Farm (Chilmark)
Laura Davis, Long Life Farm (Hopkinton)
Julie Rawson, Many Hands Organic Farm (Barre)
Caro Roszell, New Wendell Farm (Wendell)
Priscilla Williams, Pumpkin Brook Organic Gardening (Shirley)
Jim Schultz, Red Shirt Farm (Lanesborough)
Lincoln Fishman, Sawyer Farm (Worthington)
Deb Habib, Seeds of Solidarity (Orange)
Jeremy Barker Plotkin, Simple Gifts Farm (Amherst)
Joan Walker, Walker Farm at Whortleberry Hill (New Braintree)
Jim Ward, Ward’s Berry Farm (Sharon)
Andrew Woodruff, Whipporwill Farm (West Tisbury)
Legislators present at the briefing included:
Rep. Natalie Blais (1st Franklin)
Rep. Dan Carey (2nd Hampshire)
Sen. Jo Comerford (Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester)
Rep. Mindy Domb (3rd Hampshire)
Rep. Dan Donahue (16th Worcester)
Rep. Paul Donato (35th Middlesex)
Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante (5th Essex)
Rep. Sean Garballey (23rd Middlesex )
Sen. Anne Gobi (Worcester, Hampden, Hampshire and Middlesex)
Rep. Denise Provost (27th Middlesex)
Sen. Michael Rush (Suffolk and Norfolk)
Rep. Paul Schmid III (8th Bristol)
Rep. Donald Wong (9th Essex)
Rep. Susannah Whipps (2nd Franklin)
Offices represented by staffers included:
Rep. John Barrett (1st Berkshire)
Rep. Marjorie Decker (25th Middlesex)
Rep. Nika Elugardo (15th Suffolk)
Sen. Cindy Friedman (4th Middlesex)
Rep. Carole Fiola (6th Bristol)
Rep. Danielle Gregoire (4th Middlesex)
Rep. William Galvin (6th Norfolk)
Rep. Jon Hecht (29th Middlesex)
Sen. Adam Hinds (Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin, and Hampden)
Rep. Steve Howitt (4th Bristol)
Rep. Brad Hill (4th Essex)
Rep. James Kelcourse (1st Essex)
Rep. Mary Keefe (15th Worcester)
Rep. Patrick Kearny (4th Plymouth)
Rep. David Linsky (5th Middlesex)
Rep. Joan Meschino (3rd Plymouth)
Rep. Smitty Pignatelli (4th Berkshire)
Rep. David Robertson (19th Middlesex)
Rep. David Rogers (24th Middlesex)
Sen. Michael Rodruigues (1st Bristol and Plymouth)
Rep. Alan Silvia (7th Bristol)
Sen. Dean Tran (Worcester and Middlesex)
Rep. Tommy Vitolo (15th Norfolk)