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Carbon Sequestration

Soil Science

In the previous installment, we delved into what nitrogen is, why plants need it and how plants, bacteria and humans get it. Today we will delve into how it moves through our farms and interacts with global systems. The concept of a biogeochemical cycle is useful in thinking about how elements behave on a micro and global scale. As can be seen in the roots of the word, a biogeochemical cycle involves biological, from organism to ecosystem, and abiotic systems such as the atmosphere. It makes sense, on a planet whose continents appear green from photosynthetic organisms from space, that life is a driving force inextricable from chemical and geological processes. Humans, of course, need to come to terms with this reality. We cannot live on the planet without changing the planet, and the kind of planet we will have to live on will be the direct result of our actions. Other examples of biogeochemical cycles are those for water, carbon and sulfur.

Nitrogen is one of the most important elements in agriculture, a kind of chemical Jekyll and Hyde, an element of twists and turns and contradictions. It is usually the most limiting nutrient for plant growth in soils, and yet is one of the most abundant elements in the atmosphere. Nothing is more responsible for the problems and successes of industrial agriculture than Nitrogen. How to responsibly manage Nitrogen is a topic that causes many organic farmers to become philosophical, opinionated and at times self-righteous. Friendly arguments on the subject have been known to become as heated as an unturned pile of manure and straw. And with good reason!

What other substance has such a profound impact on the health of our soil, the nutrition of our food, our financial bottom line, purity of our groundwater, the formation of dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, use of fossil fuels, climate change, global inequality and corporate colonialism? In short, the way we understand and use Nitrogen is important not just to the success of this year’s crop but also to our farms’ relationship to the broader environment. Regenerative agriculture hinges on the responsible management of Nitrogen.

carbon in the soil

Noah: I think it’s worth framing this conversation with the fact that all life, in the soil or otherwise, is carbon based. Often, especially among those who care about the environment, carbon is only talked about in regards to greenhouse gasses and climate change. It’s worth appreciating that carbon is the element that defines life on this planet, and that its role in how our climate works is only one part of a much broader biogeochemical cycle.

Julie: What is the importance of soil organic matter (SOM) to agricultural soils - water infiltration, aggregate stability, nutrient retention, etc. 

New NOFA/Mass educational event just added- Growing Hemp in Massachusetts

April 6, 2019 - 9:45am to 4pm
American Legion Dudley-Gendron Post
156 Boston Rd
Sutton, MA

Baystate Organic Certifiers has recently announced online that they “will start accepting hemp crop and handling applications immediately”.  In an interview with Don Franczyk, Executive Director of Baystate Organic Certifiers, he mentioned that for farmers with current Organic Certification and MDAR licensing, adding hemp to your list of crops is just as easy as any other crop.  

soil Science

This is the third edition of this Soil Science Mini Series with Noah Courser-Kellerman of Alprilla Farm in Essex, MA.

A Conversation with Noah Courser-Kellerman: What is Cation Exchange and why it is Relevant?

Interviewer: Julie Rawson, Executive Director, NOFA/Mass

Julie: What are cations/anions? 

Regional Soil Carbon Community

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.

Noah at his tractor

Noah at his tractor

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.

No Till Track

Learn about tillage reduction from other farmers at the NOFA/Mass Winter Conference.

Here’s an interesting fact: there is approximately 15-20 times as much land under conventional (herbicide-dependent) no-till farming in the United States than there is total acreage under organic management, tillage-based or otherwise.

According to an article from The No-Till Farmer, “As of 2012, there were more than 389 million acres of total cropland in the U.S…. with 96 million acres falling under no-till practices for all crops — up from about 88 million acres… estimated in a November 2010 report.” But recent numbers ontotal acreage under organic management of any kind have ranged from 5 million acres (2017 USDA Agriculture Census Data) to 6.5 million acres (Mercaris Acreage Report).

field of crops

While the amount of acres in organic no-till acreage is a currently a decimal point on the number of acres in mainstream organic farming, many small-scale no-till farms can produce an enormous amount of food per acre. I’d like to touch on mini-farm crop density math. Many organic no-till farms are three acres or smaller, and use land that is near densely populated areas-- shortening food miles and giving peri-urban folks access to growing food and agricultural knowledge.

But the truly powerful thing about no-till small farms is their capacity to grow a lot more food on less acres than mechanized farms.

Tillage

What do the terms tilling and plowing mean to you? Furrow-slices rolling away behind you like a smooth wake in calm waters; a clean seedbed, chocolate-brown soil nearly ready for the crop? Or perhaps a machine, ripping through a quiet field, soil clods flying, dust rising and carbon oxidizing. Perhaps you have limited experience with farming, but you recall a scene from a favorite childhood film, The Secret of NIMH, in which Ms. Brisby—a cute talking field mouse in a little red cape—desperately struggles to relocate her children from the farm field before the menace of the plow destroys her home and her family.

Whatever your feelings about tillage, it may seem like a fundamentally inextricable part of agriculture itself. Yet the recent no-till farming movement challenges the necessity of tillage. Conventional no-till farmers report that they have slashed fertilizer inputs and increased profitability. Some proponents of the new regenerative farming movement (focused on improving soil health through farm management practices) advance organic no-till as a central practice and blame tillage for soil degradation, soil organic carbon losses, increased erosion, loss of fertility, and increased need for fertilizers and other inputs.

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