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Carbon Sequestration

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.

Doug Wolcik Harvesting

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.

hand tool

Hand tool on newly prepped bed with CC seeds before raking in 2 Sorghum Sudan in mixed cover crop cocktail

As seems to be the norm around Wild Browse, there is a still a lot to do, however, the bulk of the crops are in the ground, which is a big load off of my mind. Of course, there will be regular succession planting and maintenance of vegetables and cover crops as the weeks progress.

The signs of summer are everywhere; the strawberries have started to ripen, robins and orioles have fledged, and the deer flies have arrived! The last few nights have served up a dazzling display of wonderment as the fireflies weave their magic in the early-summer night sky. Having been enchanted by these creatures since childhood, I realized that I didn’t know much about their life cycle and how they might affect the garden. So, the Internet to the rescue! Turns out that unlike the short-lived adult (2 weeks), the larva lives about a year in the soil. The larva is carnivorous and eats soft-bodied insects like worms, slugs, and other insect larvae.

worms in soil

Soil testing is an important tool for anyone growing food, especially if the goal is to produce a nutrient-dense crop. But there is more to soil than its mineral content. NOFA/Mass is currently offering a series of workshops on soil testing and interpretation, which includes a lesson on both lab test interpretation and how to take your own carbon proxy tests. The series begins with Earthworms, Calcium, and Aggregates, Oh My: Soil Testing & Interpretation for Growers on June 16th at the Urban Farming Institute’s Glenway Farm in Dorchester.

Summer Conference

Event, Summer Conference

April might have been a cold, slow month, but May came running in like a freight train! Here we are in June, summer upon us, trying to make heads or tails of what happened this spring. Unpredictable weather patterns – from record temperature lows to record temperature highs, from droughts to freak wind storms – raise the difficulty level of farming a notch every year. It’s easy to feel isolated in these challenges; it seems that every farm has its own individual micro-climate throwing us all into our own siloed chaos.

The good news is that there are folks out there, from every corner of the Northeast, willing to share their experiences in battling this chaos. New techniques are debuted, and old techniques are also demonstrated to be tried and true. Resilience comes from building soils through regenerative farming practice, dedicated cover cropping, and an improved knowledge of what happens beneath our feet. You can learn all of this, and much, much, much more, from our presenters at the NOFA Summer Conference!

Healthy Kale

Kale planted in stubble with little soil disturbance 2 - Buckwheat flowers 3 - Wasp eggs on tomato hornworm

While I’m taking a break from homestead work to write this article, I’m also enjoying the mid-May beauty surrounding me. The apple and pear trees are in full-bloom, the pasture and garden (April planted cover crops) are pulsing with that vibrant spring green, and the Baltimore Orioles are vrooming in to feast on orange halves we’ve put out for them to replenish their strength after their long return flight. We also like to feed them following their migration, so we can enjoy their spectacular beauty, close-up.

Unseen beneath my feet there is another layer of beauty unfolding, that of the soil food web which is also coming to life after its winter slow down in activity. If only we had microscopic vision, the wonders we would see!

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