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Carbon Sequestration

Maggie Payne, Anna Gilbert-Muhammed and Bettye Frederick

On July 25, community gardeners from Springfield’s Mason Square Library Community Garden and Ibrahim Ali from Gardening the Community attended NOFA/Mass’s cocktail cover cropping workshop at Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, MA.

UMass team runs several tests at Many Hands Organic Farm, digging, sifting, sampling and measuring our soil for water infiltration, earthworm counts, microbial mass and active carbon. The infiltration rate was good, the earthworms and microbes were lower than expected (perhaps because of the extended heat and drought during July), and the active carbon was off the charts!

Many growers who have adopted soil carbon restoration methods (minimal tillage, cover crop cocktails, rotations with animals, green plants growing year-round, etc.) have expressed a desire for feedback on whether or not they are doing a good job. While arguably the best feedback is looking at and tasting the crops which are the result of your efforts, such a metric does introduce an element of subjectivity into the process and many folks would like a more objective and even numerical way to measure their progress.

Harvest of Copra Onions - August 24

Over the past several months I’ve been profiling no-till farmers. I thought that for this issue I would write up where we are in our progress on the topic at Many Hands Organic Farm. We are a family farm in Barre, MA in the middle of what would like to be woods. 14 acres of our rocks, trees and swamp are open and mostly tillable. (Interestingly, I guess I need to change that reference to no-tillable.) We are certified organic and have been since 1987. Here I’ll describe each aspect of our no-till system to give you a sense of our practices and philosophies.

Photo by steve-wilson, available under a Creative Commons license.

Doing less damage is no longer good enough when it comes to addressing cascading challenges like climate change, habitat loss and soil loss. To address these issues, many ecological farming practitioners have been touting the idea of “regenerative agriculture.” But what does it really mean? It stands in clear juxtaposition to the more widely used term, sustainable agriculture. There’s no question that the land and water we are now working with has been massively degraded through decades of unscrupulous industrial practices, ignorance of basic ecological principles, and human folly.

Ricky showing off one of his dibble tools

Ricky Baruc is the head farmer at Seeds of Solidarity Farm in Orange, MA where he lives with his wife Deb Habib and son Levi. Jack and I have known Ricky, and Deb before him, since the 80s. We are lucky to live only about ½ hour away from them. Here is a nice overview of the farm taken from their website:

Seeds of Solidarity Farm was initiated in 1996, on land in the middle of the forest that had not been cultivated for many years, and the original inhabitants of the region being the Wampanoag, Nipmuc, and Pequoit people. A conservation restriction on our 30 acres ensures the land will always be used for agriculture, education, and wildlife habitat. With nature as teacher, the land has been transformed into fertile fields and hosts five solar hoophouses brimming with our signature greens, fruit and perennial crops, garlic and sacred, traditional crops such as Hopi blue and Narraganset flour corn. The tapestry of our site includes energy efficient and off the grid home, office, and farm outbuildings, including Solidarity Handworks, a solar powered farmstand, and celebration art and words of inspiration along the paths.

One of the newest additions to Matt’s herd

Here in New England we are blessed with a plethora of rocky, sloped soils. And though that means that we may never be the grain belt of America, these thin, marginal soils can grow some really great grass. In fact, the high mineral content and heavy rainfalls of our region suggest that grass-fed livestock may be one of the most sustainable agricultural uses of our land. According to New England Food Vision, grass-fed livestock ought to be a cornerstone for a sustainable New England food economy: “Of the 6 million acres of farmland in [New England], some 2 million are suitable only for pasture and orchard and another million are probably best suited for pasture and hay.” These 3 million acres are “an enormous unrealized agricultural resource, a place where New England’s soils and climate can show a real competitive advantage.”

Lee spreading compost

This month’s interview takes us to Lee Reich. Lee lives in New Paltz, PA and is well known to NOFA members for his years of presentations at NOFA conferences in the region. He is the author of several books, including Grow Fruit Naturally, The Pruning Book, Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, Weedless Gardening, A Northeast Gardener’s Year and Landscaping With Fruit. Lee has had a large-scale garden for 30 years, and his annual vegetable production includes a 2000-square-foot garden and a 400-square-foot greenhouse.

Carbon digest

When I was researching information for last summer’s NOFA white paper on soil carbon, one of my pet peeves was the arcane nature of many of the scientific papers I was reading. Many seemed purposely obtuse, and almost all were protected behind some sort of pay-wall that only those working for universities or well-heeled institutions (or with connections in same) were able to access. 

Fungus mold hyphae on bark-based potting mix

Adequate levels of functional organic matter and a robust soil digestive system are sorely lacking in most all agricultural soils. This lack of humic substances and biology significantly reduces a soil’s water holding capacity and the ability to release nutrients, all of which leads to large losses in crop quality and yield.

Cabbages the size of basketballs at Heifer Farm

I met Elizabeth Joseph, or “Liz Jo” as we fondly refer to her, soon after she showed up on the scene in 2009 at Heifer Farm (then Overlook Farm) in Rutland. In NOFA/Mass there was a lot of talk and education around nutrient density in those days, and she and I found ourselves at the same workshops and conferences. She started at Heifer in 2009 as a volunteer and in 2010 she was hired as the Garden Coordinator.

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