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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.

no glyphosate

There’s been so much good/bad news about glyphosate recently (good for Life, bad for biocide backers), it’s been hard to keep up. (This news stream updated almost daily.) We have some recent major developments to share with you, the Mass. organic movement, in hopes that you will share these updates with your state elected officials and call for action on glyphosate!

Short on time? Use this form to send a message about glyphosate to legislators within seconds.

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ifoam logo

NOFA is honored to be hosting this year’s Organic Farming Innovation Award (OFIA) Summit on Saturday August 10  at the 2019 Summer Conference!  Founded in 1972 and with around 800 members in over 127 countries, IFOAM - Organics International represents the global organic movement. Its main activities include facilitating capacity development for sustainable production; raising awareness and acting as a resource center for organic communications; advocating for and supporting the creation of a policy environment conducive to positive change.

We are looking forward to hosting IFOAM - Organics International community members and are excited to learn from their organizers. IFOAM - Organics International will be leading activities during several workshop slots at the Conference on Saturday, which all conference attendees are welcome to attend (no special registration pass is needed).

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.

There is still time to show your support

There is still time to show your support

Thanks to an outpouring of calls from organic advocates across the state, several of our priority proposed state laws have started the session with great momentum. The results of the January cosponsor drive surprised even the most optimistic advocates and bode well for the possibility of real change toward a regenerative and pollinator-friendly Commonwealth!

We’re seeing the most impressive numbers on our top 3 priority areas (not a coincidence):

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? 

soil formation

New England is a weird place to farm. We live in a mostly tree covered landscape of rolling hills, weathered mountains, deep ponds, swamps, rivers, outcroppings of bedrock, and once in a while, some really nice soil. In many areas, soil can change from heavy, wet clay to rocky, sandy soil in a matter of a hundred feet or so. This patchwork effect is increased by the crosshatching of millions of miles of stone walls built by the first European farmers in this area as they tried to eke a living from the rocky ground. It has even been posited that the orneriness of New England’s soil is at least partly responsible for the same trait found in its farmers.

But where did this landscape come from? Why are we blessed with perched water tables, endless crops of “New England Potatoes”- field stones- and house sized boulders seemingly dropped from space in the middle of our woods and fields?

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.

whiteboard

I have been privileged to have seen John Kempf speak for the better part of a day several times over the eight years I’ve worked with NOFA/Mass. The first time was at the 2011 Soil & Nutrition Conference in Northampton Mass, when NOFA/Mass was still co-running that event with the Bionutrient Food Association. I remember sitting in pews in the church, hanging on every word. I remember most clearly from that lecture the idea that crops have the genetic capacity to yield so much more than contemporary farmers imagine or have seen (and have dramatically higher nutrient profiles) because almost all farming systems are essentially degraded ecosystems. The current standards for yield, crop quality, and growth rate are far from optimal and can be dramatically increased if the soil is remineralized, repopulated with diverse, beneficial microorganisms, and if crops have access to certain necessary minerals (in the right form) at critical stages like root development and fruit set.

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