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Soil

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.

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.

Comfrey on field edges to keep out perennial weeds. Photo by Brian Caldwell

This month’s interview is with Jay Armour, co-owner (with wife Polly) of Four Winds Farm, an organically certified no till farm in the Hudson Valley in next-door New York State.

I asked Jay why he started to farm using no till a lot earlier than most organic farmers, who are now just coming around to it. Here’s what he has to say:

Basically, we started doing no till 20 years ago because Lee Reich said we would have fewer weeds. I was crazy with weeds and the ground was getting harder as the season would go on. It was like night and day to make the switch. We never went back to tilling. We started seeing other benefits happening that we weren’t really counting on. As we learned about carbon sequestration we realized it is a good thing for the earth. We get soil tests done because our inspectors like to see fairly regular tests. One thing that we have seen over the years was the organic matter going up. It was around 2.5%

Since I handed over the NOFA/Mass Education Director job to Glenn Oliveira (and he has embraced it with all of his might), I have time for investigation and outreach in directions that never seemed to fit into my day in the past.

The Soil and Nutrition Conference has, since the first conference four years ago, been making connections between soil, plant, animal, and human health. The 2015 Soil and Nutrition Conference offers a wonderful line-up of presenters, including two of the five presenters, John Slack and Bryan O'Hara, interviewed below.

The 2015 Soil and Nutrition Conference is a two-day, farmer friendly event, with early bird pricing of $100 (BFA/NOFA Member) by December 1, 2014, and the opportunity to foster information sharing and camaraderie among attendees.

New England soils are notoriously thin but can be restored with planned grazing. Increasing soil biodiversity improves the water cycle, food quality, farm profitability, wildlife habitat, and climate. We will learn from case studies how to integrate pasture, woodlands and croplands deepening soils to create a New England Savannah.

I will report from the Africa Center for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe, where grazing, in accordance with evolutionary patterns, is re-greening highly depleted landscapes: helping to provide sustainable food and water security while invariably sequestering carbon through new soil formation. Case studies and explanations provided.

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