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Soil

It is hard to hear the news today without some aspect of climate change and carbon policy being discussed.

For many years “global warming” had been an issue barely on the horizon for most people. But the stronger and stronger weather events we have witnessed over the planet the last few years have given many thoughtful people pause. More and more now believe that without strong concerted action we may be facing climate problems we have never before experienced as a species. It has been hard, however, getting governments to adopt the strong positions on limiting fossil fuel use that most feel would be required to adequately reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the core cause of climate change.

Carbon expert and author, rancher and activist, Courtney White will be joining us this winter from New Mexico for an exciting conference on practical steps one can take to make big impacts to restore soil carbon and be a part of the climate solution. His most recent book, Two Percent Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change is full of innovative ideas to heal degraded landscapes. Courtney has also written Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country, which has inspired many with its wealth of innovative solutions, stories, and leaders in this movement – see the review below by Julie Rawson.

The conference will take place at UMass Amherst campus and will feature a wide variety of land care practitioners including land managers, farmers, researchers, and conservationists. They will speak about what is possible for soil carbon and landscape restoration. Speakers also include Eric Toensmeier with his new book The Carbon Farming Solution, Eric Fleisher and the organic land care team at Harvard University, as well as Bruce Fulford, Bryan O'Hara, Paul Wagner and Charles Osborne. This conference is made possible through a collaboration between NOFA/Mass, the Ecological Landscape Alliance (ELA), Biodiversity for a Livable Climate (BLC) and NOFA's Organic Landcare Carbon Program (OLCP).

Tomato plants- note green leaves all way to ground

Tomato plants- note green leaves all way to ground

It's the third week in September and we've been lucky that frost hasn't struck yet. It has been a hard growing year, with the drought and hotter than usual weather. As I mentioned last month, we had to resort to watering. We soaked each growing area with about an inch of water each week to augment the sparse rain. It seems that they really needed that boost to get through the stress until they could adapt. After about a month, we stopped watering, even though the drought continues. Now, the plants are thriving and still producing abundantly.

Healthy monster tomatoes

Healthy monster tomatoes

I write this on September 26, the day after a pretty serious frost on at least half of our farm. Today I want to talk about the use of wood chips in beds as mulch. We had some stunning successes with the method that we devised to plant, do an initial weeding and then mulch with wood chips that were partially decomposed, acquired from our local DPW. We had best ever crops of onions, both long season and spring green onions, lettuce in wood chip mulch, spinach, carrots, parsley, basil, Swiss chard, kale, and tomatoes. Beets, which generally were not as beautiful as I would like them to be, and cucumbers did not fare as well. Winter squash did fairly well. The chips that we used around the cucumbers and winter squash were fresh last fall, and I think that it was a mistake to use them, perhaps because of too much mineral tie up.

In some of our chard and basil beds we sowed crimson clover on top of the chips, which germinated nicely, and seemed to provide great ground cover and a constant fertility drip to the crops. I look forward to how crops grow in these beds next year.

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.

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%

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