A Consensus is Forming – Report on NY Soil Health Summit, July 18, 2018

Author: Elizabeth Henderson | Published: July 28, 2018

The era of soil health is dawning – that is the conclusion we heard from David Montgomery, keynote speaker at the New York Soil Health Summit, and the theme of his hot-off-the-presses book Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soils Back to Life. Organized by David W. Wolfe, Cornell Professor of Plant and Soil Ecology, the summit brought together 140 people to hear the latest developments underway in research, farming practices and policy related to building soil organic matter and increasing carbon in the soil. A major summit goal is to complete a “Road Map” that will set forth this information.  The 39 organizations represented at the summit covered the full range from the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) to the Farm Bureau. The exciting news is that this broad spectrum of organizations, farmers, researchers and government agency staffers are coming to consensus about the critical importance of soil health and the need for a soil health program for our state.

Maryellen Sheehan and I attended on behalf of NOFA-NY and left feeling very encouraged. The highest policy priority for NOFA’s New York Organic Action Plan is to: “Create a Healthy Soils Program in NYS: Support research to increase understanding of soil health and the connection between soil health, the nutritional value of food and human health, and provide technical assistance and tax and other incentives to farms that build healthy soil and increase soil carbon, and disincentives for pollution and erosion.” (https://www.nofany.org/images/New%20York%20State%20Top%20Ten.pdf) The broad coalition that can push this through is in formation.

The Soil Health Summit opened with a greeting from Patrick Hooker, former head lobbyist for the NY Farm Bureau and current Deputy Secretary for Food and Agriculture in the Governor’s office.  Hooker stressed that building soil health is a win-win for farmers and the environment.  He listed the investments NY has already made in programs to improve farming practices through the Agricultural Environmental Management, Agricultural Non-Point Source Pollution, and Climate Resilient Farming programs, and observed that the best way to get more farmers to implement better practices is farmer to farmer. It is good to hear that these ideas have made it to the top leadership in NY.

David Wolfe set the stage for the rest of the day by giving a little history of the pioneering work on soils at Cornell with studies like Building Soils for Better Crops by Harold Van Es and Fred Magdoff, and Wolfe’s own Tales from the Underground: A Natural History of Subterranean Life. Wolfe was too modest to mention the fortitude it required to persist in the study of soils while surrounded by an institution that prioritized chemical agriculture and GMOs. In his quick review, he mentioned the breakthroughs in understanding soil biology, the importance of root exudates, the rhizosphere, and putting the soil biome to work. Cornell has led the way nationally in testing for soil biology, instead of just mineral content, and has on-going research on composting, manures and biochar.  I especially appreciate Wolfe’s conclusion that building carbon in the soil is natural “geo-engineering” that increases farm profits while increasing resilience in the face of climate change.

The rest of the morning was devoted to a series of “lightning” presentations – five minutes each from researchers, farmers and not-for profits.  Anu Rangarajan gave a quick summary of her work on reducing tillage with both large-scale farmers and small-scale organic vegetable growers. To encourage reduced tillage adoption, Rangarajan called for incentives for specialized equipment cooperatives and adding a priority for soil health to the NY Grown and Certified program.  Greg Peck talked about substituting mulching for herbicides in apple orchards. Johannes Lehmann shared his research on marketing dairy manure as a fertilizer and brought news of the Cornell pyrolysis facility established this year.  Matt Ryan reported that cover cropping has been adopted on 10% of NY farmland so far: farmers are starting to interseed cocktails of cover crops into corn, a practice that I learned when I started organic farming in the 1980s.  Ryan has also been perfecting kernza, the perennial wheat developed by Wes Jackson and the Land Institute. Kernza’s impressive root system dwarfs that of annual wheat.

Three farmers gave quick glimpses of the practices they are using on their farms to improve soil health.  Donn Branton, who grows 1500 acres of diverse field crops, has switched to low-till and cover cropping, constantly experimenting as soils improve and yields rise. Jean-Paul Courtens explained how a four year rotation of cover crops and vegetable crops has enabled Roxbury Farm to produce 25 % of the vegetables’ nitrogen needs from green manures. Despite the cool wet springs on the shores of Lake Ontario, dairy farmer Dave Magos of Morning Star Farm has been steadily increasing cover crops and reducing tillage.

Representatives of five not-for-profits gave lightning talks about their organizations. Rebecca Benner explained that the Nature Conservancy takes an integrated approach to understanding the relationship between water quality which has been in alarming decline across the state and the benefits of building soil carbon.  This is my 100 word summary of my five minute talk: “Soil health is a top priority of organic farmers and of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York. We have one orthodoxy – healthy soils give healthy crops and people and animals who eat these crops will be healthy. Cooperating with the 6 other NOFA chapters, NOFA-NY has engaged in a multi-year project to identify farmer best practices/innovations in carbon farming and share them through publications, workshops, conferences. NOFA Certification programs introduced 100% grass fed standards. NOFA supports simple testing for soil quality that farmers can perform themselves, and advocates for legislation to create a healthy soils program in NY.”

From American Farmland Trust, David Haight brought their striking calculation that preserving farmland makes a major contribution to reducing carbon emissions since farms emit far fewer greenhouse gases than the housing sprawl that displaces them.  AFT has a new program to train 20 soil health specialists whose job will be to support farmers and non-farming landowners in expanding soil health. David Grusenmeyer shared the good news that since they began funding research in 2006, the NY Farm Viability Institute has supported 41 projects related to soil health for a total investment of $3.66 million. Finally, Jeff Williams declared that the NY Farm Bureau is committed to lobbying for soil health programs in the state legislature.

David Montgomery, a geologist whose eyes were opened to the power of biology through his wife’s energetic soil building in their garden, gave a lively talk on soils and human history.  Referring to a United Nations study, he pointed out that over one third of the earth’s soils have been degraded by human activities and, historically, societies that degrade soil fail.  Since realizing that human activity can also restore soils much faster than it is made by nature, Montgomery has traveled around the world meeting with farmers who have discovered ways, both high tech and very simple, to build soil.  They all adhere to the principles of conservation agriculture: 1. minimize tillage; 2. maintain permanent ground cover; and 3. practice diverse rotations. These regenerative practices – reducing or eliminating tillage, diversifying crops, growing cover crops, recycling crop residues, composting, and integrating livestock with other crops – are the recipe for cultivating microbial soil life.  His conclusion – soil health and human health are one and inseparable.

Three more lightning talks brought research results on the economics of soil health on the farm scale, a survey on the benefits and constraints to soil health in NY, and the potential impact of regenerative practices on climate change. Lynn Knight, a USDA-NRCS economist, shared the results of economic case studies of soil building practices on farms.  Her partial budget of Dave Magos’ farm shows that increased yields and decreases in fertilizer and herbicide expenses more than outweighed the costs of cover crop seed on 830 acres for a net return of $62 per acre.  Cedric Mason analyzed the survey of 180 NY farms and found that overall, reduced tillage brought greater yields, though the benefits differ between field crop and vegetables farms. A significant finding is that the longer farms use these practices, the more benefits they realize on their farms from the incentives provided by federal programs in terms of improved drainage, greater resilience to drought and reduced erosion. Jenifer Wightman evaluated the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that result from soil health practices, and called for more research to better quantify the costs and benefits.

For the final hour of the summit, participants divided into small groups to brainstorm on the Soil Health Road Map. Paul Salon of the NRCS facilitated discussion at the table where I sat.  We focused on overall goals for the Road Map – identifying the barriers to farmer and landowner adoption of soil health practices, especially for dairy farms, and creating a statewide program to overcome those obstacles through research, farmer to farmer extension of regenerative practices, and incentives to adopt them. We endorsed the creation of a “NY Soil Health Act” and building a coalition based on the people who came to the summit with the political clout to get it passed, funded and implemented.

A full report including all the presentations and a video of Montgomery’s keynote will soon be available on the website:  www.newyorksoilhealth.org.