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At Philo Ridge, a Couple Invests in Vermont’s Farming Future

On a mid-August morning at Philo Ridge Farm in Charlotte, sheep were grazing the paddock near the one-acre market garden as a straggler from the cow herd moved out to fresh pasture across Mount Philo Road. A group of 15 visitors sampled farm-grown zucchini sticks and mint leaves offered by tour guides who led them past rows of leafy greens shrouded under white fabric to protect them from pests.

Among the vegetables, perennials such as elderberries, highbush cranberries and hazelbert trees (a hazelnut and filbert cross) had been planted to attract pollinators and other beneficial wildlife, as well as to provide a windbreak for the ridgetop garden, detailed Francine Stephens, Philo Ridge’s food and farm director.

All the farm’s animals, including laying chickens and meat birds, she said, are moved regularly through the fields. This method, called intensive rotational grazing, is optimal for livestock, soil health and overall ecosystem resilience.

Philo Ridge’s approach falls under the category of “regenerative agriculture,” Stephens said, offering what she called a “super-simplistic” definition: “We’re trying really hard to put more nutrients into the soil than we’re taking out.”

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Soil Organic Matter: Tips for Responsible Nitrogen Management

For soil organic matter to work the way it should, it depends on a careful balance of nutrients and minerals, including one of the most important elements — nitrogen. One of the great paradoxes of farming is that lack of nitrogen is regarded as one of the great limitations on plant growth, and yet plants are bathed in it because the atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen.

Most plants cannot use nitrogen in this form (N2) as it is regarded as inert. It has to be converted into other forms — nitrate, ammonia, ammonium and amino acids for plants to utilize it.

In conventional agriculture most of these plant-available forms of nitrogen are obtained through synthetic nitrogen fertilizers that have been produced by the Haber-Bosch process.

Many experts credit the Haber-Bosch process for producing the nitrogen needed for high-yielding agriculture. Others fur­ther state that without using this energy-intensive method to synthesize ammonia, we will not be able to feed the world. At the same time, the loss of soil fertil­ity is resulting in yield decline around the world. Farmers have to dramatically in­crease synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to maintain yields.

According to the United Nations Mil­lennium Assessment Report (MA Re­port) on the environment, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of nitrogen fertilizers used and these are causing a range of problems.

Since 1960, flows of reactive nitrogen in terrestrial ecosystems have doubled, and flows of phosphorus have tripled. More than half of all the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer … ever used on the planet has been used since 1985.

Soluble nitrogen fertilizers from con­ventional farming systems are causing the eutrophication of freshwater and coastal marine ecosystems and acidification of freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. These are regularly creating harmful algal blooms and leading to the formation of oxygen-depleted zones that kill animal and plant life. The dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and parts of the Mediterranean are caused by this and other soluble nutri­ents from farming.

Biological Systems

The process of turning nitrogen in the air into plant-available forms occurs naturally in healthy soil systems through a multitude of microorganisms. This is called biological nitrogen fixation and is done by symbiotic organisms such as Rhizobium bacteria in legumes and free-living nitrogen-fixers: azobacters, cyano­bacters/blue green algae and countless thousands of other species of free-living nitrogen-fixers.

This process is strongly associated with the amount of soil organic matter (SOM). Stable soil organic matter will have carbon-to-nitrogen ratios between 11:1 to 9:1. Soil organic matter is the greatest store of soil nitrogen and most of this nitrogen is plant available.

Minute amounts of useable nitrogen can be fixed by electrical storms and be dissolved in the following rain. This is rarely enough for crop growth and in most areas with heavy or prolonged rain, if the soil has low levels of organic matter, most of these types of N will be leached out of the soil and into our river systems.

Biological fixation is the major source of plant-available nitrogen in natural soil systems.

The issue of soil organic matter and nitrogen continues to be largely ignored by most agronomists and this dates back to the 1840s when the father of synthetic fertilizers, Justus von Liebig, dismissed the roles of humus in plant nutrition.

Professor Albrecht’s Nitrogen Theory

Von Liebig was the first scientist to show that plant growth is dependent on adequate levels of nutrients in the form of ions — cations and anions and this formed the basis of modern agronomy with water-soluble synthetic fertilizers.

Emeritus Professor of Soils at the Uni­versity of Missouri Dr. William A. Al­brecht was the first soil scientist to show the importance of having all the soil minerals in a balanced ratio along with adequate levels of organic matter

Whereas Professor von Liebig felt that organic matter was not important and all necessary plant minerals could be sup­plied by soluble chemical fertilizers, Pro­fessor Albrecht wrote extensively on the importance of organic matter in acting as the primary source for plant nitrogen and as the buffer and storehouse of all the minerals that plants needed along with the importance of the correct soil biology to do this.

Albrecht strongly supported the con­cept of the soil as living body and the fundamental importance of organic mat­ter and soil biology in this process.

In the 1930s he wrote:

Decomposition by microorgan­isms within the soil is the reverse of the process represented by plant growth above the soil. Growing plants, using the energy of the sun, synthesize carbon, nitrogen, and all other elements into complex compounds. The energy stored up in these compounds is then used more or less completely by the mi­croorganisms whose activity within the soil makes nutrients available for a new generation of plants. Or­ganic matter thus supplies the “life of the soil” in the strictest sense. When measured in terms of carbon dioxide output, the soil is a live, ac­tive body. (Albrecht 1938)

Albrecht had science degrees in biol­ogy, agricultural science and botany. His life-long study was devoted to the roles of soil nutrients, soil organic matter and microbiology in producing high-yielding healthy crops. He was one of the first multidisciplinary scientists who took a whole systems approach to agriculture rather than a reductionist approach in the laboratory.

Albrecht also firmly established the link between plant health, particularly the role of soil mineral deficiencies, and the health of the animals and ultimately the humans who fed on the plants and ani­mals. He showed the direct link between poor-quality forage crops and the health of the stock that fed on it. For Albrecht soil health was the fundamental basis of crop health, good yields and animal and human health.

This clearly fits within the organic paradigm of building a healthy soil to grow a healthy plant, rather than the conventional farming paradigm of just adding the soluble nutrients for the plant to take up from the soil solution.

The two critical issues that Albrecht wrote about was to have soils that have adequate amounts of all the minerals that plants need and that these should be in the correct balance or ratios to achieve the highest yields.

While Albrecht wrote about calcium being the most important cation, his pa­pers on organic matter clearly state that nitrogen in the form of nitrate (an anion) is the nutrient that plants needed in the largest quantities, and insufficient nitro­gen was the one of the major limitations in yield.

In addition to carrying nitrogen, the nutrient demanded in largest amount by plants, soil organic mat­ter either supplies a major portion of the mineral elements from its own composition, or it functions to move them out of their insoluble, useless forms in the rock minerals into active forms within the col­loidal clay. Organic matter itself is predominantly of a colloidal form resembling that of clay, which is the main chemically active fraction of the soil. But it is about five times as effective as the clay in nutrient exchanges. Nitrogen, as the largest single item in plant growth, has been found to control crop-pro­duction levels, so that in the Corn Belt crop yields roughly parallel the content of organic matter in the soil. (Albrecht 1938)

Albrecht did his doctorate on soil ni­trogen and legumes and was an expert on the subject. In Albrecht’s writing the nitrate form of nitrogen is the most im­portant of all nutrients for plant growth.

Decades of research shows that nitrate anions, along with other anions, do not have many spaces in the soil where they can adsorb (stick) to be stored for later use by plants. Most of the electrostatic charges on the clay colloids are negatively charged. This means that that they will at­tract and store cations, however they will repel the negatively charged anions. This is one of the reasons why anions like ni­trate, sulfur and boron are readily leached from the soils with low levels of organic matter. The humus in organic matter has charged sites that will attract and store anions like nitrate. The majority of the nitrogen in the soil is stored on humus.

Albrecht’s research showed that soil organic matter is the most important source of nitrogen for plants. He wrote:

Soil organic matter is the source of nitrogen. In the later stages of decay of most kinds of organic mat­ter, nitrogen is liberated as ammonia and subsequently converted into the soluble or nitrate form. The level of crop production is often dependent on the capacity of the soil to pro­duce and accumulate this form of readily usable nitrogen. We can thus measure the activity that goes on in changing organic matter by mea­suring the nitrates. It is extremely desirable that this change be active and that high levels of nitrate be pro­vided in the soil during the growing season. (Albrecht 1938)

Albrecht was the first soil scientist to write widely on the relationship between nitrogen and soil organic matter and showing that the correct way to maintain sustainable fertility was to have farm­ing systems that recycled enough organic matter to have the quantities of nitrogen that are needed by the crop.

The other very important role for or­ganic matter that Albrecht wrote about was its buffering role. While Albrecht wrote widely about the need for the cor­rect percentages and ratio of available cations in soils, he also showed that ad­equate levels of organic matter would act as a buffer where the ratios were not exact and ensure that plants would receive the correct amounts of nutrients. The key was that there were no deficiencies and that there were adequate levels of all the nutrients that plants needed.

Equally important Albrecht showed that adequate levels of nitrogen, calci­um and other minerals were essential to building soil organic matter.

Bacterial activity does not oc­cur in the absence of the mineral elements, such as calcium, magne­sium, potassium, phosphorus, and others. These, as well as the nitro­gen, are important: Recent studies show that the rate of decomposi­tion is reduced when the soil is de­ficient in these elements. In virgin soils high in organic matter, these elements also are at a high level, and are reduced in available forms as the organic matter is exhausted. A decline in one is accompanied by a decline in the other.

It has recently been discovered that the fixation of nitrogen from the atmosphere by legumes is more effective where high levels of calcium are present in available form … Thus, if in calcium-laden soils, excellent legume growth results and correspondingly large nitrogen additions are made, such soils may be expected to contain much organic matter. Liberal calcium supplies and liberal stocks of organic matter are inseparable. The restoration of the exhausted lime supply exerts an influence on building up the supply of organic matter in ways other than those commonly attributed to liming.

In the presence of lime (calcium) the legumes use other el­ements more effectively, such as phosphorus … and probably other nutrients. Thus heavier production results on soils rich in minerals, including more intensive and ex­tensive root development; the most effective means of introducing organic matter into the soil. The presence of large supplies of both organic matter and minerals points clearly to the fact that the soils were high in the latter when the former was produced. (Albrecht 1938)

Biology Fixes Nitrogen into the Soil

The most well-known form of biologi­cal fixation of N for plants is the Rhizo­bium bacteria that forms nodules in the roots of legumes and live symbiotically with them. The Rhizobium transform the N2 in the soil air into forms that plants can use. The legumes in exchange give the Rhizobium a home and glucose.

Researchers are continuing to find that there are an enormous number and types of symbiotic and free-living microorganism species that fix nitro­gen. Unfortunately most agronomy texts will only mention Rhizobium bacteria that live in symbiosis in the nodules of legumes. A few more will mention the free-living nitrogen-fixing organisms such as Azotobacter, Cyanobacteria, Ni­trosomas and Nitrobacter.

Many of these species live in the rhi­zosphere (the zone around plant roots) and help plants take up nitrogen from the soil. Very importantly they are finding that there are multiple species that work in symbiosis to achieve this.

Researchers are also finding new ni­trogen fixing species in the rhizospheres associated with most species including hostile environments like mangroves growing in seawater. Scientists from the Department of Microbiology, The Center for Biological Research in Mexico stated:

These findings indicate that (i) other species of rhizosphere bacte­ria, apart from the common diazo­trophic species, should be evalu­ated for their contribution to the nitrogen-fixation process in man­grove communities; and (ii) the nitrogen-fixing activity detected in the rhizosphere of mangrove plants is probably not the result of indi­vidual nitrogen-fixing strains, but the sum of interactions between members of the rhizosphere com­munity. (Holguin et al 1992)

The critical issue is that the majority of these species are associated with the or­ganic matter cycles of soils. Continuously building and maintaining soil organic matter is the key.

Amino Acids and Soil Nitrogen

A high percentage of the nitrogen in soil organic matter is in amino acid form. Amino acids are some of the most important building blocks of life because they are the basis of DNA, RNA, proteins, hormones and many of vital functions.

Plants generally synthesize the amino acids that they need by combining the nitrate form of nitrogen with the glucose sugar that they form through photosyn­thesis. This is why nitrate is so important.

Until recently scientists believed that plants rarely took up organic nitrogen in the form of amino acids. It was assumed these molecules were too big for roots to absorb. They believed that most of the amino acid nitrogen in the soil was not useful for plants unless it was trans­formed into nitrate.

An extensive body of published sci­ence is showing that amino acids are one of the most important forms of nitrogen, especially in natural systems such as for­ests where in some cases they can be the dominant form of nitrogen.

Scientists are challenging the tra­ditional view on organic nitrogen. Re­searchers from Griffith University in Aus­tralia wrote:

In recent years, there is increas­ing evidence that some plants are able to directly utilize and generally prefer amino acids over inorganic N (e.g. Schimel & Chapin 1996, Lipson & Monson 1998, Näsholm et al. 1998, Henry & Jefferies 2003, Weigelt et al. 2005). This challenges the traditional views of the ter­restrial N cycle that plants are not able to access the organic N directly without depending on microbial mineralization to produce inorgan­ic N and that plants cannot com­pete efficiently with soil microbes for uptake of nutrients from the soil. (Xu 2006)

Researchers are finding an increasing number of crops that readily take up large amounts of amino acids from the soil organic matter.

This emerging body of research is very important as it shows:

  • That the large pool of organic nitro­gen associated with organic matter is readily available to the crop.
  • That these forms of organic nitro­gen are very stable in the soil if or­ganic matter levels are maintained or increased.
  • And most importantly that the crop can access this organic nitrogen at the critical growth or seed produc­tion periods when they need large amounts of nitrogen.

Understanding the Ratios

It is important to get an understanding of the potential for how much nitrogen can be stored in the soil organic matter for the crop to use. Soil organic matter contains nitrogen expressed in a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. This is usually between 11:1 to 9:1, however there can be further variations. The only way to firmly estab­lish the ratio for any soil is to do a soil test and measure the amounts.

For the sake of explaining the amount of organic nitrogen in the soil we will use a ratio of 10:1 to make the calculations easier.

The amount of carbon in soil organic matter is expressed as soil organic carbon (SOC) and is usually measured as the number of grams of carbon per kilogram of soil. Most texts will express this as a percentage of the soil to a certain depth.

There is an accepted approximation ratio for the amount of soil organic car­bon in soil organic matter. This is SOC × 1.72 = SOM.

The issue of working out the amount of SOC as a percentage of the soil by weight is quite complex as the specific density of the soil has to be factored in. This is because some types of soils are denser and therefore heavier than other soils. This will change the weight of car­bon as a percentage of the soil.

However for the sake of this article we will avoid the complex mathematics and to make these concepts readily under­standable we will use an average estima­tion developed by Dr. Christine Jones, one of Australia’s leading soil scientists and soil carbon specialists.

According to Dr Jones:

… a 1% increase in organic car­bon in the top 20 cm [8 inches] of soil represents a 24 t/ha [24,000 kilograms] increase in soil OC…

Note that kilograms per hectare (kg/ha) is almost identical to pounds per acre. They are close enough so that people not familiar with the metric system can use the U.S. system and it is much the same.

This means that a soil with 1% SOC would contain 24,000 kilograms of car­bon per hectare. With a 10 to 1 carbon to nitrogen ratio this soil would contain 2,400 kilograms of organic nitrogen per hectare in the top 20 cm — which is around 2,400 pounds of organic nitrogen per acre in the top 8 inches of the soil.

Good management of soil organic matter means that the soil around the root layer of the crop will contain amounts of organic nitrogen. It con­tains tons and tons of nitrogen rather than the hundreds of pounds or kilo­grams that are recommended to be add­ed in most agronomy texts. This shows that there is no need for farmers to pay the huge cost to purchase the synthetic nitrogen produced by the Haber-Bosch process. Good farm management will mean that the farms can get considerably more crop-available nitrogen for free.

Building Up Total Soil Nitrogen

The key to increasing soil nitrogen is to increase soil carbon by increasing the SOM levels.

A typical soil is supposed to be 25 percent air, 25 percent water, 45 percent mineral and 5 percent soil organic matter.

The primary reason for good soil aeration is to get oxygen into the roots. Most plants acquire oxygen directly through their roots. What most experts forget is that air is 78 percent nitrogen in the form of the inert N2.

Biologically active soils continuously fix the N2 in the soil air into plant avail­able forms as well as build the total stores of organic N, provided that the systems are continuously fed with organic matter.

The key is the continuous supply of organic matter. How do you get it on to the farm? You grow it. Farm management should be about producing as much bio­mass as possible and avoiding bare earth.

Legumes should be incorporated as much as possible in all rotation systems in cropping and should be a permanent component in all perennial systems such as pastures and orchards.

The aim of the management systems should be to let cover crops get as tall as possible and as mature as possible. This not only produces more biomass on the surface, it ensures that the roots get deep into the soil depositing organic matter as they grow down.

The Importance of Mineral Balance

The efficient production and use of N requires the correct mineral balance. Some of the key nutrients to achieve this are calcium, phosphorus, sulfur, sele­nium, molybdenum and cobalt.

Molybdenum is essential for plants to turn the nitrate and glucose in the leaves into the amino acids — the basis of the proteins, hormones, DNA and other criti­cal components of life. It works as a cata­lyst and without it the plant can’t grow and reproduce (flower, fruit and seed).

Sulfur is critical as it is needed to form the key sulfur-based amino acids such as methionine and cysteine.

Selenium is also critical to forming the sulfur-based amino acids. An emerging body of research shows higher levels of these essential amino acids when soils have good levels of selenium.

Cobalt is needed to help the nitrogen-fixing micro-organisms make vitamin B12. Without it they cannot survive. Low levels of cobalt will significantly reduce the numbers of these organisms.

Calcium is critical to good legume growth and to healthy systems of soil microorganisms.

Phosphorus is very important as it is needed to power the activity of most cells — this includes the cells of the legumes, the cells of the Rhizobium bacteria that live in the root nodules of legumes and fix nitrogen as well the cells of the free-living nitrogen-fixing microorganisms.

Just adding organic matter may not al­ways be sufficient to achieve good results if it does not contain enough nutrients to correct deficiencies. Soil mineral balance is critical to optimizing the fixation of N in the soil and the use of that by the cash and cover crops.

Albrecht wrote about this in the 1930s: It seems logical to ascribe caus­al significance to the minerals in the production of organic matter, whether or not they are effective in preserving it. If the soils that have lost their organic matter are to be restored, the loss of minerals, which has probably been fully as great, must be taken into account, and provision must be made to restore these mineral deficiencies before attempting to grow crops for the sake of adding organic matter. (Albrecht 1938)

Andre Léu first published this in the August 2012 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine. Leu is the author of The Myths of Safe Pesticides.

Reposted with permission from EcoFarming Daily.

Waste Not, Want Not

How farmers are cutting down on chemicals with a natural solution to soil degradation

Published: August 2, 2018

At age 56, Vietnamese farmer Luan is still actively working the land. She is also still learning new things and open to fresh ideas. In 2015, she agreed to turn part of her smallholding into a demonstration site as part of Biochar for Sustainable Soils – a three-year research and knowledge dissemination project backed by UN Environment and the Global Environment Facility and coordinated by Starfish Initiatives.

With assistance from researchers at Thai Nguyen University of Sciences, Luan learned to produce biochar, an organic soil enhancer, in her home and apply it to her crops. She is one of 100 farmers in Vietnam’s Bac Kan province to be trained in its use as a natural alternative to chemical fertilizers.

Biochar is made from heating organic or agricultural ‘waste’, such as rice husks or straw, without the presence of oxygen. This produces a charcoal-like substance which is not only rich in carbon, but is highly porous, helping the soil to retain nutrients and water.

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UN Food Agency Says Improving World’s Soils Essential to Achieve SDGs

“Soil degradation affects food production, causing hunger and malnutrition, amplifying food-price volatility, forcing land abandonment and involuntary migration-leading millions into poverty”

Published: August 13, 2018

Improving the health of the world’s soils is essential to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, including Zero Hunger and combating climate change and its impacts, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, today told participants of the World Congress of Soil Science.

In a video message to the event, which is being attended by more than 2,000 scientists from around the world, Graziano da Silva noted that approximately one-third of the Earth’s soil is degraded.

“Soil degradation affects food production, causing hunger and malnutrition, amplifying food-price volatility, forcing land abandonment and involuntary migration-leading millions into poverty,” he said.

The FAO and the Status of the World’s Soil Resources report have identified 10 major threats to soil functions including soil erosion, soil nutrient imbalance, soil carbon and biodiversity losses, soil acidification, contamination, soil salinization, and soil compaction.

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Our Turn at This Earth: Could Regenerative Agriculture Save the Ogallala Aquifer?

Author: Julene Bair | Published: August 2, 2018

That’s the question I first asked myself some months ago when I began learning about the Soil Health movement. I’d seen a video of Ray Archuleta, the agronomist who spearheaded the movement, demonstrating how non-tilled versus conventionally farmed soils absorb water. When he placed a clump of soil from a field that had been tilled year after year into a jar of water, it immediately fell apart and turned the water brown, while a clump from a field farmed without tillage held together for over 24 hours. In another test, simulated rain just sat on top of the soil from the tilled field, while it thoroughly saturated the non-tilled soil. Ray attributed these differences to there being more pore spaces in the non-tilled sample.

Excited by the implications for water conservation, I paid a visit to the well-known North Dakota soil health advocate Gabe Brown, who showed me how that porosity occurs. In a field where he’d harvested corn the previous fall, then planted a cover crop of rye and hairy vetch, he pulled a vetch plant from the ground and pointed to chunks of soil that clung to its roots. Plant roots, he explained, secrete what he called exudates, which serve as food for microbes and other soil life, including fungi. The fungi return the favor by exuding glomalin, a sort of biological glue that allows soil to stick together. The resulting chunks of soil, known as aggregates, create the pore spaces that allow water to infiltrate and be retained.

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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.” (http://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.

33 Ways the Regenerative Agriculture Movement Is Growing

Authors: Austin Badger, Taylor Herren and Betsy Taylor | Published: July 2018

Policy:

1) Australia’s Coalition Government is investing $450 million in a Regional Land
Partnership program and $134 million in Smart Farms program to improve soil health

2) The Government of Andhra Pradesh has launched a scale-out plan to transition 6
million farms/farmers to 100% chemical-free agriculture by 2024. The programme is a
contribution towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals, focusing on ‘No Poverty’,
‘Clean Water and Sanitation’, ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’, and ‘Life on
Land’. It is led by Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS) – a not-for-profit established by the
Government to implement the ZBNF programme – and supported by the Sustainable
India Finance Facility (SIFF) – an innovative partnership between UN Environment,
BNP Paribas, and the World Agroforestry Centre.

3) The U.S. Climate Alliance in partnership with the Working Lands Initiative convened a
consortium of large land conservation, forestry, and agricultural organizations at a
“Learning Lab” in July. Over 50 technical experts across industry, academia, and
government worked together to draft guiding principles that state governments can use
to develop strategies, policies, and funding initiatives to draw down carbon from the
atmosphere and sequester it in the soils across farms, rangelands, forests, and
wetlands. Read More

4) A new bill will be brought before the UK parliament this year mandating, for the first
time, measures and targets to preserve and improve the health of the UK’s soils.

5) The Ministry of Primary Industries in New Zealand is ramping up its work to promote
healthy soils. See here

6) Zimbabwe has passed 3 recent policies related to climate and agriculture, focused
particularly on coping with less rainfall in the region.

7) Luca Montanarella with the European Commission shared this new organic production
and labelling of organic products regulation in the EU: The Regulation (EU) 2018/848 of
the European Parliament was passed on May 30, 2018

8) Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet recently introduced the Conservation for Very
Erodible Row Cropland Act of 2018 (COVER Act) to promote soil health practices in
conservation programs. The bill would incentivize and develop farm practices that
improve soil health, enhance farm resilience, and increase carbon storage, while
boosting farm incomes.

Practice:

9) Bringing Farmers Back to Nature: 70 countries gathered in Rome recently to discuss
how agroecology can create a healthy more sustainable food system. Countries around
the globe are already investing millions to make this change happen.

10) Soil Health Institute released a catalog of policies and a catalog on education that
advance soil health as part of a $9.4 million grant from the FFAR.

11) Silvopasture is gaining a lot of attention as a powerful way to integrate trees, agriculture and soil carbon sequestration. Chelsea Green Publishing just released a new book: A Guide to Managing Grazing Animals, Forage Crops, and Trees in a Temperate Farm Ecosystem.

12) There are many farming networks in the US and globally. Farmer peer to peer learning and field schools are often at the heart of changing practices. The Land Stewardship Project is working in conservative areas to support farmer networks and the Soil Builders program.

13) Holistic Management International provides training programs and support to farmers and ranchers working to build healthy soils. Check out their events and training
programs.

14) Danone is promoting regenerative agriculture through incentives and investment in
farmers. Learn more here.

Science:

15) One of the principles supporting healthy soils and SOC storage is diversification of our agricultural systems. A recent paper looked at plant diversity on the land. Ecosystem
management that maintains high levels of plant diversity can enhance SOC storage and
other ecosystem services that depend on plant diversity.

16) This is a grass-fed beef study that demonstrates soil carbon sequestration from grazing that completely offsets the greenhouse gas cost of beef (in the finishing stage).
Adaptive multi-paddock grazing can sequester large amounts of soil C.

17) A study has found that increased drought and wildfire risk make grasslands and
rangelands a more reliable carbon sink than trees in 21st century California. As such,
the study indicates they should be given opportunities in the state’s cap-and-and trade
market, which is designed to reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions to 40
percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

18) Rice is cultivated as a major crop in most Asian countries and its production is expected to increase to meet the demands of a growing population. This study looked at rice production and how to both reduce emissions and capture carbon in Bangladesh rice
paddies. It concluded that under integrated management, it is possible to increase
SOC stocks on average by 1.7% per year in rice paddies in Bangladesh, which is nearly
4 times the rate of change targeted by the “4 per mille” initiative arising from the Paris
Climate Agreement.

19) Klaus Lorenz and Rattan Lal of Ohio State have published a book on soil carbon
sequestration and agricultural systems. They attended the Paris carbon sequestration
conference in May 2017. “Carbon sequestration in Agricultural Ecosystems”

20) Whendee Silver of University California Berkeley wrote an interesting blog about
whether soil carbon sequestration can help cool the planet. This was written for a
general rather than scientific audience Can Soil Carbon Sequestration Affect Global
Temperatures?

21) The arid west of the United States is changing due to climate change. The Agricultural
Climate Network helps monitor and conduct research to share findings on how to help
farmers adapt.

Adaptation and Agriculture:

22) The Institute for Trade & Agriculture Policy released a new report about state policies
and plans in the United States to make agriculture more resilient in the face of climate
impacts.

Funding:

23) The Soil Carbon Coalition has a new prize for carbon farmers. The Soil Carbon
Challenge is an international (and localized) prize competition to see how fast land
managers can turn atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter. This coalition seeks to
“to advance the practice, and spread awareness of the opportunity, of turning
atmospheric carbon into living landscapes and soil carbon.”

Media Coverage​:

24) This article by Marcia Delonge of the Union of Concerned Scientists speaks to the link between regenerative agriculture and farm resilience.

25) Politico says regenerative agriculture is the next big thing.

Workshops and Conferences:

26) No Till on the Plains is attracting a huge audience to its summer and winter
conferences. Their next gathering to celebrate and learn about farm management
practices to build healthy soils will be in January.

27) Regeneration Midwest held a lively conference in Chicago to begin forming a 12 state
coalition promoting regenerative agriculture.

28) The FAO recently held workshops in Latin America with a focus on development and
strengthening of soil statistics and indicators for decision making and planning.

29) Healthy Soils Institute is holding a national conference on soils in November, 2018

30) Roots of Resilience will hold a grazing conference in March, 2019

31) The 5th Annual Conference on Plant and Soil Science will be held in London in
February, 2019.

Internships:

32) The RockGroup is offering 12 internships for students interested in regenerative
agriculture.

33) The Regeneration Academy offers internships in regenerative agriculture on a farm in Spain.

6 Ways We’re Letting Our Soil Die – and How We Can Save It

Author: Malcolm Smith | Published: July 18, 2018

Unless you’re an avid gardener, you probably don’t give much thought to soil. It’s that dark muddy stuff that dirties your shoes. But farmers are utterly reliant on it to grow most of our food crops and to raise livestock  on pasture it nurtures.

So we are all reliant on soil for our breakfast cereals, our milk, our beef…and much more. Are farmers treating soil with the respect it deserves, though? Here are six soil concerns – and some solutions.

Less matter

Organic matter is the lifeblood of a healthy soil. But a government survey this year found that just a third of farmers keep track of it.

Organic matter gets into soil through the decomposition of plants on the soil surface (the stems and leaves after a crop has been harvested), from living and dead soil organisms, or by adding compost or manure.

KEEP READING ON INEWS

To Feed the World Sustainably, Repair the Soil

A reconceived farming system can rapidly improve fertility without chemical fertilizers, and without sacrificing crop yields

Author: David R. Montgomery | Published: July 16, 2018

New technologies and genetically modified crops are usually invoked as the key to feeding the world’s growing population. But a widely overlooked opportunity lies in reversing the soil degradation that has already taken something like a third of global farmland out of production. Simple changes in conventional farming practices offer opportunities to advance humanity’s most neglected natural infrastructure project—returning health to the soil that grows our food.

It is critical we do so. In 2015, a U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization report concluded that ongoing soil degradation reduces global harvests by a third of a percent each year under conventional farming practices. In some parts of the U.S. I’ve visited, the rich black topsoil that settlers once plowed is gone, eroded away leaving farmers tilling anemic subsoil.

And while mechanization, agrochemicals, and the Green Revolution transformed agriculture and boosted crop yields in the 20th century, they also delivered another unexpected downside. The combination of highly disruptive mechanized tillage and heavy fertilizer use took a toll on soil organic matter and beneficial soil life even as it masked the effects of degraded fertility by pumping up crop yields. So far, America’s farms have lost about half their soil organic matter since colonial days.

KEEP READING ON SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

‘Soil My Undies’ Challenge Has Farmers Burying Underwear In Their Fields

Across North America, farmers are burying tighty-whities in their fields.

Author: Dan Nosowitz | Published: July 9, 2018

Started by the Farmers Guild in California, the Soil Your Undies Challenge is a test designed to show the power and importance of healthy soil.

The Challenge is easy: Simply bury a pair of 100 percent cotton underwear—generally white briefs have been the garment of choice—in your farm, garden, or pasture. Two months later, dig them up and inspect and document the changes.

Healthy soil contains all sorts of bacteria, earthworms, fungi, and other little organisms that like to eat organic matter, like, just for example, cotton underwear. In two months, underwear buried in healthy soil will be completely eaten through, leaving little but an elastic waistband.

KEEP READING ON MODERN FARMER