Category: soil health


With 100 acres in production and 200 acres in cover crops, Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury, Vermont invests almost more time in managing their cover crops aka “green manures” than they do their marketable crops.  But climate smart farming means caring for soils, keeping carbon in the soil (not the air) where organic matter is a key factor in the production of quality crops.

As farm manager Isaac explains, “This takes a ton of time – we spend a lot of time dealing with our cover crops. You sort of think you plant it and away you go and you come back two years later. Planting soil into sod and getting the sod to die off before you go back into production is really difficult; it’s machinery intensive. So we’ve been doing multiple cover crops on different fields over two seasons. This is our third planting of oats on this field this year so we took straw off of these fields twice and that’s for mulching.”  Isaac uses about 300 lbs of seeds per acre to get the density of oats he wants for green manures.

As soil guru Fred Magdoff confirms in his book Building Soils for Better Crops, “It’s not easy .. Improving organic matter content requires a sustained effort that includes a number of approaches to return organic materials to soils and minimize soil organic matter losses…  All practices that help to build organic matter do at least one of two things – add more organic materials than was done in the past or decrease the rate of organic matter loss from soils.”   Knowing your soil types and rates of aeration and importantly, your starting point for percentage of organic matter will let you know whether your farm is on the trajectory for climate smart farming.

 

 

“Paying attention to the nuances of the land, I’ve learned to grow really high quality forages, protein, and energy.”  Jack and Anne Lazor, Butterworks Farm, raise their herd of Jersey cows on pasture and high-quality forages in Westfield Vermont and produce a certified organic yoghurt.

For most Vermont farmers, the variable weather of summers from the extreme dry summer of 2016 to the wet cool summer of 2017 has proved challenging.   To meet these challenges, Jack considers increasing the organic matter content of agricultural soils as an important strategy to address many of the impacts of climate change.  The farm has doubled the organic matter content of the soils over the past 40 years. This has significant benefits for water infiltration during times of extreme precipitation, while maintaining soil moisture during dry periods.  The organic matter also improves plant growth, regulates soil temperature fluctuations, and helps resist the erosive forces of rain and flooding.  “It’s all about soil building. I want to see what I can do to increase the OM of the floodplain lands and stay off the tractor when the soil is wet.”

During years of drought, Butterworks Farm has been short on feed for their herd of Jersey cows. They have relied upon increasing their land base to provide more summer forage and more hay in the winter.  Jack noted that maintaining good grazing practices during drought was crucial to the health of the entire agroecosystem.

Specifically, his rule is grazing down to only 3-4 inch height, instead of down to the ground or only 1 inch. He said, “If you want them to regrow quickly, don’t brutalize them.” That requires more land base, which not all farmers have.

Overall, Jack is transitioning is farm land to predominantly perennial forages. “Forage consumption has increased at least 40% for our transition to grassfed, which goes along with transitioning more land out of grain into permanent forage.”

“It’s all about soil building. I want to see what I can do to increase the OM of the floodplain lands and stay off the tractor when the soil is wet.” – Jack Lazor

Business Management Decisions 

Management decisions are informed by weighing a complex set of goals, challenges, constraints and opportunities. Butterworks Farm is transitioning away from grains because there are so many challenges, some of them directly or indirectly climate related. Jack says, “Though I love it, its not financially viable.” The farm is striving the make a transition into the hands of the next generation while reasserting a strong presence in the organic dairy market, though these trends are informed by, but not driven by climate change projections.

Constraints and Challenges

Jack recounted the history of the economic successes and trials of his business over the last 40 years, explaining that when the yogurt business took off and the business was flush with cash, they were able to not only purchase extra equipment and amendments, but also invest in the ecological sustainability and climate resilience of the farm. In this way, Jack linked the farm’s capacity to invest in new adaptive management strategies directly to the financial stability of the farm and market opportunities. Since 2008, the farm has experienced a decline in skim milk yogurt sales, which has dominated much of the farm’s strategic decision-making.

Making the investment into good soil and committing to regenerative agriculture takes a leap of faith, time and money, and Jack sees that some farmers are afraid of that. In Jack’s experience on the land, he sees the return on his investments into the minerals, soil amendments, cover crops and equipment show up in the health of the soil and the plants, and then in the health of his cows and quality of milk and cream.

Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Strategies and Potential

“My main takeaway from being on the land for 40 years is you think you’re being kind to the earth, but there’s always more you can do. Everyone needs to educate themselves and make changes.” – Jack Lazor

Jack emphasized the importance of developing a carbon consciousness. Agriculture has a lot of potential to offset the greenhouse gas emissions in multiple ways. We know that some carbon is captured by perennial, reduced tillage and other systems that increase organic matter, but exactly how much is captured is difficult to measure. Further research is needed on the carbon sequestration potential of grazing systems, and innovative manure and tillage methods. We should be proactive about this, even if the exact amounts of carbon sequestration or reduction in greenhouse gas emissions are unknown- every bit counts!

Contributing author: Alissa White, Research Specialist, Agroecology Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), visited Butterworks Farm in April 2017.  Suzy Hodgson, UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture, visited in June 2017.

Butterworks Farm is one of Vermont’s oldest certified organic dairy farms, and has a strong reputation for growing some of the finest organic grains in the state. The farm building complex and surrounding fields are situated on gently sloping fields near the border of Canada. A herd of Jersey cows produces milk which is processed on site into yogurt, kefir and rich Jersey cream for direct and wholesale markets.

Jersey cows, Butterworks Farm, photo credit: Suzy Hodgson, UVM Extension

Butterworks Farm leases and owns additional parcels in the surrounding area, including some floodplain fields. The farm has grown a diversity of whole and milled grains for regional markets, and animal feed and is currently transitioning to a 100% grassfed operation with a bedded pack system. Alissa White visited Butterworks in early April 2017 to talk to Jack Lazor about how he manages his production with the impacts of climate change in mind.

Climate Vulnerabilities

Regional climate change projections predict agriculture in the northeastern US will experience a variety of direct weather impacts, and indirect impacts as a result of climate change. For Butterworks Farm in northern Vermont, the site-specific vulnerabilities of climate change encompass potentially both direct and indirect climate change impacts.

Butterworks Farm. Photo credit: S. Hodgson, UVM Extension

Direct Climate Change Impacts

  • Warmer temperatures overall,
  • Longer warmer growing seasons,
  • Precipitation increases,
  • Extreme precipitation events,
  • Increased flood damage and erosion,
  • Severe wind and storm hazards,
  • Elevated atmospheric CO2,
  • Increased potential for drought.

Indirect climate change impacts lead to increases in:

  • Weed competition and invasive species,
  • Populations of damaging insects,
  • Incidence of plant pathogens,
  • Livestock heat stress, and
  • Pressure from pathogens and parasites of livestock.

Adapted from Janowiak et al 2016 and Tobin et al 2015

Management goals

Jack and his family balance many goals and challenges when making decisions about managing their farm. Climate concerns fall into both short and long-term decision making at Butterworks, but at the forefront of farm decision making for their family at this time are long-term financial solvency and near-term intergenerational transfer of ownership. Climate change considerations are important, but auxillary to day-to-day management and long-term planning.

How do we manage climate change and weather-related risks at the field scale?

Jack implements a number of practices on the field, specifically, managing for flooding and controlling soil erosion.  He has transitioned land which is particularly prone to flooding from grain production into permanent forage. “We’ve been farming this floodplain property for 20 years…Increased incidence of high water… could come any month of the year now… Then we only loose one cut out of three if there’s high water.” In previous years, the farm has used underseeding cover crops to limit erosion from high intensity rain events.

“We’ve been farming this floodplain property for 20 years… high water… could come any month of the year now…”

Jack Lazar, Butterworks Farm. Photo credit: Suzy Hodgson, UVM Extension

Jack attributes many benefits to crop rotations, including some that are directly associated with climate risks. His goal is to do less with tillage in all fields because he sees evidence of better soil quality and healthier plants without tillage.  By minimizing tillage and keeping roots in the ground, he maintains soil health with organic matter of 8-9%.

At the field scale, Jack is focused on increasing soil health to buffer the impacts of drought, flooding and extreme precipitation. Cover crops are planted to help hold soil from erosive forces, and land which is particularly flood prone is being transitioned into perennial forages to protect soil.

Building soil biological health and organic matter levels has multiple benefits for the farm.  Jack sees the soil health reflected in the plant growth, and in turn the health of his farm’s Jersey cows.  Increased organic matter limits the damage of extreme precipitation and holds moisture in times of drought.  In response to 2016 summer drought, Jack relied upon increasing his land base for forages and maintaining good rotational grazing practices.  In contrast, grain production has been challenging financially as it’s prone to disease during wet summers and storm events. Overall, the farm’s trajectory is towards perennial forages and away from grain production.

Contributing Author: Alissa White, Research Specialist, Agroecology Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC)
Department of Plant and Soil Science, University of Vermont

More than just dirt, our soils are alive. Healthy soil ecosystems, like ones found in nature, are dynamic and complex. Plants, microbes and fungi work together to cycle nutrients, filter water, and regulate the climate. When treated correctly and allowed to function properly, soils can do wonders for the productivity of a farm and the quality of food it produces, and Vermont farmers are starting to take notice.

Cover crops show healthy soil where soil and roots are one system

Cover crops show healthy soil where soil and roots are one system.

At the 5th annual Vermont Farm to Plate Gathering, farmers, community members and scientists came together to discuss the inseparable link between healthy soils, clean water, and good food. Success stories of higher yields from no-till fields and saving money from using less pesticides and herbicides were shared, showing that paying attention to soil health pays off. Though some soil conservation practices may go against conventional techniques, one thing is clear: the healthiest and most successful farms are taking care of their soils by farming like nature.


Plant and soil are one and need each other to function properly.


Nature’s time-tested processes have allowed organisms to survive on this planet for billions of years. It’s time for us to use these processes to our advantage, an idea known  “biomimicry”. In the natural world, forests and prairies flourish without pesticides or plows. Trees and plants remain year-round, their leaves nourish the soil in the fall and their roots hold water and soil in place when it rains. Come springtime, these ecosystems are teeming with growth and life. Nature knows how to farm.

Key-note speaker Ray “The Soils Guy” Archuleta spoke passionately and urgently about farming like nature. (Hear Ray on Across the Fence.) According to Ray, “healthy soil is covered all year round,” just like in nature. Cover crops are the most essential component of restoring and maintaining soil health. Plant and soil are one and need each other to function properly. Plants keep the soil cool and moist, and retain soil structure with their roots. Plants take energy from the sun and feed the microbes, which in exchange pull more nutrients from the soil to the plant.  Allowing these natural processes to occur significantly decreases the need to purchase and apply additional chemicals and fertilizers that may runoff and damage local waterways during heavy precipitation events.


Healthy soil is covered all year round – just like in nature.


When soil is kept in place and macropores are allowed to form, water quality impacts from agricultural runoff and sedimentation are greatly reduced. Soils also play a large role in regulating carbon. Tilling breaks apart the link between plant and soil, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and depriving microorganisms of their food. Soils become starved, and fail to function properly. But when covered with detritus and plants, soils sequester that carbon and use it for growth instead.

When Ray Archuleta visits a farm, the first thing he looks for is how the soil in the field compares to soil in the forest. If the soils are healthy, a shovel-full from each should look the same, with a layer of detritus, or organic matter, on top, and soil aggregates clinging to the roots of plants on the bottom.

Is your soil bare or covered? Learn more about the secrets in the soil by watching the videos on Ray’s Soil Health Page.

Contributor: Michelle Graziosi, the ECO AmeriCorps Water Quality Research Technician at UVM Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, attended her first Vermont Farm to Plate gathering.   Michelle graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May with a B.S. in Environmental Sciences.

Many thanks to Catherine Lowther of Goddard College for this contribution and guest post:

Nate and Jessie Rogers grow grains and keep a small herd of Jersey cows at their farm on the Dog River in Berlin, Vermont. They grow, harvest, and mill their own grain, and they sell their whole wheat flour, rolled oats, and milk on Saturdays at the Montpelier Farmers’ Market and at their farm stand.

Working with the river…

The main climate change issue the Rogers have experienced is river flooding caused by heavy rains. They bought their farm four years ago after the property was flooded during Tropical Storm Irene. The farm has one mile of river frontage and the fields were completely flooded, the house was damaged, and the previous owners had to go out of business.  A foot of sand had to be removed to restore the fields and a two-acre chunk of land washed away.  When Nate and Jessie first moved to the farm, they wondered if they should fill the horseshoe-shaped area back in, but decided against it after consulting with scientists from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR).RogersFarm

This loss of land also eventually led to work with The Vermont Land Trust, who offered to purchase a river corridor easement from them, in effect paying them to take some of their cropland out of use. With the erosive nature of their soil and the susceptibility of their fields to flood damage, they decided to accept the easement. The easement is fifty feet wide and centered on the middle of the river channel. They can’t farm the land that is within the easement, but they can plant trees in this corridor to stabilize the riverbanks.

Outside of the easement, the Rogers have planted all their river fields in grasses and perennial crops to keep the soil covered and keep it from washing away. This means they have 20 acres of river fields that they can’t use as part of their rotation for grains, but is still in some sort of agricultural production and also addresses their bigger concern of soil loss and downstream water quality.  They see the importance of water quality, and work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the ANR to make sure they have a healthy river that can function properly, while they still farm the land.

 

Catherine Lowther, PhD

Catherine is faculty in the Sustainability Program, and Chair of the Sustainability Committee at Goddard College in Plainfield, VT.  We will be collaborating with her and her students on several blog posts during this project.  Many thanks for their contributions!   

 

In Burlington, VT, the Intervale is not only notable for providing a substantial amount of locally grown food within close proximity of an urban center, but also because of its location next to the Winooski River and its susceptibility to flooding.  Given the recent increase in extreme events in the Northeast, it is no surprise that many of the farms located in the Intervale have faced a number of such flooding events over the past several years.  These floods have at times proven devastating, and have caused many of the farmers to critically evaluate, and re-evaluate, their climate change resilience strategy.  As part of a climate change resiliency and adaptive land use project by the Intervale Center, Maggie Donin surveyed all the current Intervale farms during the summer of 2014.  She aimed to identify key climate change adaptation strategies employed by the farmers and to learn how farmers were planning for their future, DSC09325their businesses, and their livelihoods.  The survey results confirm some of our previous observations of adaptation approaches by farmers in the region, but also shed light on some newer strategies.  Below is a summary of the key findings:

The survey results indicated that some farmers are hesitant to attribute erratic weather to climate change and see weather as an inherent risk to agriculture more generally.  And though the Intervale is sometimes viewed as a more difficult place to farm with more weather risks (i.e., flooding), there also seems to be an understanding that farming is difficult everywhere.  The surveyed farmers have developed some specific strategies to address the flooding risk and other climate threats on their land and are generally using strategies that align with their central values as sustainable agricultural practitioners – community relationship building, soil preservation, diversification of crops among others.

These are the key business adaptations identified by farmers:

  • Purchase flood insurance
  • Maintain honest relationships with customers so that they understand the risks the farm faces
  • Add a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA) to their farm or increase size of existing CSA
  • Reduce excess product going to current CSA customers (from 50-60% excess to 30%) and sell that difference to wholesale markets. Build financial cushion with profits.
  • Process excess crops to use in CSA for different seasons
  • Extend CSA season to year round to spread out cash flow
  • Build other skills outside of farming for income in an emergency scenario
  • Use existing knowledge and skill set for paid speaking engagements and other educational opportunities

So far, the most successful strategies have been growing on less flood prone land, building high tunnels and greenhouses, and having a diversity of markets and production so that one event doesn’t affect everything on your farm.

In terms of recommending strategies to others, one farm said that the strategies they were using felt effective, but others need to find approaches that work for them. Other farmers stated the importance of building a portfolio of strategies and of having a financial buffer when you begin farming so that you can deal with potential disaster and loss of revenue.

Overall, this survey demonstrated that farmers clearly understand that there are many risks facing their farms each season, not just extreme weather. The Intervale farmers have decided that the benefits outweigh the risks.  Regardless of their location, weather related challenges will always pose risks for farming.    These farmers have found that many of the strategies to mitigate risks and increase resiliency to extreme weather align with their practices for sustainable and organic agriculture.  These practices and techniques include managing healthy soils, diversifying crops for different markets, and building human and social capital, all of which are the basis for sustainable farm businesses.  While extreme and erratic weather and inexorable climate change will never be in farmers’ complete control, the Intervale farmers in Burlington, Vermont are relying on core concepts of sustainable agriculture to deal with an uncertain future.

In the next blog, we’ll highlight the key production adaptions reported by Intervale farmers.  Many thanks to Maggie Donin for her guest contribution to our blog!

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