Basics crucial to our future

Cows and goats graze in this pasture in Rowe last fall. This past weekend at the summer conference of Northeast Organic Farmers of America held at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, a number of workshops were focused on soil and water use, including grazing. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz

Cows and goats graze in this pasture in Rowe last fall. This past weekend at the summer conference of Northeast Organic Farmers of America held at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, a number of workshops were focused on soil and water use, including grazing. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

Nothing is more basic than soil and water when it comes to farming, but they’re also crucial to the future of the planet, as two experts told the 40th annual summer conference of Northeast Organic Farmers of America over the weekend at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Farming, along with the rest of the planet, faces dire risks in trying to adapt as weather patterns are altered because of climate change, yet agriculture can also help reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations and thereby help mitigate climate disruption, the audience was told

“We could sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term ‘regenerative organic agriculture,’” claimed a Rodale Institute report this spring.

Presenters in eight special “Soil Carbon and Climate” workshops at this weekend’s NOFA/Mass conference, which drew an estimated 1,400 people from around the Northeast, said that when soil carbon levels increase, neighboring communities also enjoy ecological benefits.

“Through regenerative farming, we’re not just growing good food, we’re also growing clean water and reducing flood risks — providing real economic value for downstream neighbors,” says Abe Collins, a Winooski-based consultant and lecturer.

“Soil organic matter is key to water cycling because it provides the raw material for the glues that bind mineral and organic components into soil aggregates,” Collins says. “Increases in soil organic matter raise the amount of water soil can hold, leading to reduced flooding, improved water quality, increased biodiversity habitat, and greater productivity in times of drought.”

What’s more, Collins says, “We need to start thinking that as a society, we need economic policies that reward farmers for regulating our water cycle,” through tested practices that includes keeping soil covered with a mix of living and dead plant matter and rotational grazing that leaves enough grass or crop residue behind.

Yet as important as “best practices” are, he says, equally important is constant monitoring of soil properties, agricultural production, biodiversity in and on the soil and in the landscape.

“We need to overcome the notion that it takes 500 to 1,000 years to build an inch of soil, and look at ways we can, in a growing season, or a few years, completely change soil properties so (it has) everything we need to create healthy, abundant food and environmental benefits.”

And it’s not just up to farmers to add more monitoring to their list of chores, he says. Towns, cities, states, nations have to monitor this fundamental resource, and create policy “... that’s based on monitoring and starts to reward land managers for everything they do.”

Meanwhile, Seth Itzkan, who works with the Africa Center for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe, presented a workshop on grazing to helping soil build a strong reservoir of carbon for the planet.

“Our climate problem isn’t just about emissions. It’s also about the earth’s capacity to absorb atmospheric carbon and the safest and largest reservoir for carbon pollution is in new soil formations,” says Itzkan, whose group works to restore degraded land through grazing methods that regenerate soils.

Itzkan believes that livestock, if properly managed, can be part of Earth’s healing process.

Instead of laissez-faire, continuous grazing so animals keep chowing down favorite plants until those plants are gone, or cutting herd size to reduce overgrazing, Itzkan calls for managing grasslands — including prairie, tundra and semi-arid “desert and representing 40 percent of Earth’s non-ice land area — in a way that approximates how wild herds once roamed.

Pointing back to the disappearance of the 70 million bison that once roamed this country and the roughly 500 million springbok that roamed southern Africa, along with giraffe, impala, zebra and other ruminants, he says there is a connection with degradation of soil that once took carbon from the atmosphere.

“It’s hard to even fathom the magnitude of their involvement in the ecosystem. We need to restore this type of balance,” Itzkan says. “It’s an essential part of sequestered carbon. When you take ruminants out of the picture, grasslands die and they lose their carbon. “

Proper management of cattle, sheep and goats means having them graze “in a way that will have a big impact,” but not allowing them to return to grazing land until the plants are fully recovered — which in New England, unlike arid southern Africa, may be in a matter of weeks.

“Forests are easier to understand,” he says. “You look and see the trees. If you look at a grassland, you don’t see anything. But underground, there’s a massive reservoir of soil carbon that’s kept alive by animals that provide the biological digestion and moisture to keep the whole thing going.”

The real opportunity isn’t so much in the vegetative matter above-ground, he says, but in the root systems, the animal life of all sizes that lives underground and the biodiversity of the long chain of organic molecules beneath the surface.

Itzkan, acknowledged that most NOFA conference attendees are with farming concerns but also care deeply about global ecology.

“This is about ecosystem restoration, for the sake of the climate,” he says.

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You can reach Richie Davis at or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

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