Mass. farmers discuss the benefits of healthy soil

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston FILE PHOTO

  •  State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 2/14/2020 9:36:39 AM
Modified: 2/14/2020 9:36:27 AM

BOSTON — Not all soil is treated equal was the message of a State House briefing on a proposal by state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, designed to promote agricultural techniques that improve water and nutrient retention.

The bill, S.438, which promotes outreach and education, is currently before the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

More than 45 people attended the briefing on Wednesday morning, some of them farmers who had come from across Massachusetts to hear from Comerford, the Northeast Organic Farming Association and other farmers on the benefits of alternatives to tilling, perhaps the most widely used method of preparing earth for farming. The bill would set up economic support and incentives for alternate methods of farm management. 

Marty Dagoberto, policy director of the farming association, explained some of the numerous benefits provided by healthy soil. These include mitigating climate change by storing carbon and increasing biodiversity.

“There’s something on an intuitive level that feels good about healthy soil,” said Caro Roszell, also of the farming association, discussing Comerford’s bill and a companion House measure by state Rep. Paul Schmid III, R-Westport.

To demonstrate one aspect of the way healthy soil behaves, Roszell poured equal amounts of water over two containers.

One sample was tilled soil, while the other was no-till dirt with plants growing in it, known as crop cover. Roszell explained that the no-till dirt was more of a living ecosystem than the bare soil.

The no-till soil absorbed most of the water, and the runoff was clean and clear. By contrast, the tilled soil ran off a lot of its water, which was filled with dirt and debris.

Michael Zueger, a farmer in attendance, praised healthy soil’s ability to adapt to weather extremes, such as excess rainfall or drought.

Water retention isn’t the only benefit of healthy soil.

Sharon resident Jim Ward said he had many difficulties keeping up with the sandy soil he had when he was tilling. It required frequent irrigation because “nutrition was harder to manage because your soil doesn’t hold onto it.”

“I saw from our annual soil tests that our organic matter levels were decreasing,” he said, with the soil becoming more carbon-poor.

“That organic matter is just essential to life and to all healthy plants. And especially the microbiology in your soil,” Ward said.  

 The results of his first test in no-till farming were a success.

 “I didn’t have to irrigate that popcorn the very first season we had it,” he said.

There is even preliminary evidence that produce grown in no-till soil contains more nutrients, said Chuck Curry of Freedom Food Farm in Raynham, who has been farming for 20 years.

Curry has a conservation innovation grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to compare the nutrient levels in no-till crops of spinach and carrots with their typical grocery store counterparts. Both regular and organic produce from the store were found to have fewer nutrients.

Comerford said that she had heard about low- and no-till farming when she was campaigning.

“It’s a positive impact on both crop yield and soil health, which supports farmers. And also, of course, it’s a positive impact on carbon sequestration,” she said.

Lillian Eden writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.

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