Buried Treasure: Taking Farm Sustainability to a New Level

“We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot,” Leonardo da Vinci is said to have observed roughly five centuries ago. Sadly, that statement still holds, according to geologist David Montgomery, author of a trilogy of books about soils.

Agriculture provides a window into a subterranean world in which a dizzying number of microorganisms dwell. Where those microbes and mychorrizal fungi thrive, fed by decomposing plant matter and undisturbed by tillage, the soil can work wonders – absorbing atmospheric carbon, protecting watersheds, improving land productivity and increasing the nutrient density of food crops.

Conversely, problems underfoot can manifest quickly on the land’s surface.

Since acquiring Bumbleroot Organic Farm in Windham, its four co-owners have worked to improve soil health and structure using “regenerative agriculture” practices that include cover crops, integration of beneficial insects, improved crop rotations and reduced tilling. But wet weather on the 89-acre property in Windham last fall prevented them from planting a cover crop, leaving bare soils vulnerable to erosion in heavy spring rains.

“It was the first time we saw that,” says co-owner Ben Whalen, and in the field where channels from runoff appeared, “nutrient availability for crops was nonexistent in the growing season.”

Even farmers who adopt practices that nourish soil and absorb atmospheric carbon can encounter an essential irony: the extreme weather symptomatic of climate disruption gets in their way.

The path toward regenerative agriculture takes “a lot of trial and error,” Whalen reflects. “There’s a pretty significant level of education that comes with adopting more regenerative practices.”

Bumbleroot Organic Farm in Windham has adopted regenerative agriculture practices that are designed to improve soil health. Bumbleroot co-owner Ben Whalen, above, says the path to regenerative agriculture takes “a lot of trial and error.” Photo courtesy of Bumbleroot Organic Farm.

Striving for ‘Measurable Improvement’

Historically, farming focused on extraction, leading to a gradual diminishment of soil health, biodiversity and the land’s capacity to filter water and absorb atmospheric carbon, notes Dorn Cox, research director at Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment in Freeport.

Now there’s a growing commitment to farming in a way that leads to “measurable improvement” by all those standards, Cox says, a more inclusive goal than simply adopting sustainable or organic practices. This transformation represents a major paradigm shift, what some even call a revolution.

Growing concern about the global climate crisis is driving interest in regenerative agriculture, since soils store more carbon than the atmosphere and vegetation combined. Regenerative practices could extend that capacity, helping limit or even eliminate the agricultural sector’s significant greenhouse gas emissions.

Wolfe’s Neck Center recently announced that it is coordinating the new Open TEAM™ initiative, an international effort that has raised $10 million in public and private funds to develop, test and deploy open-source technology designed to help farmers assess their soil health while contributing data useful to the wider agricultural community.

While organic growers already gather extensive data for certification, the demands of monitoring soil health parameters could be challenging for many farmers, Cox acknowledges. He hopes they will get support for data-gathering from soil and water conservation districts, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service field staff and university cooperative extension agents.

Those entities began encouraging Maine farmers to reduce tillage, use cover crops and diversify crop rotations in the late 1990s, says Rick Kersbergen, a professor of sustainable dairy and forage systems with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Helping Farmers Adapt

Now there’s greater recognition that those practices benefit the climate, too: they help soils absorb and store carbon dioxide while simultaneously helping farmers cope with the symptoms of climate upheaval – droughts, more intense rainstorms, more extreme temperature fluctuations and new insect infestations.

“There’s been significant adoption of these practices over the last ten years,” Kersbergen says, and good results, with farms reporting markedly better soil health within a few years. NRCS offers cost-sharing programs to encourage cover-cropping, he adds, but the initial cash outlay for farmers can still be a challenge.

Emerging ecosystem services markets for farming, similar to forest carbon markets, could begin rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices. What’s needed, Kersbergen says, are set standards for measuring carbon in soils and assessing its dollar value.

A farmer’s willingness to adopt regenerative agriculture practices can depend on the farm’s economic viability. If new practices pose too great a financial risk, Kersbergen notes, farmers tend to “hunker down” and continue conventional practices – even though regenerative ones could enhance their farm’s long-term productivity.

Federal and state support is vital to providing some economic security in this transition, affirms Melissa Law, a co-owner of Bumbleroot Organic Farm and an agricultural representative on the new Maine Climate Council. Their farm received NRCS grants to construct five high tunnels that help extend the growing season and shelter crops from extreme weather (like a hailstorm that damaged several outdoor crops in July 2018).

The farm also has benefitted from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s beginning farmer training programs, which receive some USDA support, and through participation with University of Maine Cooperative Extension in a federally funded SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) project studying soil health in response to reduced tillage.

“We have been incredibly supported,” Law says, noting that Maine is fortunate to have “a really strong [agricultural] community.”

Both Whalen and Law have become vocal advocates for regenerative agricultural practices and for policy changes that could diminish the threats of further climate disruption. Young farmers are thinking decades out, they say, trying to shape an approach that will strengthen Maine’s local food system and family farms throughout their lives and those of their children.

“We didn’t come into farming with an advocacy mindset,” Law says, “but if we don’t speak up, who will?”


© Marina Schauffler, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.