Fix Our Soil, Save Our World
Mar 15, 2016 05:32PM
By Erica Shames
Cover crops like buckwheat provide a stable root system which reduces soil erosion.
In 2014, Loganton dairy farmer James Harbach testified before Congress about a crisis facing the nation: the poor health of our soil threatens the well-being of the planet, and the human, plant and animal life that inhabits it.
The concept of regenerative farming has been around for decades; only now is it beginning to resonate widely with farmers and gardeners. If we can regenerate the soil, the thinking goes, we can fix the environment, our health and our ability to grow nourishing food.
At its core
Regenerative agriculture is a sub-practice of organic farming designed to build soil health or regenerate unhealthy soils. The practices associated with regenerative agriculture are those identified with some approaches to organic farming, including maintaining a high percentage of organic matter in soils, minimum tillage, biodiversity, composting, mulching, crop rotation, cover crops and green manures.
Where the two agriculture techniques part ways, according to Loganton dairy farmer Jim Harbach, is till vs no-till farming.
“If you’re an avid organic consumer, and you think you’re doing the world a favor, you need to go to whoever is supplying that organic food and ask them if they’re tilling their ground,” stressed Harbach. “Because if they are, they’re not sustainable.”
While organic growers eschew the use of chemicals, some till their soil. This practice, Harbach stresses, disrupts the biology inherent in good soil, among other impacts.
Effects of tillage
Sarah, a biologist/ecologist, and her father Gerard Troisi, work as independent crop advisors out of their Millmont home. They consult on 24,000 acres in Central PA and work with operators who no-till or are transitioning. Gerard, who has consulted since 1991, and Sarah sponsor the Sunshine Farmers’ Conference every March, bringing in world-renowned experts on soil management. And Gerard travels the country to give presentations on the value of implementing regenerative agriculture techniques.
“A paradigm shift is occurring in the science of agriculture,” said Gerard Troisi in 2015 at a No-Till & Cover Crop Symposium at the University of Vermont. “It must occur for agriculture to meet the human need for food, fuel and fiber on an ever shrinking land base without destroying the planet in the process.”
A better way
Gerard advocates what he calls the Sunshine Spill, in which the implementation of cover crops have the desired effect of capturing more sunlight, carbon and water—vital components of a farmer’s business.
And Gerard advocates four principals of soil health: continuous crop growth using rapid crop rotation and cover crops; reduced soil disturbance and fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides; increased diversity using more crops in sequence and more species in cover crops; and integrating livestock to improve soil (which can improve or degrade soils depending upon management).
One of the vital components to soil regeneration centers on mycorrhiza fungi, a symbiotic association comprised of a fungus and roots of a vascular plant. “We try to foster the development of these fungi,” Sarah said. “The fungi extend plant roots and make connections among plant roots, benefiting the plant. The decrease in mycorrhiza fungi is mainly from tillage.”
Gerard’s message is not lost on Jim Harbach, a client and a partner in Schrack Dairy Farm, a no-till operation since the early 1970s which milks 950 cows and grows crops on 2200 acres in Clinton County. He’s become a staunch no-till and cover crop practitioner.
“We started managing for soil biology and soil organic matter, and Gerard has helped us understand why that’s important,” he said. “If you plant diverse cover crop, some plants provide nutrients the other plants need, and the mycorrhiza fungi tie them together,” he said. “That’s how Mother Nature designed the system to work. If you plow, you destroy that system. We’ve ruined the biology in our soil, and the ability for water to infiltrate it.”
Higher yields, more nutrition
As a result of implementing regenerative agriculture, Harbach has seen some impressive results, including higher yields and higher than average protein levels in the corn and beans he grows—an important advance when you consider that one byproduct of dead soil is less nutritious food. “When you grow diversity in no-till fields, brix levels go up,” he notes.
A brix reading results from using a refractometer to measure the percentage of sugar (nutrients) inside produce. “We’ve tested samples from the grocery store and from our farmers’ fields and a lot of the readings are average-poor,” confirmed Sarah Troisi. “There’s been a decline in the nutrient density of our food, and they’ve linked it to soil degradation.”
Who’s on board?
The key to widespread regenerative practices, believes Harbach, is greater education and understanding, and he speaks to farmers and gardeners at some of the same soil conferences as Gerard, who has become a close friend.
“I don’t look at myself as a public speaker, but that’s what I need to do to help people understand,” Harbach said. “Farmers need to hear some of the benefits we’ve seen from long-term no-till. For some of us, it will take a generation to change. For others, it’s become a widespread movement.”
The movement is alive and well in Pennsylvania. “If you look at the rest of the country in terms of percentage of no-till and cover crops, Pennsylvania is one of the leading states,” Harbach said. “We can be proud of that.”
But more education is needed, believes Sarah Troisi, especially among consumers. “We need to start paying attention,” she stresses. “Talk to your farmer. Get to know where your food comes from and how it’s grown. It’s important because, as Albert Einstein says: ‘He who has the privilege to know has the duty to act.’ We can’t just ignore it anymore.”