Measuring Soil Health and Carbon Sequestration in an Emerging Chestnut Agroforestry System

Progress report for ONE19-354

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2019: $18,700.00
Projected End Date: 05/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Regenerative Design Group
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Keith Zaltzberg
Regenerative Design Group
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to demonstrate how perennial agriculture and regenerative management practices affect soil health and the soil’s ability to sequester carbon. Climate change leaves many farms – particularly those in floodplain areas – susceptible to severe weather events. By modeling practices that focus on perennial agriculture – and tracking changes to soil health and carbon drawdown – we hope to make the case to other farmers wishing to incorporate perennials and regenerative practices into their management regimes.

Using data collected in 2018 as a baseline, we will measure and document soil health and carbon sequestration through 2019, and the grant cycle of 2020 and 2021. We will utilize two soil health protocols: 1. Cornell Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health, CASH, and 2. NOFA/Mass Soil Carbon Assessment. Results will allow us to determine if there have been increases in soil organic matter, soil biology, and carbon sequestration.

A successful project will mean that 375 regional farmers and agricultural service providers will see and learn about: 1. Incorporating perennial crops and regenerative management practices to contribute to the long term farm resilience, 2. Soil biology testing techniques, and 3. Connections between agroforestry practices and soil health.

Introduction:

This project builds upon soil health and agroforestry efforts funded by SARE, and projects by NOFA/Mass, the Bionutrient Association, and others that proliferate best practices for building healthy soils. Where this project adds to the collective knowledge is in its focus on the role of perennial agriculture in soil health, and specifically agroforestry in the Northeast - an area recognized in a USDA Agroforestry report as lagging in education and technical assistance opportunities (Shoeneberger, 2017). Central to this project is the establishment of a demonstration site that can be a meeting ground for outreach efforts, where farmers, technical advisors, and researchers can see ideas in action.

The need for such a site is reinforced by a 2015 SARE grant that provided agroforestry training for natural resource and agricultural educators in Pennsylvania and neighboring states (SARE ENE15-134). As noted in the grant materials: “... despite growing interest and recent advances in the science and practice of agroforestry, regional adoption has been limited, in part, because few natural resource advisors and educators have sufficient agroforestry training to support landowners and practitioners in agroforestry adoption...most existing agroforestry materials are designed for the Southeast and Midwest regions.” From the USDA, “Agroforestry is still relatively a new term in the Northeast Region. Many practitioners cite lack of awareness of the practices and limited access to technical assistance as a key challenge to adoption.” (Shoeneberger, 2017, p.187)

Agroforestry activity in the Midwest has been extensive. A research team at the University of Illinois leads the Agroforestry for Food project (Lovell, Agroforestry for Food). Their extensive research in intercropping points to the need to bridge adoption challenges (Woltz et. al. 2018).

Simply put, we are looking to address these two gaps in the Northeast: 1. Lack of data about how perennial agriculture affects soil health and 2. Farmer-to-farmer education and skill-sharing about perennial agriculture systems.

We believe this work is timely as the challenges of climate change and soil depletion grow. Numerous people and organizations are developing strategies and resources for soil management and increasing soil health. There is new information as well as rediscovery of past knowledge. William Albrecht was researching and lecturing on

links between soil quality, food quality, and human health from the 1930s into the 1970s. Recently, with the work of Elaine Ingham and others, our understanding of the critical importance of soil biology has increased substantially.

There is increased awareness of how certain types of agriculture contribute to soil depletion, water and groundwater pollution, and climate change. This has sparked interest among farmers, land managers, policy makers, and funding organizations to promote and implement agriculture practices that build soil health. A 2017

SARE funded research project at the Glynwood Center, Increasing soil health and climate resilience education for pasture-based livestock farmers, ONE17-303, reflects this interest in grazing systems specifically.

Over the past few years, several states have spearheaded healthy soils initiatives in an effort to preserve their agricultural soils and mitigate climate change. Massachusetts has contracted with Regenerative Design Group to develop a Healthy Soils Action Plan for the Commonwealth. This project will dovetail nicely with the Healthy Soils Plan, each one providing insights for the other.

Soil Health and Carbon Sequestration in Agroforestry Systems

More people are learning that agriculture can be a solution to climate change, rather than a contributor. Interest in agroforestry, soil health, and carbon sequestration is growing as the effects of climate change reveal the fragility

of our agriculture systems. Project Drawdown (Hawken, 2017), an assessment of the 100 best practices for sequestering carbon and reversing global warming lists nine regenerative agriculture practices, including agroforestry, in it’s top 30 practices.

In The Carbon Farming Solution, Eric Toensmeier cites a lack of understanding of the carbon sequestration impacts of various practices as well as challenges to understanding rates of carbon sequestration for various practices (Toensmeier, 2016, p.34). This project represents one attempt to collect more information and examples.

A SARE grant to Nutwood Farm, Effectiveness of Mixed Perennial Groundcovers in Establishing Hazelnut Hedgerow Systems in the Northeast, (FNE18-912) focuses on crop establishment, use of ground covers, and soil improvement under hazelnuts. There is limited soil monitoring as the project is focused on developing low- maintenance under story. Regenerative Design Group is currently working on a SARE-funded agroforestry project looking at establishment of ground covers under elderberry as a productive riparian buffer (ONE18-325). These projects each are adding additional information about soils and agroforestry cropping, but lack the connection between soil health, testing protocols, and carbon sequestration.

There is a need for more regional demonstrations of economically viable regenerative farming practices that measure increases in soil health and soil carbon sequestration. Soil health is defined as “the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.” (USDA NRCS webpage)

Many farms have degraded soil conditions and reduced production potential due to extractive agricultural practices. It is estimated that 800 million or more acres of farmland globally are degraded (Campbell et. al. 2008). Improving soil health has many benefits: improved yields, reduced need for fertilizers and other inputs, increased water holding capacity, increased topsoil and nutrient levels, and reduction in pest and disease pressure. One benefit of healthy soils that has global consequences is increased carbon storage which can help offset and even reduce atmospheric carbon buildup. Regenerative agriculture practices can be part of the solution by drawing down atmospheric carbon into the soil. Such practices are increasingly being used throughout the Northeast and include cover cropping, reduced or no-till, subsoiling, organic fertility management, and contour water management (SARE Soil Health). But there is a lack of demonstration sites for perennial agriculture systems as well as gaps in measuring effects, verifying results, and using this information to incentivize change and fine-tune practices.

CITATION LIST

Campbell, J. et. al.  950 Million to 1.1 Billion Acres: The Global Potential of Bioenergy on Abandoned Agriculture

Lands. Environmental Science & Technology 42, no. 15 (2008): 5791-5794.

Hawken ed., Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. Penguin

Books, 2017. Website: https://www.drawdown.org

Gabriel, Silvopasture: A Guide to Managing Grazing Animals, Forage Crops, and Trees in a Temperate Farm

Ecosystem, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018, pp. 242-243

Kumar, Nair, ed., Carbon Sequestration Potential of Agroforestry Systems: Opportunities and Challenges, Springer Netherlands, 2011.

Lovell, Agroforestry for Food, University of Illinois, website: https://sustainability.illinois.edu/research/securesustainable-agriculture/agroforestry-for-food-project/, accessed April 23, 2019

USDA NRCS Soil Health webpage: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/soils/health/ accessed, April

SARE ENE15-134, NE Advanced agroforestry training for natural resource and agricultural educators, 2015-2018

, PA DCNR Bureau of Forestry

SARE ONE18-325, Improving ground cover selection and competition management in the establishment of productive riparian agricultural buffers, Regenerative Design Group, 2018

SARE ONE17-303, Increasing soil health and climate resilience education for pasture-based livestock farmers, The Glynwood Center, 2017

SARE Soil Health website: https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/What-is-Soil-Health accessed April 21, 2019.

Shoeneberger, ed., Agroforestry: Enhancing Resiliency in US Agricultural Landscapes Under Changing

Conditions, USDA Forest Service, November 2017

Toensmeier, The Carbon Farming Solution, A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture

Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016

Wolz, K.J. et. al., Frontiers in Alley Cropping: Transformative Solutions for Temperate Agriculture. Global Change

Biology, Vol. 24, No. 3. (March 2018)

Practice:

Our work will be conducted on 7-acres of degraded CT river floodplain. The big vision for this project is to demonstrate an economically viable chestnut agroforestry system on former tillage land. The first phase of the project was completed in 2018, when Jono Neiger of Big River Chestnuts planted the 7-acres with blight-resistant hybrid Chinese chestnuts. Eventually, the system will grow to include perennial alley crops. In this intermediate phase, however, the goal is to implement a suite of regenerative farming practices and rotational chicken grazing and measure the results on soil health and carbon sequestration. We will use up-to-date soil health and soil carbon protocols to track how these practices affect soil health. Baseline data collected in 2018 will be followed by data collected through this grant cycle to demonstrate soil improvements, communicate to farmers the benefits to soils and crops, and improve the practices moving into the future.

Importance to Farmers:

Though there is a lot of attention on soil health and the potential of agriculture to mitigate climate change, there are few examples in the Northeast where this is happening with perennial crops. This project will demonstrate best practices for transitioning from annual to perennial cropland in New England. Through on-farm events, a soil biology training, soil self-assessment training, presentations, and online media, farmers will learn about agroforestry establishment, regenerative management practices, and soil testing procedures and interpretation. Farmers will be able to see directly how these practices have improved soils and how this translates into carbon sequestration.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Jono Neiger - Producer (Educator and Researcher)
  • Martin Anderton - Producer (Educator)
  • Monique Bosch (Educator)
  • Caro Roszell - Producer (Educator and Researcher)
  • Eric Toensmeier (Educator and Researcher)
  • Lisa DePiano (Educator and Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

2019 Annual Report

Project Initiation:

The initial efforts for the project were begun in Fall of 2019; October, November, and December. Jono Neiger met with principal investigator, Keith Zaltzberg, farmer Martin Anderton, and Soil Specialist/NOFA employee Caro Rozell to confirm participation, review the plans for the coming months and identify next steps for working together. Many of the details for coordinating activities, and setting up systems for the coming season were worked on. 

In addition work was continued in:

  • Review of NOFA soil test information provided by Caro Rozell of the chestnut agroforestry
  • Development of the 2020 fertility and management plan was begun
  • Initial work setting up the schedule for the 2020 Field Days (spring and fall) and the Soil Biology workshop.
  • 2020 Farm intern communications and arrangements

2020 Winter Activities

  • Soil fertility plan and amendment purchase through the NOFA MA bulk order
  • Chicken grazing plan and coordination with cropping plan
  • Workshop schedule finalized and outreach materials developed

2021 Annual Report

2020 was an extremely successful year for Big River Chestnuts. Even with disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the need to cancel in-person events, we were able to move ahead with most parts of the project. As outlined below we have continued the regenerative ag practices meant to increase soil health and soil carbon sequestration and tested the soil with two protocols and one general fertility test. We held a virtual field day in December to give an update on the project and initial results.  

Summary of results to date:

Regenerative agriculture practices utilized were:

  • Amendment/inoculation/biostimulants application: March (1x), July (1x), August (2x), Sept(1x)
  • Field mowing/Short rotation coppice mowing: Three mowings during the season.
  • Subsoiling with the single-shank on tractor. Approx 15-18” depth. In all alleys between the chestnut trees across the field.
  • Cover crop sowing: In September approx. 2/3 of the field was sowed with 7 species cover crop mix after subsoiling and a light disc-harrow pass.

Chickens were rotationally grazed in the southern half of the 7-acre field. 1700 meat birds were raised on the field in batches of 300 (and one 200). The chickens were regularly moved around in the alleys within electronet areas of approx. 50’ x 75’. Electronet areas were moved every 7-14 days. Mowing a week ahead of the chickens helped provide them with fresh regrowth and in some areas, woody growth and heavier herbaceous growth helped provide cover and places to forage for insects.

Soil Testing
Soil testing was performed by Caro Roszell of NOFA MA using their Carbon Proxy protocol twice during the season (June and October) in our prescribed two locations each time. We sent two samples in to Cornell CASH testing lab in June. And three samples were sent to Logan Lab in June; both standard test and saturated paste. In the absence of the soil biology training I sent a sample to Monique Bosch to look at in the fall.

Field Observations:
There are some early signs that the soil health is shifting to the better. Decaying organic matter and woody debris is on the surface and beginning to break down and support visible fungi activity. Some mycelium fruiting bodies have been observed. And trees and surrounding growth is vigorous and healthy.

Soil Health Results
Overall conditions in the field have remained consistent, with some early evidence of change. There have been signs of increased soil biology with the appearance of more biopores, decreased hardness/compactness, and increased water infiltration times. Aggregate stability has improved markedly from 58% in 2018 to 82% and 90% (a sample in the sumac grove nearby was measured at 65%) in this years testing.

Some key indicators have not shifted; such as organic matter levels, which would point to increased carbon sequestration. Soil aggregation is diminished below 4”. And the soil biology sample checked by Monique Bosch didn’t appear to have much diversity or overall activity. It is possible that the low soil moisture during the extensive dry periods this year were a challenge in many ways as soil health indicators bumped up in the fall testing. This leads to consideration of having the potential for supplemental irrigation availability.

Field Days
Due to the pandemic, onsite field days this year were cancelled. We held a Virtual Field Day on December 7th. Myself, Martin Anderton, and Caro Roszell presented about the cropping and practices, the chicken operation, and the soil testing respectively. There were approximately 40 people in attendance. Though we didn’t have a sign in, we know there were at least 4 NRCS employees, 1 CT RC&D employee, and about 18 farmers and nut tree growers.  The video of the field day is publically available with a link on our webpage: https://www.regenerativedesigngroup.com/big-river-chestnuts-virtual-field-day/

Eric Toensmeier
Eric conducted a field walk and data review on October 22nd. Myself, Caro Roszell, and Martin Anderton were there. He observed the conditions in the field and we discussed the soil health work ongoing. His assessment is that we are on the right track and more time is needed to see changes in the soil organic matter and soil biology. He recommended…. Eric reviewed the soil data and mader some graphs for the virtual field day.

Soil Biology Presentation and Training
Due to the pandemic the soil biology presentation and training with Monique Bosch of The Wiggle Room was cancelled this Spring. We have rescheduled it for Spring 2021.

Project extension:
We have requested and been approved to extend the project duration to June 2022. This will allow us to gather final data in the Spring of 2022 to identify any changes to soil health and carbon sequestration conditions. We will also be able to hold a last field day in Spring 2022 and complete our public outreach materials.

Participation Summary
15 Farmers participating in research
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.