Soil Carbon Capture for Diverse Farmers

Progress report for ONE20-376

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2020: $30,000.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2021
Grant Recipient: Soul Fire Farm Institute, Inc.
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Leah Penniman
Soul Fire Farm Institute, Inc.
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Project Information

Summary:

As European settlers displaced Indigenous people across North America in the 1800s, they exposed vast expanses of land to the plow for the first time. It took only a few decades of intense tillage to drive around 50 percent of the original organic matter from the soil into the sky as carbon dioxide. Agriculture continues to have a profound impact on the climate; along with forestry, deforestation, and other land use, it contributes roughly 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

The good news is that regenerative agricultural practices like minimal soil disturbance, organic production, compost application, the use of cover crops, and crop rotation as well as silvopasture systems that integrate nut and fruit trees, forage, and grasses can harness plants and soil to put carbon back where it belongs. 

Farmworkers and farmers of color are working together to test the best methods for on-farm soil carbon capture and the most accessible protocols for measuring progress. We are engaging 5 different farms to implement soil carbon capture methods such as no till, silvopasture, and perennial polyculture. We will do a side-by-side comparison of on-farm carbon capture tools such as a microbiometer and solvita respiration test to determine the most accessible and reliable methods for determining progress. Results will be disseminated in English and Spanish. 

Project Objectives:

Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous and other farmers and farm workers of color take the lead in testing soil carbon sequestration strategies and measurement protocols and disseminate those findings to the farming community in both English and Spanish. This project seeks to (1) determine which soil testing protocols farmers find most accessible, understandable, and replicable (2) determine whether engaging directly in testing protocols increases farmer knowledge of and engagement with the project of soil carbon sequestration, and (3) determine how can we effectively communicate testing protocols for soil organic carbon and strategies for soil carbon sequestration to the Spanish-speaking farming community and to farmers of color across the Northeast (4) establish baseline data on soil carbon and regenerative farming techniques so that conclusions may be drawn in subsequent years about any correlation between soil carbon capture and farming practices. 

This project will benefit farmers by increasing strategies for on-farm soil carbon sequestration, an important ecosystem service. It will particularly benefit farmers who tend to have less access to this information, Spanish speaking farm-workers and farmers of color. 

Introduction:

Society’s abuse of soil and climate has led to dire consequences for communities of color across the globe, who are disproportionately harmed by climate change. Devastating hurricanes have become regular annual visitors in the Caribbean islands and coastal areas of the U.S.. Several Alaskan Native communities struggle to hunt and fish in their traditional ways because rising temperatures are ravaging ecosystems and wildlife. And sub-Saharan Africa is among the regions projected to experience the harshest impacts of climate change. “If you’re not affected by climate change today, that itself is a privilege,” climate activist Andrea Manning says. 

But the same communities on the frontlines of climate impacts are also on the frontlines of climate solutions. A new generation of Black farmers is using heritage farming practices to undo some of the damage first brought on by the intense tillage of early European settlers. Colonizer farming practices drove around half of the organic matter from the soil into the sky as carbon dioxide.

Now Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other farmers are using heritage practices to reduce emissions and to capture excess carbon from the air and trap it in the soil. Our ancestral strategies are bolstered by Western science and listed among the most substantive solutions to global warming, per Project Drawdown’s analysis.

One practice, silvopasture, is an indigenous system that integrates nut and fruit trees, forage, and grasses to feed grazing livestock. Another, regenerative agriculture, a methodology perhaps first described by agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver, involves minimal soil disturbance, organic production, compost application, the use of cover crops, and crop rotation. Both systems harness plants to capture greenhouse gases. Plants are nature’s alchemists, transforming atmospheric carbon dioxide into sugar and trapping it on the land where it belongs. 

In the Northeast, we still need reliable, field-tested research about the effectiveness of regenerative farming practices and silvopasture in capturing carbon in the soil. We also need an evaluation of the accessibility and accuracy of on-farm soil carbon measurement tools for farmers on the ground. Finally, we need dissemination of these best practices to communities often excluded – Spanish speaking farmworkers and farmers of color. 

In our recent survey through the Northeast Farmers of Color network and Soul Fire Farm’s alumni network, we found that over 70% of farmers want to learn more about carbon sequestration methods and tools for measuring soil carbon. 

This project relates directly to soil conservation and protection of natural resources, and indirectly to improved productivity of farms and quality of life for farmers. Soil carbon measurement techniques will be a prerequisite for eligibility in any future carbon credit program and soil organic matter is linked to crop health. 

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand

Research

Materials and methods:

Farmworkers and farmers of color are working together to test the best methods for on-farm soil carbon capture and the most accessible protocols for measuring status and progress. We are engaging 5 different farms (Soul Fire Farm, GrowNYC incubator, Rocky Acres Community Farm, Global Village Farm, and Rise & Root Farm)  who implement soil carbon capture farming technologies such as no till, silvopasture, cover cropping, and perennial polyculture. Farmers will record their regenerative farming practices and implement eight soil carbon measurement protocols (bulk density, infiltration, earthworm count, soil hardness, microbiometer, active carbon, soil respiration, and loss on ignition) on at least 5 different sample sites throughout the farm. 

 

The research questions are as follows:

  1. What correlation exists between the results of each of the eight soil testing protocols?
  2. Which soil testing protocols do farmers find most accessible, understandable, and replicable?
  3. Which farming techniques correlate with higher levels of soil organic carbon? 
  4. Does engaging directly in testing protocols increase farmer knowledge of and engagement with the project of soil carbon sequestration? 
  5. How can we effectively communicate testing protocols for soil organic carbon and strategies for soil carbon sequestration to the Spanish-speaking farming community and to farmers of color across the Northeast?

 

The P.I. will visit each of the farms to train the farmers on the soil testing protocols and to support the testing procedures, which follow:

 

Loss on Ignition: This test will be performed at the UMass Soil Testing Laboratory. The soil is dried and sieved, moisture content is estimated and soil is weighed out.  Soil is placed in the oven at >550C for 3 hours with the tray moved at half time.  Difference between initial weight and final weight when corrected for the water loss yields organic carbon. The same lab will be used for all tests to ensure accuracy and consistency. 

 

microBIOMETER® measures MB by releasing microbes from soil particles, in a ½ cc of packed soil using a salt and detergent extraction solution and whisking for 30 seconds.  In 10-15 minutes, the soil settles and 3 – 9 drops of the released microbe solution can be placed on the test card membrane and the amount of microbes can be measured colorimetrically with a cell phone app that calculates MB and stores results in the cloud. This test is performed in the field. 

Basal Respiration:  Also referred to as the Haney Test, we use a commercial kit available from Solvita. The carbon dioxide produced by the microbes acidifies the NaOH reagent. A titration of NaOH measures that amount of CO2 produced. This test is performed in the field. 

Active Carbon: Active or labile carbon is the portion of soil organic matter which can readily serve as a food source for soil microbes. Soil is mixed with a solution of potassium permanganate, which starts off a deep purple color. As the permanganate oxidizes the active carbon, it loses some of its color and changes toward pink. The amount of color change can be graded on a color chart. This test is performed in the field.

Bulk Density: The density of a material is its mass divided by its volume. In the case of soil, density often means compaction – the space between the soil for air and water particles and plant roots has been compressed. Healthier soils, including those with higher carbon, tend to have lower bulk density. A standard sized cylinder is used to gather samples, which are then dried in an oven and weighed. This test is performed in the field. 

Infiltration: Better infiltration of water correlates with more soil pores and aggregates, which in turn correlate with greater soil carbon. To measure the capacity of soil to absorb water and not let it run off and puddle, a standard amount of water is deposited inside of a ring that is inserted into the soil. The time to full absorption is recorded. This test is performed in the field.

Soil Hardness: Mycorrhizal fungi growth and mobility of soil organisms is impaired by hard soils. Soil hardness is measured using a penetrometer. This test is performed in the field.

Earthworm Count: Earthworm burrows improve infiltration and their casts increase soil aggregates. Earthworms are counted in a 1 ft x 1 ft x 1 ft area of ground. This test is performed in the field.

For each testing site, we will also record the surface vegetation, last 5 years of management regimes, and a description of environmental factors. We will also interview farmers about the ease and accessibility of the testing protocols. 

The answers to the research questions will be disseminated in English and Spanish to the predominantly Black, Latino, Indigenous, and Asian farming communities in the Northeast of the USA. 

Research results and discussion:

Despite COVID disruptions, we are on track with the majority of our milestones according to the timeline presented in the proposal and pasted below.

August-September 2020: In the initial months of the project we will procure the soil testing equipment, practice with the equipment at Soul Fire Farm, and write plain language instructions in Spanish and English. We will also hold pre-interviews with the participating farmers about their agricultural practices, knowledge of carbon capture techniques, and learning goals. 

October-November 2020: The fall will be focused on research and outreach. We will contact our mentors at Cornell, NOFA, GrowNYC and VidaCycle for their guidance on further refining our research approach and ensuring that we are up-to-date on the latest knowledge in the field. Through our partners at Hudson Valley Farm Hub, Pioneer Valley Workers Center, Migrant Justice and others we will continue outreach into the Spanish-speaking farmer community with the goal of further increasing participation in the project. 

Accomplishments to Date

  • Soil testing equipment purchased and tested
  • Pre-interviews with participating farmers conducted
  • Outreach to Spanish-speaking farmer community
  • Conversations with mentors about research approach

Still To Accomplish

  • Plain language instructions in Spanish and English

Summary of Findings to Date – Farm Interviews

Soul Fire Farm: 7-acre diversified vegetable, small fruits, and pastured poultry. Uses semi-permanent raised beds, low till, polyculture, covercropping, and silvopasture. Using organic matter as proxy for soil carbon capture, but limited knowledge of other techniques. 

GrowNYC incubator: 20-acre mechanized vegetable farm, using cover crops and looking to reduce tillage. No prior attempts to measure soil carbon capture. 

Rocky Acres Community Farm: 10-acre ruminant, poultry, and vegetable farm using permaculture principles. No prior attempts to measure soil carbon capture. 

Global Village Farm: 5-acre vegetable CSA and honeybee operation, using indigenous regenerative practices from Mayan tradition. Using earthworms and soil texture as a proxy for soil carbon capture, but limited knowledge of other techniques. 

Rise & Root Farm: 25-acre mechanized vegetable farm, using cover crops, compost, mulching, and low till. Looking to increase carbon capture strategies. No prior attempts to measure soil carbon capture. 

Summary of Findings to Date – Outreach

We met with Hudson Valley Farm Hub, Pioneer Valley Workers Center, and Migrant Justice and secured their commitment to disseminate results to their members and to invite members to attend our informational workshops in 2021.

Research conclusions:

We do not have any research conclusions to date. The timeline for the remainder of the project is as follows:

 

December 2020-March 2021: During the winter months, we will write the first half of the report with detailed profiles of the participating farmers, precise methodology, descriptions of growing practices on the participating farms, and a literature review. The results and discussion portion of the report will be written at the conclusion of the project. 

April-May 2021: Training materials in English and Spanish, including written instructions, visual diagrams, and videos will be created to support the soil testing protocols. The training materials will additionally summarize the regenerative farming techniques which are expected to increase soil organic carbon. 

June-July 2021: In the summer of 2021, soil testing on 5+ farms will take place for the 8 protocols in question. The P.I. and collaborators will visit the farms, train farmers on the protocols, and perform soil tests. Additionally, the “loss on ignition” tests will be performed on samples sent to UMass Soil Testing Laboratory. 

August-September 2021: We will hold post-interviews with the farmers around their experience with the soil carbon measurements. We will generate a report that addresses the research objectives  (1) determine which soil testing protocols farmers find most accessible, understandable, and replicable (2) determine whether engaging directly in testing protocols increases farmer knowledge of and engagement with the project of soil carbon sequestration, and (3) determine how can we effectively communicate testing protocols for soil organic carbon and strategies for soil carbon sequestration to the Spanish-speaking farming community and to farmers of color across the Northeast (4) establish baseline data on soil carbon and regenerative farming techniques so that conclusions may be drawn in subsequent years about any correlation between soil carbon capture and farming practices. The report will be written in both English and Spanish and disseminated through our networks to reach tens of thousands of readers. 

Participation Summary
5 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

The costs for the distribution channels and outreach avenues are already covered by other program income of SFFI, so are not included in the budget submitted to SARE. Outreach strategies are listed below.

The final report will be written in both English and Spanish and distributed through the following channels:

  • Soul Fire Farm email distribution list of 5,700 individuals
  • Northeast Farmers of Color network google group of 320 members
  • Specific outreach to Spanish-speaking farmer communities including FarmROOTS, Hudson Valley Farm Hub, Migrant Justice, Pioneer Valley Workers Center, Rural & Migrant Ministries, and Nuestras Raices with a reach of 500 members
  • Soul Fire Farm’s youtube channel, Facebook live, instagram, and other social media channels with a reach over 40,000 people
  • Soul Fire Farm’s on-farm 1-day workshops and weeklong immersions which host approximately 250 farmers per year
  • SARE website and publications
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.