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Making Connections through Soil Health

Local Farmers in Western New York are working together to create a network of local soil
conservation knowledge through the newly formed WNY Soil Health Alliance.
by Jena Buckwell

Modern agricultural pollution is a widespread crisis throughout the United Sates that alters both the health of our natural landscape and our communities. Agricultural runoff of sediment and associated nutrients entering tributary streams, in particular, is a situation closely monitored by NYS DEC that not only damages essential natural resources, but also results in yield losses for local farmers due to declining soil health. In fact, NYS DEC’s list of impaired waterways often shows agricultural operations as a suspected source of stream impacts throughout the state.

Workshop in December 2015. Photo by Jena Buckwell.

Workshop in December 2015. Photo by Jena Buckwell.

With an economic structure that relies heavily on agriculture and more than half of their land actively used for agricultural production, Orleans and Genesee counties in Western New York have a lot to gain from improved soil management practices. To assist in bringing improved conservation soil management strategy to the farmers of WNY, the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets acquired a grant for the development of a Conservation Tillage Alliance in Genesee and Orleans Counties. Orleans and Genesee’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD), as well as a handful of local farmers have worked together over the last year to begin development of what has been deemed the Western New York Soil Health Alliance (WNY SHA). The intention of this group is to provide local information in a farmer-to-farmer network relating to conservation tillage, cover crop management, and general soil health. Donn Branton, of Branton Farms in Le Roy, NY sites his reason for getting involved in the WNYSHA as a desire to share his successes and failures in soil management, with a hope to help others avoid the same mistakes he has made over the years. While the group will ultimately function as an entirely farmer-led group, Orleans and Genesee County SWCD currently serve as facilitators of the grant,providing operational assistance, such as membership recruitment, workshop organization, and communications.

Dennis Kirby of Orleans County SWCD uses a rain simulator to demonstrate water infiltration and erosion for two different soil samples at the WNY Soil Health Alliance’s Cover Crop Workshop in December 2015. Photo by Jena Buckwell.

Dennis Kirby of Orleans County SWCD uses a rain simulator to demonstrate water infiltration and erosion for two different soil samples at the WNY Soil Health Alliance’s Cover Crop Workshop in December 2015. Photo by Jena Buckwell.

Thus far, the group has hosted a couple workshops with excellent turnout and interest. The workshops have served as a platform for presentations from both representatives of the academic world regarding the science of soil health, and of local farmers sharing their personal hands-on experiences, successes and failures in cover cropping and conservation tillage. The farmer discussions in particular have been a big hit, providing information from on-farm trials from farmers working with the difficult clay soils and cold winters farmers in WNY have grown accustomed to managing in conventional ways. For the WNYSHA, the great turnouts they’ve experienced for their discussion-style workshops have been exciting proof that farmer’s are interested in learning more about what’s going on below the surface of their soils, and are ready to do what needs to be done to improve agriculture in WNY for future generations.

In addition to workshops, the WNY SHA manages a website that serves as a landing spot for information about upcoming workshops, and soil health resources. The website also hosts an on-going and expanding source of local knowledge through “On-Farm Trial” interviews and write ups. These articles provide accounts of local farm trials in cover cropping, conservation tillage, interseeding, and alternative uses for cover crops as livestock feed.

To date, On-Farm Trials has followed farmers in Orleans and Genesee counties with a variety of challenges, constraints, and lifestyles. Featured farmers include Branton Farms (Le Roy, NY), Toussaint Farms (Ridgeway, NY) and Stein Farms (Le Roy, NY), all of which are family-run farm businesses that have been working with conservation tillage methods for many years. All farms that have been interviewed are reduced or no-till and have a couple years of exploring various methods of cover cropping, including interseeding and aerial applications. Aerial seeding is particularly popular at Hartway Farms (Albion, NY), where farm life is carefully balanced by farm owners who also maintain full-time off farm jobs, making the time saving elements of aerial broadcast seeding and no-till essential 
to how they run their farm.

Resource Spotlight

Want to learn more about Soil Health? Check out these recommended resources.
— Building Soils for Better Crops, by Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), 3rd Edition
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Cover Crop “Topic Room”
— Managing Cover Crops Profitability, by the Sustainable Agriculture Network

On-Farm trials chronicle the how, as well as the why of caring for soil health and the environment as a farm business. Farmers who have participated in sharing their cover cropping and conservation tillage experiences through the On-Farm Trials series note environmental improvements ranging from no algae growth in farm ponds, clean and topsoil free snow banks lining their fields in the winters, thriving earthworm populations in their fields, and more. From an economic standpoint, a farm family like Stein Farms does double duty with their cover crop, using it as feed for their dairy herd, as well as an important source of biomass, nutrients, and protection for their fields. In the future, the On-Farm Trials series hopes to cover small-scale vegetable, and pasture raised meat producers, in addition to more field crop producers. If you are a farmer experimenting with cover cropping, conservation tillage, or any other soil health method, and would like to share your story with us, please contact WNYSHA through their website or by email.

Moving forward, WNY SHA will be developing into a 501(c)3, and continuing outreach through their website, email, and educational workshops. The alliance aspires to recruit members who are interested in doing their own trials with help from other members, and sharing their findings to expand the knowledge base of the farm community as a whole. Ultimately, the goal of the WNY SHA is to reduce agriculture’s negative impacts on the environment, while simultaneously improving the long-term productivity of their soils and efficiency of local farming practices to ensure that farmers can rise to the challenge of feeding a growing population in a sustainable way. 

Branton Farm’s Rogator set up for interseeding crops.

Branton Farm’s Rogator set up for interseeding crops.

The Western New York Soil Health Alliance (WNY SHA) is a farmer-to-farmer network that aspires to create connections in the farming community of WNY, and encourage responsible environmental stewardship through soil health education and outreach. WNY SHA hosts regular workshops in Genesee and Orleans counties, hosting academic presentations, as well as farmer led discussions concerning soil health. WNY SHA also provides resources to farmers through their website, including information for upcoming related events, recommended resources, and On-Farm Trials.

If you are interested in learning more about the alliance, or would like to fill out a member form, please visit wnysoilhealth.com. Dennis Kirby, OCSWCD facilitator can be reached atdennis.Kirby@ny.nacdnet.net and Molly Cassatt GCSWCD facilitator can be reached atmolly.stetz@ny.nacdnet.net.

All are welcome to join WNY SHA. Residency of Genesee or Orleans county is not required.

 Jena Buckwell is an AmeriCorps State and National member, currently serving Orleans County SWCD as Conservation Planning Assistant.

Claire Cekander

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