JOHNSONVILLE, NY – There’s nothing more inspiring than walking a farmer’s land and learning the intricate details at the intersection of soil biology, crop production and grazing management. It also helps if you have a seasoned facilitator trained in the art and science of regenerative practices leading the way and challenging the status quo mantra of “It won’t work here.”
Fresh off his overseas, boots on the ground tour in the UK and Ireland, Understanding Ag’s consultant Dr. Allen Williams reiterated, “Farmers around the world are dealing with mostly the same problems and a good share of them can be attributed to the person in the mirror … We see the top three barriers all the time – lack of awareness/education, peer pressure and debt load – as handcuffs to adoption.”
The Agricultural Stewardship Association (ASA) facilitated the farm meeting for 60 farmers, with Williams teaming up with Brad Wiley and Elizabeth Collins of Otter Creek Farm to read land though intense observation and the simple shovel. “It’s really about sharing knowledge and experiences within specific contexts,” said Williams. “There is no landscape that is hopeless if you follow the right principles.”
Williams segued into his critical “6-4-3” concepts before turning over any soil. Citing Understanding Ag’s core values in regenerative practices, he explained in detail, “The six principles of soil health: Know your context, minimize soil disturbance, maintain soil armor, have living roots, add diversity and integrate livestock into the holistic system. The four ecosystem processes: Water cycle, nutrient cycle, energy cycle and community dynamics. And the three rules of adaptive stewardship: Compounding, diversity and disruption.” The information is shared on Understanding Ag’s website, UnderstandingAg.com.
Gracious hosts and farmers, Wiley and Collins shared their context within the historic 440-acre farm, founded in 1882, which is a combination of 200 tillable acres, 100 pasture acres and 140 wooded acres on a mix of prime and statewide importance soils. Currently, the farm raises a variety of pastured animals that include a grass-fed herd of Red Angus, meat chickens, egg-laying chickens, pigs and turkeys.
There is also a burgeoning 20-acre chestnut tree orchard and their Graceful Acres Farmstay business which ties in well with their mission of “committing to the stewardship and use of our resources to provide income to regenerate and maintain the opportunities the farm provides for the family, customers and community.”
Williams led farmers to a cornfield that is a demonstration plot for soil health using cover crops and interseeding with the potential for grazing in autumn. With a shovel, Williams used his talents to explain soil aggregates, “soil dingleberries,” water infiltration, soil smell for signs of health and launched into the importance of soil biology, saying, “Mycorrhizal fungi are the original precision agriculture leaders.”
He touted observation as a missing tool, “because too many farmers are sitting on a piece of equipment all day to notice Mother Nature’s signals. We’re also too committed and allured by prescriptions, formulas and recipes in most ag settings. Prescriptive is not regenerative,” he said.
After a local lunch on the farm, the enthusiastic group reconvened in a pasture/hayfield that had been through the dry 2022 summer where Williams explained “photosynthesis leakage,” fertility transfer, contour grazing principles and ways to improve the field using grazing management techniques, fencing, water tub placement, recovery times, plant residuals and animal impact/disruption to perform bio-mimicry services on the land to improve it within the context of the farm.
The field day literally peaked on a piece of high ground overlooking the beautiful herd of Red Angus that was transformed by a combination of planted annual cover crops, grazing impact, recovery time and reseeding that purposely pulsed the soil biology. “We were apprehensive at first but have learned about the power of compounding, diversity and disruption in improving land that empower our own set of tools within our context,” said Wiley and Collins.
“The most important part of these field days is farmers can see and touch progress within a certain context and draw inspiration for their own land and operation. Forming these many relationships with practitioners is why we get up in the morning. There’s huge opportunities for our planet and it all starts with the soil and the passionate land manager,” stated Williams.
Otter Creek Farm, Tiashoke Farm and Hickory Hill Dairy are participating in a three-year demonstration grant funded by NE-SARE and administered by ASA. The grant seeks to support farmers in experimenting with interseeding of cover crops in silage corn, which may result in a more reliable and robust winter cover than can be established with post-harvest seedings. The grant is also looking at the soil health gains from interseeding cover crops and any additional benefits from fall grazing. This demonstration grant and field day are supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, through the NE-SARE program under sub-award number ONE19-330.
ASA is a nonprofit, community-supported land conservancy dedicated to protecting local farmland and working forests from encroaching development in Washington and Rensselaer counties. For questions about this event, contact Janet Britt by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 518.692.7285.
by Troy Bishopp