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First New York Soil Health Summit harvests collaboration

Donn Branton of Branton Farms illustrates the connection between water quality and soil health by showing two samples of water, one cloudy with sediment from the creek entering his property and the other with clear water that exits his farm.

New York government policy and nonprofit leaders, researchers, farmers and agricultural professionals from 40 organizations attended the first statewide Soil Health Summit July 18 in Albany, New York. It was organized by New York Soil Health, which is funded by the state’s Environmental Protection Fund and coordinated by Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

“The setting of this soil summit next to the state capital was by intention,” said David Wolfe, Cornell professor of plant and soil ecology and program lead for New York Soil Health. He said New York has been at the forefront of the global soil health movement and summit participants would discuss where to go from here.

“We were pleased to have representatives from Gov. Cuomo’s administration and agency partners as well as representatives from the state Senate and Assembly in attendance,” said Wolfe. “The summit goals were to expand collaboration among the many farmers and organizations working on soil health issues, and also to identify research, outreach and policy priorities for the future.”

Topics included economic analyses of soil health costs and benefits; the relationship between soil health and climate change; addressing challenges of reducing tillage on vegetable farms; soil health for apple orchard systems; fortifying biochar with manure wastes as marketable fertilizer; and research on cover crop interseeding and perennial grains.

Farmer Donn Branton of Genesee County illustrated the connection between water quality and soil health by showing two samples of water, one cloudy with sediment from the creek entering his property and the other with clear water that exits his farm. “We all need to work together and do our part, and soil health practices like cover crops and reduced tillage can improve the environment around us,” he said.

Growers provided examples of the benefits they have seen from reducing tillage and using cover crops, including reduced erosion, better resilience to drought and flooding, and increased yields. They also talked about experimentation on the farm to address challenges to adopting soil health practices. New York growers often collaborate with Cornell researchers in exploring innovative soil health practices, and also benefit from information provided by Cornell Cooperative Extension programs.

Patrick Hooker, New York deputy secretary for food and agriculture, delivered the morning remarks at the summit.

“We could use some good news stories in the environment these days, and I think the idea of rebuilding soil health really is one we can build an alliance around,” said keynote speaker David Montgomery, professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington.

Representatives from The Nature Conservancy, Northeast Organic Farming Association, New York Farm Viability Institute, American Farmland Trust and New York Farm Bureau discussed the intersection of their work with soil health.

“Cornell CALS is very pleased to kick off what we hope will be a robust and lasting partnership between farm and environmental NGOs and New York and federal agency personnel engaged in soil health, to better serve the needs of the farm community in New York and meet our environmental policy goals,” said Julie Suarez, CALS associate dean for government and community relations.

The New York Soil Health project, established in 2017, facilitates collaboration among soil health efforts across the state to implement research, outreach and policy solutions to address constraints to improved soil health practices.

Kitty Gifford is a consultant for New York Soil Health.

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Lindsey Hadlock