When winter melts into the upcoming agricultural planting season, New York growers will get a boost from the new Soil Health and Climate Resiliency Act – backed up by Cornell research, supported by the state’s farmers – and signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul.
The new law (Senate: S4722A/House: A5386A) – signed Dec. 23 – will help farmers mitigate and adapt to the impact of climate change, by applying sustainable soil and crop management strategies that improve farm resilience and benefit the environment. It also codifies an existing program aiming to encourage, assist and train the state’s farmers in improving soil through better tillage techniques, cover-cropping methods, composting and other novel practices.
“This law is philosophically built on the research we’ve conducted at Cornell in the last two decades,” said Harold Van Es, professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS), in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), who – with Matt Ryan, associate professor in SIPS -- now leads the New York State Soil Health initiative.
“It’s been wonderful to see broad support for this ambitious new legislation that hastens to expand the adoption of good farm soil health practices,” said David W. Wolfe, professor emeritus in CALS, whose research also helped inform the new law. “This law will not only ensure a healthy food system for New York, but increase community resilience to extreme weather, protect our water resources and help meet state climate goals by storing more carbon in soil.”
State Senator Michelle Hinchey (D-46th District) and Assemblymember Donna Lupardo (D-123rd District) introduced the original bills to the New York Legislature in February 2021, while Ithaca Assemblymember Anna Kelles (D-125th District) was among the co-sponsors.
“The Soil Health and Climate Resiliency Act is the first major piece of legislation in New York that paves the way for farmers,” Hinchey said, “who are already leading on environmental management, to become a cornerstone of our fight against the climate crisis.”
Agriculture plays a vital role in helping New York achieve its climate goals, Lupardo said. “It starts off with the simple premise that the health and resiliency of New York’s agricultural soil is an important priority,” she said. “Healthy soil produces healthier foods, mitigates climate change through carbon sequestration and protects our natural resources.”
Cornell, CALS and New York farmers have been at the forefront of the soil health movement. In 2017, State Senator Tom O’Mara (R-58th District) helped the group obtain initial state funding for the university’s New York Soil Health program.
By 2018, the program leadership organized the New York Soil Health Summit in Albany, where more than 140 people – from nearly 40 stakeholder groups including farmers, politicians, nonprofits and scientists – met in Albany to share expertise and set new priorities.
The summit’s detailed breakout sessions led to the 2019 New York Soil Health Roadmap, a 40-page document, which opened with: “Historical land use and intensive agriculture with poor soil management have led to an alarming loss of organic matter in agricultural soils worldwide. The profitability and sustainability of many New York farms are vulnerable to this trend [and] the importance of organic matter to soil health cannot be overstated.”
Many of the roadmap priorities are reflected in the new legislation, which includes creating a stakeholder-based way to integrate research, outreach and policy to expand adoption of soil health practices, and link this with New York’s water quality and climate goals.
Now, the soil health initiative is fully funded, and establishing and maintaining soil health standards will be reliant upon further Cornell scholarship.
“When we – as faculty – were talking about soil health 20 years ago, you had to explain what it was,” Wolfe said. “Now every farmer is familiar with the phrase and their interest is piqued. We've come a long way, but many still need technical or economic support for adopting these newer practices."
Van Es agreed. “Allowing thought leaders like Cornell and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty to speak on these issues, translates into important policy and legislation – and well-being,” he said. “Sometimes it just takes a long time, but moonshot thinking is something that pays off in the long run.”
Van Es, Ryan and Wolfe are faculty fellows at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.