Soil health summit connects farmers, researchers, policymakers

Cornell hosted the second New York Soil Health Summit Dec. 13, bringing together farmers, policymakers and researchers who aim to assist growers in mitigating and adapting to climate change while protecting the food supply and enhancing farmer livelihoods and rural economies.

The summit was organized to help this diverse group of stakeholders take action in accordance with the New York Soil Health and Climate Resiliency Act, passed by the Legislature last year. Among the state legislators and agency personnel in attendance were Kevin King, deputy secretary for food and agriculture for Gov. Kathy Hochul; Assemblymembers Donna Lupardo, D-123rd Dist., and Chris Tague, R-102nd Dist.; and State Sen. Michelle Hinchey ’09, D-46th Dist.

“Not only are farmers on the front line of the climate crisis, they’re also a big part of the solution,” said Hinchey, an alumna of the ILR School, who, along with Lupardo, introduced the soil health act, calling it the first major update to New York’s soil conservation laws since the Dust Bowl era. “Soil health protects our farmland and our food supply while also sequestering carbon and fighting climate change.”

Cornell impacting New York State

Lupardo added: “We’re trying to build a culture of soil health across the state. It is time to not only reimagine soil health, but to integrate this into the larger picture of climate resiliency for New York state.”

Much of the scientific basis for the new soil health law comes from Cornell research. The university is also a key statewide partner in achieving the goals of the new law, which calls for developing voluntary soil health standards that can assist farmers with soil testing and with implementing management practices that can increase yields and profitability while also protecting soil and water quality, sequestering carbon, and reducing fertilizer inputs.

Cornell supports a 15-year database of soil health indicators, such as protein, active carbon, hardness and total organic matter, and uses that information to understand how best to effectively and economically improve the health and productivity of various soil types across the through strategies like cover crops, reduced tillage and biochar application, said Harold van Es, professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS) in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), who co-leads the New York State Soil Health initiative with Matt Ryan, associate professor in SIPS..

“The Soil Health and Climate Resiliency Act is truly a momentous achievement,” van Es said. “It was really a grassroots effort, and it’s a very progressive, visionary and comprehensive piece of legislation that acknowledges the importance of soil health and puts it in the context of other environmental concerns, notably climate change and water quality.”

A panel of farmers spoke at the summit about their experiences implementing regenerative agricultural practices to improve soil health. Dale Stein, senior partner of Stein Farms, a family-owned dairy in Leroy, New York, shared the success he’s seen implementing cover crops over the past 20 years.

“We get more use of manure, less use of man-made fertilizers, and we get higher yields, providing we get rain,” Stein said. “There’s a lot more cover crops grown in our area now than there ever was. I hope our neighbors just now planting cover crops will see the benefits we have.”

The summit included contributions from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, Cornell CALS and Cooperative Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Participating partner organizations included American Farmland Trust, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, Scenic Hudson and the New York Farm Bureau.

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

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