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Sustainable Agriculture

With New Testing Protocol, New York Research Digs Into Soil Health

For a small fee, New York farmers soon will be able to take a soil sample to a Cornell University lab, where scientists will determine its overall health. The test will go beyond measuring pH to include physical and biological properties, a science-based assessment of how strategies such as reduced tillage and cover cropping can improve soil quality. The soil health test will be one result of SARE-funded participatory research at Cornell that relies on teams of county extension educators and area farmers spread across the state to collect data and demonstrate promising soil management strategies.

“To my surprise, growers want to know the biological composition of their soils,” said George Abawi, a Cornell soil researcher based in Geneva, NY, who is heading the project. “The growers are very interested and are asking us: ‘What are my farming practices doing to my soil productivity?’ ”

Interest in soil management has reached an all-time high, says Abawi, a researcher for 35 years, evidenced by the standing-room-only crowd at the Empire Fruit & Vegetable Expo and a steady influx of questions from farmers throughout the study. On the ground, more farmers are planting longer rotations using cover crops and reduced tillage—a set of strategies encouraged in the project.

As a member of one of the five “ag teams,” Wayne County vegetable grower Elizabeth Henderson’s Peacework Organic Farm demonstrated minimum tillage and nitrogen-rich soil amendments like composted horse manure and cover crops at a fall 2004 field day. Years of such soil-building strategies and minimizing negative impacts on her 18 acres provides eye-opening data to the project. For example, soil compaction, measured using a penetrometer, was minimal. Soil structure, tested in a sieve in a simulated downpour, proved full of organic material, crumbly and better able to resist erosion than on a farm not using those practices.

The project shows “a rediscovery of the significance of soil quality,” said Henderson, who serves as a farmer-educator for SARE. “They’re interested in what we’re doing on our farm.”

Abawi and his partners are collecting data from Henderson and up to 100 other farmers to synthesize their growing knowledge of how various management practices affect soil health. At the long-term soil health site at Geneva, researchers reported seeing soil improvements after just two seasons of adding a hairy vetch cover crop between cash crops.


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