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Future Harvest Blog

Director's Post: Healthy Soil, Healthy Farms, Healthy Bay

Healthy Soil, Healthy Farms, Healthy Bay

By Dena Leibman

Fly low over the Chesapeake Bay’s tributaries, and you’ll see the starkly different personalities of the region’s agriculture. The bay’s eastern flank is mostly a vast, flat carpet of soy and corn — feed for the millions of chickens produced in the area’s large-scale poultry houses. Cross the bay to its western shore and the farms — many still growing feed, but also vegetables and grass-based livestock — become smaller in converse relationship to city-inflated land prices.

Within the cities themselves, an urban farming revolution has squeezed mini-farms between housing developments and onto vacant lots and even rooftops. Each of these types of agriculture comes with its own deeply rooted conventional wisdom, often at odds with the others’. Imagine, then, last winter’s truly watershed moment when stakeholders — from the Farm Bureau to the Maryland Department of Agriculture to bay watchdog groups to the Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture — joined together to pass the Maryland Healthy Soils Act. All were in rare agreement: Healthy soil is win-win — good for farms and the bay.

Soil is a living ecosystem, teeming with billions of microbes interacting in ways that provide nutrients and structure for growing plants. When well-nurtured, it absorbs and retains rainfall, snowmelt, and irrigation water. Enter modern agriculture. We’ve deep-tilled our land into hardpan; sprayed chemicals to the point of diminishing returns (read: resistant superweeds and pests); over-applied nutrients — both synthetic and organic; and removed natural field edge buffers that filter runoff. We’ve corralled our livestock into confined spaces where manure piles up and too often finds its way into bay tributaries. Today, agriculture is responsible for 40 percent of nutrient pollution and the majority of sediment pollution to the bay.

The blossoming soil health movementnt and the multi-stakeholder interest behind it show promise in turning farmers from perceived villains of water quality efforts to full-on heroes. For example, organic and conventional farmers in record numbers are using cover crops— non-commercial crops grown between plantings of commercial ones. Cover crops are the workhorse of sustainable agriculture, reducing tillage, suppressing weeds, providing natural nitrogen and other nutrients, and most importantly for bay health efforts, keeping water in the ground and filtering polluted field runoff.

In 2015–16, more than 500,000 Maryland acres were planted in cover crops thanks to the state’s cost-share program. Other practices are key to soil health: managed grazing distributes manure, keeps land covered in grass, and provides a conducive habitat for microbes. Reduced tillage and chemical use keeps microbes healthy and happy. Planting deeply rooted perennials draws carbon via photosynthesis into the ground to help build soil organic matter. Every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter can absorb an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre, according to the U.S De- partment of Agriculture. What’s more, these practices also draw down atmospheric carbon and can offset greenhouse gas emissions.

Progress is coming, but we have far to go for soil health to be an effective tool for meeting Total Maximum Daily Load requirements. First up is solving the thorny issue of how to suppress weeds without microbe-killing chemicals or tillage; most farmers must now “pick their poison” from the two. We must learn best practices per soil type and ever-changing weather patterns, collect more data, and work to ensure farmers remain profitable — for when a farm is sold to development we lose our best chance of stewarding that land for water quality.

Which brings us back to the Maryland Healthy Soils Act. Its passage was, indeed, a Kumbaya moment, but it comes to Marylanders toothless; our work together has just begun. For instance, the act asks the state agriculture department to set up a program for demonstration projects and farmer education but provides no funding. California and Oklahoma, also among the eight states that have passed healthy soils bills, are truly investing in soil health programs, including demonstration projects, research, technical assistance, and farmer education.

We must pass similar bills in every bay watershed state, and they must come with funding for farmer education and training and cost- shares for soil health practices, as well as a commitment to research and helping farmers find ways to get a return on their investment in their soil.

With the passage of the Maryland bill and growing awareness of the link between soil and bay health, the wind is at our backs. The time is now to turn the Chesapeake region into a national example of how it’s possible for farmers an environment to thrive together.


This article is part of "The Debate in Print" an article forthcoming in March, 2018 from the Environmental Law Institute (www.eli.org). 

Chesapeake Bay Getting Healthier But New Gains Face Funding Cuts, Policy Challenges:

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program announced in December that almost 40 percent of the bay meets standards for oxygen, water clarity, and algae growth. Progress toward restoration is impressive, but getting the remaining 60 percent of the waters into alignment will be dif cult.

In 2010, after years of halting restoration efforts, EPA established enforceable pollution limits for the Chesapeake — known as the Total Maximum Daily Load — covering nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution. The six bay states — Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia — and the District of Columbia later released their plans to meet those limits by 2025. This ambitious Clean Water Blueprint survived a legal challenge, and in recent years federal, state, and local governments have pressed ahead with their plans to achieve pollution reductions.

As we reach the midway point for the 2025 deadline, it is clear that progress is being made across the watershed. Water quality and clarity have improved, the acreage of underwater bay grasses has increased, crab harvests are rebounding, and efforts to restore oyster populations are accelerating. Just as important, an outdoor recreational economy (exclusive of recreational fishing) is valued at as much as a quarter billion dollars per year and is growing.

But despite recent progress, most notably in reducing pollution from wastewater treatment plants, significant challenges remain across the watershed in meeting nonpoint source pollution reductions from agriculture and urban and suburban runoff whose controls are more dif cult.

This Debate in Print occurs as there is a standoff in Washington about future funding for bay restoration, a minor item in the struggle to pass a measure funding the government. The Trump administration has proposed dramatic funding cuts for the Chesapeake Bay Program and other federal initiatives that support restoration efforts. The House is considering less severe cuts, but so far the Senate recommends full funding. Without adequate federal funding, the initiative to save the bay is in jeopardy.

Recognizing the significant progress that has been made and the important challenges that remain, the Forum asks our panel for their views on what must happen in the years ahead if the goal of restoring the Chesapeake is to succeed. 


Dena Leibman is executive director of Future Harvest, Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. FHCASA is a farmer-based nonpro t that provides education and advocacy to advance agriculture that is profitable and good for land, water, and communities. She is also co-owner of ZigBone Farm Retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. 

Director's Post: Support the Tipper-Gurley Fund for New Farmers

Our annual conference is just around the bend, and we have a great line-up this year! Gabe Brown,  our keynote and a rancher from North Dakota, has been transfixing audiences around the world with how he saved his operation when…well, I won’t spoil the story other than to say that he’s as much a microbe rancher as a cattle rancher. Michael Twitty, food historian and author of the just-released book The Cooking Gene, will talk about the intersection of food and race and tell the story of his black, white, and Jewish cultures. On Saturday, we have Ira Wallace, seed saver extraordinaire, to tell us about seeds as a key ingredient of our food system. And sandwiched between these rock star farmers are others – the 100 plus farmers, ranchers, and ag experts of the Chesapeake Foodshed who will be sharing their knowledge with us on everything from soil health to winter production to fermentations. Join us: January 11-13, 2018, at the College Park Marriott, in College Park, MD. Thanks to the University of Maryland for being our conference partner!

What a busy time of year! Not only the conference, but we just recruited 80 new trainees for our 2018 class of beginner farmer trainees. That is a lot of trainees to keep up with! That's why we've launched the Tipper-Gurley Fund for New Farmers, named for our training program founders – Cathy Tipper and Jack and Becky Gurley. Every dollar we raise will go toward supporting our ever-growing number of trainees with scholarships, one-on-one help, training opportunities, and more.

Why is this program so important to our region? Our regional food security and the health of the Chesapeake Bay depend on training new farmers in sustainable and profitable practices. Here’s why: The average age of farmers in the Chesapeake region is 59, according to the USDA. That means about 20% of area farmers will be retiring soon. And when a farm is sold, it is forever gone, often to permanent hardscape development. Our region becomes even more dependent on imported food. We increase polluted runoff. Our open spaces disappear. And we lose our agrarian heritage one beautiful farm at a time.

The odds against new farmer success are daunting. High land prices, competition from cheap, mass-produced imported food, labor shortages, and just plain hard work for often small profit are steep challenges for the new farmer.

The good news! Never before has our region experienced such an explosion of interest in farming – from both young people and second careerists. Due to lack of capacity, Future Harvest CASA’s Beginner Farmer Training Program (BFTP) has turned away dozens of applicants this year, finally accepting 80 trainees for our 2018 class – up from just 13 trainees in 2015.

Together, we can launch the next generation of Chesapeake farmers and set them up for successful Bay-friendly farming. But we need your support. That is why we’ve launched the Tipper-Gurley Fund for New Farmers. Named after Future Harvest’s training program’s founders Cathy Tipper and Jack and Becky Gurley, the Fund will provide high-quality educators for our training program, scholarships for training opportunities, and needs-based mini-grants to help cover start-up costs for new farmers.

The time is now to donate: Cathy Tipper and the Gurleys have generously offered to match dollar for dollar the first $4,000 donated to the Fund. What a great way to reach the Fund’s first fundraising goal of $20,000 by December 31, 2017.

Click here to donate! Or you can send a check to 1114 Shawan Road, Suite 1, Cockeysville, MD 21030 noting Tipper-Gurley Fund in the check memo line. Call me at 240-413-9495, or email: dena@futureharvestcasa.org to make stock gifts or if you have questions.

Thank you, 

Dena Leibman, Executive Director

Director's Post

Welcome to the inaugural post of our new Future Harvest Blog. We’ll be featuring staff, board, and guest posts on trending topics about farming and food in the Chesapeake foodshed. Want to contribute? Contact Caiti Sullivan at caiti@futureharvestcasa.org.


Stephen Colbert. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of him! He’s the CBS Late Night Show host (really, it’s time to come out from under that tomato plant!). In his August 8 monologue, broadcast to millions of viewers around the world, Colbert uttered our three favorite words: “soil organic matter.” Okay, so he was making fun of the term as the administration's newly minted, newly mandated euphemism for climate change. As disturbing as that is, there’s something really cool in dismissers and acceptors alike getting that so much carbon belongs not in the air but in the ground, where farmers need it. And the way to get carbon in the ground and keep it there is via practices that build and deeply store—you guessed it—soil organic matter or SOM. So if C____ C____ is the disastrous phenomenon that shall not be named, we’re happy to shout out what could be one of our most effective weapons against it: SOM...

The importance of SOM isn’t new to our community. What is, is that the science – and now policy – is starting to gel around agricultural lands’ enormous capacity to draw excess carbon from the air. The French Agriculture Ministry, for example, has launched the 4 per 1000 initiative with now 168 signatories (Future Harvest CASA among them) that says that just a .4% increase in organic matter is enough to compensate for global emissions of greenhouse gasses. We’re also learning that degraded soils, especially those tilled over and over, release carbon into the air where it does the farmer little good and leads to high inputs to maintain soil fertility. No-till, low-input systems that use deeply rooted perennials and cover crops is the gold, if not-always-easy-to-achieve, standard. Farmers who incorporate these practices into their systems stand to not only boost yields and reduce expensive inputs but be heroes – reluctant or not – in the fight to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The emerging science and win-win nature of healthy soils are being translated into state policy across the country. See the chart of state laws, put together by Peter Lehner of Earth Justice and our own Maryland Delegate Dana Stein for a talk to the National Council of Environmental Legislators. Eight states, including Maryland, have passed bills recognizing the role of healthy soils in healthy agriculture. The Maryland bill, introduced by Delegate Stein, passed in January 2017 with wide support including from Future Harvest CASA, the Farm Bureau, Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA), and many others. The Act is toothless, however, mainly just defining healthy soils and its benefits and directing the MDA to develop technical assistance programs. So next steps are up to the new Act’s champions, namely securing funding for 1) research to develop the next gen of innovations that will suppress weeds and pests but not natural microbial life; and 2) technical and financial assistance to introduce such innovations to farmers.

We’re working on it – with many partners from government to nonprofits to funders to universities. We’ll showcase these efforts at our upcoming conference January 11-13, 2018, which will feature keynote speaker Gabe Brown, a nationally renowned regenerative rancher from North Dakota who has spent years building some of the healthiest soils in his state. Should we have asked Stephen Colbert? He’s not for everyone, and anyway it seems like he has his hands full these days.

Image compiled by Peter Lehner, Earth Justice