Local farmers farm smart as climate changes

(The 3rd in a series on climate change in the county)

GHENT— “Regenerative agriculture,” “agroforestry,” “silvopasturing,” “alley cropping,” “resilience”—a new vocabulary has evolved around ways to adapt farming practices to climate change.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are responsible for accelerating climate change and many of its effects that challenge farming: unpredictable weather, dramatic storms causing soil erosion, increased pest activity and drought. In turn, agriculture, forestry and land use account for some 25% of GHG emissions worldwide through nitrous oxide rising from manure and synthetic fertilizers, methane belched by cows and carbon dioxide released from tilling soil and cutting trees. Curbing GHG emissions and removing GHG carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are lynchpins of climate change moderation.

Columbia County farmers and businesses are experimenting with creative approaches to reducing carbon and other GHG emissions, enhancing carbon capture (or sequestration) in soils, making landscapes more resilient to shifting weather patterns, and improving the health of soils and produce, according to Jennifer Phillips, who teaches Climate Policy and Science at Bard’s Center for Environmental Policy. Professor Phillips, who came to Columbia County by way of Columbia University, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and eight years of research in East and South Africa, farms in Clermont, where sheep and cows graze rotationally on her organically-managed pastures.

Regenerative agriculture refers to a holistic approach that draws on indigenous practices to diversify and strengthen soil. It does that by minimizing the soil disturbance that occurs through tilling and by keeping fields continually planted with cover crops, while moving away from the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.   

At Old Mud Creek Farm in Hudson, a joint venture of environmentalist Abby Rockefeller and second-generation organic farmer Ben Dobson, a team is experimenting with practices and produce that may replenish ecosystems, nurture biodiversity and sequester carbon. It does this by building the organic matter stored in soil through no-till planting, diversifying crops and rotating and deploying cover crops. The farm’s website is:

The transition from planting annual crops that are harvested and fields that are tilled over to farming with perennials that develop root and woody biomass not only enhances resilience (water and nutrient retention) but also has been found to increase soil carbon by 50-100%. Mr. Dobson is particularly enthusiastic about hemp, which cleans heavy metals from soils and is also effective at fixing carbon in the soil, a subject of ongoing research.

Propagate Group is a business in Hudson that works with farmers to transition their land to agroforestry. The term refers to the integration of fruit, nut and timber trees with animal or crop farming systems. Among its agroforestry techniques are: silvopasturing, which is placing trees in fields used for grazing or placing grazing animals into the woods to browse understory; and alley cropping, which involves planting rows of trees to create “alleys,” where agricultural or horticultural crops are planted.

Benefits include diversifying the landscape because, “like a diversified portfolio, a landscape rich with plant species is resistant to pests and diseases,” says Propagate’s website. The benefits include: decreasing erosion and nutrient loss; fixing nitrogen in the soil; and enhancing water retention, which in turn supports crops in times of drought.

Agroforestry also has the benefit that trees act to sequester carbon. As Propagate says: “A tree is the opposite of a smoke stack.” While the latter emits carbon dioxide into the air, trees pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store (“sequester”) it in their trunks, branches and roots.

At Arthur’s Point Farm in Ghent, environmental lawyer David Newman and his team are growing trees, shrubs and perennial wildflowers especially suited for agroforestry. They’re doing it for the restoration of the local ecology and to meet anticipated climate changes.    They are growing native and naturalized black locust and honey locust, hazelnut, chestnut and hickory, currant and apple trees.

Species are grown from locally-sourced seed and sold bare-root, and Arthur’s Point is experimenting to find models that will scale up for large landowners.

In Ancramdale, Jim Davenport is putting regenerative and agroforestry techniques into practice on his family’s dairy farm. His land is on a hillside and was “highly erodible” back when he harvested the summer’s crop of corn and left the fields bare.   

Now, after the summer harvest, he plants a cover crop of either winter rye or “triticale” (a wheat/rye mix) that stabilizes the soil; like the corn, it is harvested to feed his animals. The animals love the fermented triticale and produce more milk with it than with winter rye and it sequesters more carbon in the soil through its root mass.   

Mr. Davenport plants corn in the fields in spring without tilling, using a grain drill that slits the soil and then closes it over the seed, so that carbon from the soil is not released to the atmosphere.    Finally, he uses the cow manure, not synthetic material, to fertilize the fields, which increases carbon and nitrogen retention.   

Most years, Mr. Davenport can feed his animals entirely off his own land, and his soil is healthier, worms move through it more easily, aerating the soil, and it absorbs water better than before. Although regenerative practices add costs to farming (such as for the cover crops) the net costs of the new practices have been shown to boost productivity while reducing costs overall.

Next: Climate smart committees in the county.

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