A series of videos showcases the various ways farmers in Massachusetts are supporting soil health and sustainability. The videos feature produce and other crop growers, a dairy farmer and a researcher from the University of Massachusetts who works with the state’s farmers. Along with a 27-minute video, the series includes several shorter clips (30 seconds to a little more than one minute). All the videos are available on Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation’s (MFBF) YouTube channel.
Mark Amato, MFBF’s immediate past president, manages Verrill Farm and has been growing strawberries for more than 45 years.
Amato said one of the biggest challenges of growing strawberries is combating the plant diseases that can build up in the soil over time. Rather than using traditional chemical fumigants to kill the diseases, Verrill Farm uses mustard plants that will release chemicals that act like fumigants.
“One of the side advantages of using this mustard crop is that when it’s in full bloom, the honeybees absolutely love it,” Amato said. “It sounds like a superhighway behind us, there are so many bees out here.”
Other kinds of cover crops are used on the farm to help build organic soil matter, Amato said, noting that all their fields are planted to cover crops in the fall.
To help maintain good strawberry, raspberry and blackberry plant yields on Nourse Farms, Tim Nourse rotates his crops.
“In that practice, we use cover crops as a way of maintaining and building organic matter,” Nourse explained.
They also do soil testing to make sure their nutrient levels are optimal.
Barstow’s Longview Farms
On Barstow’s Longview Farms, they use several innovative sustainability practices, explained Denise Barstow, a seventh-generation farmer.
“Our motto is ‘Looking forward since 1806.’ We’re always trying to do the most for our [dairy cow] herd, for our land, for our community and to continue just making food for Massachusetts,” Barstow said.
The farm’s anaerobic digester takes the energy potential out of cow manure and food waste and turns it into enough energy to power 1,600 homes. It also produces fertilizer for the 450 acres of land on which they grow food for their dairy cows.
To manage the costs of the digester, the farm partnered with four other dairies in Massachusetts, which piqued the interest of investors and lawmakers, largely because of all the food waste from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont that they process.
Barstow also noted that the farms would not have been able to install the $6.3 million digester without grants and loans through USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.
Because the methane-less fertilizer the digester producers is so good for the soil and crop yields, they use very little to no chemical fertilizer.
“As dairy farmers, one of the most important things we do is land care. Soil health is essential in creating high-quality feed for our animals,” Barstow said.
Among the other practices the Barstows use to ensure soil health are planting cover crops and, since 2019, no-till planting.
Red Fire Farm
Soil management is key for Ryan and Sarah Voiland of Red Fire Farm, too. They grow a variety of crops, including produce, potatoes, onions and turnips, primarily to feed people in their region.
“How can we really support long-term soil health? That’s got to be addressed,” Sarah emphasized.
To keep the soil healthy from one growing season to the next – and well beyond – the Voilands use cover crops and crop rotation, which also help minimize pests.
Taking care to separate the crops they plant early from the later-planted crops, for example, can help prevent beetle problems.
“We really try to take an approach of outsmarting or avoiding the insects before we fall back on spraying something,” Ryan explained.
In addition, the Voilands have a rigorous soil testing program in late summer and early fall.
“More and more we’re looking at micronutrients,” which Ryan said the plants only need in small amounts, but if they’re missing, will affect how the plants grow.
Pleasant Valley Gardens
Heather Bonanno-Baker of Pleasant Valley Gardens said they take great care to make sure they’re using only the amount of pesticide they need in their greenhouses and elsewhere on the farm. Pleasant Valley Gardens grows vegetables, flowering annuals and hardy mums and offers a CSA program.
A weekly visit from an integrated pest management scout helps them target their pesticide use. In some cases, they’re able to avoid spraying altogether by using insects, like nematodes, to take care of the pests.
“Sustainable” has several meanings, according to Richard Bonanno, Bonanno-Baker’s father.
“For us, sustainability is our ability to continue to produce good crops on our land, to provide a living for the family members that want to be here and to be able to pay all of our bills,” Bonanno said. “It’s always in our best interest to make sure our soils are as healthy as they can be and that we’re treating the environment correctly.”
The solar panels the family installed several years ago provide all the electricity for the farm – including the homes and the greenhouses.
The family also welcomed a beekeeper on their property, which benefits both the bees and the farm, Bonanno-Baker pointed out.
University of Massachusetts
Guidance from the University of Massachusetts helps farmers in the state with these and other conservation practices through research and one-on-one technical assistance to determine what works best on a particular farm, according to Dr. Sam Corcoran, a post-doctoral researcher at UMass.
“Healthy soil management practices are really critical to preserving the long-term farming capacity of our regional soils,” Corcoran explained. “For example, I met with farmer the other day who is the 12th generation and he’s farming with his 13-generation son, and they’re thinking about their 14th-generation farmer, who is only about knee-high right now.”
Healthy soil is also tied to profitability, Corcoran added.
Strategic Action Fund
Production of MFBF’s videos was funded through a grant from the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Strategic Action Fund. Through the fund, state Farm Bureaus with fewer than 25,000 members were eligible to apply for funding of up to $5,000 for public policy-related projects.
Several state Farm Bureaus – Idaho, Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas – each contributed $1,000 to the Strategic Action Fund for the 2021 round of projects.