Category Archives: Environmental Stewardship

Common Ground: Growing Money and Soil at Potomac Vegetable Farms

Can Virginia farmers find common ground around the issue of soil health and the management of core principles for better soil function and performance?

Understanding and building your farm’s soil resource is critical for productivity, profitability and sustainability. Of course, soils have inherent and dynamic properties that affect the function and performance of soils. Like a personal bank account, good farmers and producers seek to manage the dynamic processes by making soil health-building deposits and minimizing withdrawals that are soil health-depleting.

At the 2015 Virginia Farm to Table Conference, Ellen Polishuk of Potomac Vegetable Farms shared how she and her colleagues work to grow money and soil with commercial vegetable production. The Common Ground Soil Health profile video below highlights the core principles she uses to build soil health and maintain a positive bank account.

Six (6) additional technical clips were developed in collaboration with Ellen Polishuk of Potomac Vegetable Farms, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Virginia Cooperative Extension and Virginia Association for Biological Farming, and AE Media. The play list can be accessed at the following link: https://youtu.be/YnWJBegM4ZQ?list=PLuZ_HCbDlptObEcuqWaCkhYhiTS3CP0ua

The video and technical clips were produced as part of a USDA-NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) project entitled, Finding Common Ground: Healthy Farms from the Soil Up.

Health from the Soil Up

Soil is the foundation for farming and the production of fresh nutritious food, therefore, ecologically sound soil management is critical for the present and future well-being of Virginia’s communities. Similarly, ecologically sound soil conserving practices are needed to protect the environment and keep farms profitable and viable. Soils should not be treated like dirt, but should be cared for to encourage health and proper ecological function.

Recently, the Virginia Soil Health Coalition was formed in cooperation with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to promote and encourage the implementation of four core soil health principles: 1) Keep soil covered, 2) Minimize soil disturbance, 3) Maximize living roots, and 4) Energize your cropping system with plant and livestock diversity.

Scientists and researchers are just beginning to discover and unlock some of the secrets of a healthy well-functioning soil. Of course, soil testing and fertility management are critical for yield and performance since soils need to be fed and plants use nutrients. However, because of the importance of carbon and organic matter to a soil’s chemical, biological and physical properties, these principles give greater emphasis to practices that build soil organic matter and encourage more biological activity to drive and enhance chemical and physical processes needed for healthier soils.
Soil_Carbon
Virginia Cooperative Extension and Virginia SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) are glad to be part of the Virginia Soil Health Coalition to share education information with and among farmers, growers, landowners and communities about these critical soil health promoting principles.

For more information visit Extension’s VCE Soil Health and Cover Crops topic page.

Excluding Livestock from Streams: A Unique Opportunity and the Right Thing to Do

Discussion about whether to exclude livestock from local waterways and streams can be contentious at times. However, the practice is a high-priority for Virginia as the state tries to do its part to improve local and regional waterways.

For many farmers, excluding their cattle from streams is the right thing to do and fits into their operation and management system. For other farmers, they have questions about the costs of installation and ongoing maintenance and how — or if — the practice can work on leased land. And for some farmers, being encouraged to exclude their cattle from streams feels like an intrusion of privacy and an infringement of their rights.

In working with farmers through the years, I have heard many conversations on why you should or should not exclude your cattle from streams. Of these conservations,  I distinctly remember comments by two forward-thinking Virginia dairy farmers who said, “It is the 21st century and it’s the right thing to do!” and “Given all the educational, technical assistance and financial resources devoted to keeping cattle out of streams at the local, state and federal level, the practice of not keeping cattle out of streams would be indefensible today in a court of law.”  (see photos below on programs and resources available)

SKMBT_C22015012808500Certainly, research into the benefits of livestock exclusion on cattle performance and herd health needs to continue. However, the benefits can include:

  • Improved weight gain;
  • Decreased incidence of disease and foot-related ailments
  • Increased forage utilization;
  • Enhanced pasture management and quality; and
  • Reduced visits and bills from the veterinarian.

For farmers who have had questions about the costs of installation and ongoing maintenance and how –or if — the practice can work on leased land, they should know it is a high-priority and the state is providing resources to overcome any barrier to adoption and implementation of the practice. Virginia will provide 100% reimbursement on the installation of a livestock stream-exclusion system. Farmers and landowners can sign up for the unique cost-share opportunity now through June 30, 2015.

SKMBT_C22015012808501Do your part and do the right thing! Contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District to learn more about the practice and apply for reimbursement.