Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Mid-Atlantic's Coming Green Revolution

In establishing the Healthy Soils Program, Maryland has begun to officially view soil in terms of biological populations, organic content, structure and water-holding capacity, and carbon sequestration. Everybody wants healthy soil, but for the past 70 years, conventional agriculturalists have been satisfied merely with healthy crops. Food for those crops has been supplied by chemicals known to help them grow. The soil fell into neglect, and in the process, we lost a lot of carbon from the soil and released a lot of nitrous oxide through chemical production. The Healthy Soils Program, then, is a way to recover from this unforeseen consequence of the Green Revolution by reducing the severity of our recent interventions in soil fertility.

In promoting healthy soils, Dr. Sara Via brings out a few principles farmers and gardeners should follow. I have annotated them here with my comments for gardeners:

  • Rotate crops - some crops, e.g. tomatoes, should be rotated over 3 or more years
  • Limit soil disturbance - soil structure is preserved thereby; use a broadfork to input OM
  • Limit chemical inputs - e.g. phosphorus, since an excess will subdue mycorrhizae
  • Increase biological diversity - compost increases soil biodiversity; biochar multiplies that
  • Keep the soil covered - keep your garden dressed (like the one in Eden)
  • Maintain live roots - when the roots die, mycorrhizae die back, too (90% of plants use MR)
    Photo by Tamera Clark

These may turn out to be Maryland's fundamental principles for healthy soil agriculture, as they support the four objectives in the new legislation.

Another way to increase soil microbial and faunal biomass, porous soil structure, and carbon sequestration is to add biochar, which Dr. Via also acknowledges in her talks. Among organic growers, biochar is still somewhat arcane; less so with the permaculture crowd. It is going to take a while, however, before most Maryland farmers adopt it unless the Healthy Soils Program adds incentives to do so.

Neighboring West Virginia, on the other hand, has become a potential beehive of biochar activity, stemming from the Appalachian Biochar Innovation Conference held this month that brought together makers and users of many stripes, as well as government and academic leaders. One of the largest potential applications there is in mining remediation. Strip mines and missing mountaintops could be restored to vegetative growth (ironically) with real clean coal, i.e. biochar made from dried manure. Joseph Knapp, Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College's Entrepreneur-in-Residence, and organizer of the conference, is ready to form a working group for the state to move ahead with biochar in its many applications. It was electrifying to be in the room when the upwelling of consensus was voiced by attendees that this is now a big part of their vision in a state long sullied by dirty coal and other chemical industries.

Like Maryland with their Healthy Soil advocates, West Virginia is starting with a small group of perceptive and determined people. Between us and climate conscious states like New York, a New Green Revolution may soon grow in the Mid-Atlantic region; all the more so if the U.S. Biochar Initiative (USBI) symposium takes place in Pennsylvania next year as rumored.

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