Friday, January 12, 2018

PA Assn For Sustainable Ag SOIL Institute Advances Soil Health Research

The PA Association of Sustainable Agriculture, farmers and educators are working together to build community networks for on-farm research and collaborative learning through the SOIL Institute.
First launched at the 2016 PASA Farming For The Future Conference, the SOIL Institute team is now running four research projects on over 50 farms, administering two formal apprenticeship programs for beginning farmers, and connecting hundreds of farmers and supporters through field days and other events.
The SOIL Institute has been supported through a grassroots fundraising effort that recently reached its initial $3 million dollar goal, with 110 families, foundations, agencies, and businesses supporting the campaign.
The SOIL Institute’s work will be featured at this year’s PASA Farming for the Future Conference, February 7-10, at the Penn Stater conference center in State College, PA.
A major highlight of this effort is the Soil Health Benchmark Study, in which PASA farmers are working to measure and improve their soil health over time, as individuals and as a community.
Participating farmers submit soil samples to the Cornell Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health and also share information about their soil management practices, including cover cropping, reducing tillage, and organic amendments.
PASA education staff use this information to inform educational events, where farmers can share their practices and experiences, supported by on-farm data.
The Soil Health Benchmark Study will be featured at several workshops at the conference.
Franklin Egan, PASA’s Education Director and Kristy Borrelli, Penn State Extension Sustainable Agriculture Educator, will present on the technical aspects of measuring soil health, while a team of experienced farmers will share how they’re using information from the Benchmark Study to guide decisions on the-farm.
Attendees will leave with an in-depth knowledge of soil health principles, and the tools to develop a soil health management plan for their farms.
“Participation in the PASA study was an excellent opportunity to think critically about our soil management strategy,” says Deirdre Flemming of Two Gander Farms and Apiary, an organic vegetable operation in Chester County. “Benchmarking our farm's soil health relative to other farms put our results into context, and offered an opportunity to learn more about the management practices of farms with high ratings.”
Deirdre and her husband Trey will be speaking at the PASA conference about the soil health challenges they are navigating on their farm, including how to improve their fall cover crops and how to transition new ground to organic management.
The Farming for the Future Conference will also feature opportunities to get involved with other SOIL Institute research projects, including benchmarking profitability and financial health on vegetable farms, and improving land and feed efficiency on pastured-livestock farms.
In addition to research, a major focus of the SOIL Institute is training the next generation of sustainable farmers.
To that end, PASA is now administering two formal apprenticeship programs that pair a beginning farmer with an experienced mentor for on-the-job and academic learning.
The Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship is a two-year program for aspiring dairy farmers, with 10 mentor farm sites enrolled in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
PASA farmers are also now actively writing the apprenticeship standards for a program in Diversified Vegetable Farming, and interested farmers, educators, and potential apprentices will be meeting to discuss details of the program curriculum at the Conference on February 10.
“The SOIL Institute and its impact on our community has exceeded all expectations” says Dr. Egan. “At this year’s Farming for the Future Conference, I’m very excited for PASA farmers to share the groundbreaking work they are doing and to look ahead to new challenges and successes for 2018.”
For more on Institute programs, visit the PASA SOIL Institute webpage.
Pre-registration for the 2018 Farming for the Future Conference is open through January 30th. Walk-in registration is permitted (rates increase for on-site registration).
For more information or to register, visit PASA’s Farming for the Future Conference or call 814-349-9856.
The conference is made possible in part by the generosity of lead sponsors Lady Moon Farms, Kimberton Whole Foods, and Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO).

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