Courtesy of Kitty Gifford/Cornell University

March 23, 2022

Newly Passed NY Soil Health Legislation Backed by Cornell Research

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On Dec. 23, the New York State Senate passed new law backed by Cornell research establishing the Soil Health and Climate Resiliency Act, the Soil Health Program and the Climate Resilient Farming Initiative. 

The new law will require all state agencies to work together in order to mitigate climate change and improve soil health and water quality. The law is meant to enhance the overall health of soil to improve farm productivity, reduce and mitigate the impact of farming on climate change. “The new law brings everything together,” said Prof. David W. Wolfe, plant science. 

The legislation is supported by the Cornell Soil Health Program, which was established over 20 years ago and aims to provide local farmers with research oriented agricultural and farming practices that improve soil health, Wolfe explained. 

Within the program is an Cornell-led initiative called New York Soil Health, which works to foster networking, outreach and research related to soil health. The program aims to guide farmers towards sustainable agriculture and regenerative farming — the restoring of organic matter in the soil to reduce climate change through agriculture. 

A key aspect addressed by NYSH is increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil, which has gradually declined due to extreme plowing and tillage. Such practices have been shown to leave soil bare, which asWolfe explained, reduces soil fertility and crop resilience to extreme weather conditions.

Through the NYSH, farmers have begun to notice that building up organic matter in the soil has allowed their crops to become more resilient to droughts and less prone to erosion, Wolfe said. 

As the initiative will hopefully result in the growth of better crops, researchers are also looking forways to efficiently plant these crops. 

Prof. Matt Ryan, soil and crop science, co-lead of the New York Soil Health initiative has conducted research on cover crops — a conservation practice in which crops are planted for the benefits that they provide to the agroecosystem. 

Ryan has studied ways to use cover crops to reduce tillage — the preparation of land for growing crops. While soil tillage can be beneficial for controlling weeds and preparing seed beds for planting, there are significant downsides to consider. 

“Soil tillage is damaging to the structure of the soil,” Ryan said. “[But] it can also negatively impact different organisms that live in the soil that really regulate the processes that we’re interested in as farmers.”

Thanks to the  program, farmers are beginning to do more fall and winter cropping and less plowing to help build up the organic matter in the soil which is composed of almost 60% carbon. By increasing the amount of organic matter, carbon dioxide can be stored in the soil rather than in the atmosphere, converging an initiative that improves the quality of soil and mitigates climate change, Wolfe explained.

On another hand, New York has experienced an increase in heavy precipitation since 1900 causing drowning crops and runoff in lakes. By increasing the amount of winter crops and levels of organic matter in the soil, farmers are avoiding bare grounds with no vegetation and reducing the amount of runoff that ends up in lakes, explained Prof. Wolfe.

While Cornell research played a major role in passing this bill, it’s also important to look into the legislative process. 

The Sun spoke with assembly member Donna Lupardo (D-123rd District), who introduced the original bill with state senator Michelle Hinchey (D-46th District), Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“When I first became chair of the assembly Committee on Agriculture, I was invited up to Cornell and met with the professors behind the effort to develop the New York soil health roadmap,” Lupardo said. “I met with the professors who were working on biochar and the pyrolysis lab, and they really opened my eyes to the innovative management needed for building healthy soils.”

While making revisions to the bill, the perspectives of various stakeholders were taken into consideration. 

“We brought them to Albany, including people from Cornell, people from the Northeast Organic Farming Association and policy experts in other fields to discuss what should be part of a soil health and climate resiliency bill,” Lupardo said. “We based the bill primarily around their input.” 

Lupardo saw how Cornell’s soil research had the potential to make a major impact on climate change mitigation not just in New York State, but also the United States.

“What led Senator Hinchey and I to file the bill was how I was inspired by the work being done at Cornell and other places around the state and around the country to develop innovative management practices to build healthy soil,” Lupardo said. 

Such an initiative has been on the road for a very long time. Now legislation will further encourage farmers, researchers and policy makers to work together on the intersections of what is beneficial for both us humans, and the environment. “We are truly in the midst of a soil revolution,” Wolfe said.