Tompkins Weekly 2-10-21
By Graham Savio
Agriculture is a relatively minor contributor toward greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, accounting for 9.9% of total U.S. emissions in 2018 according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, the sector has substantial capacity to contribute toward climate change mitigation efforts by offsetting emissions from other sectors as well as taking steps to further limit existing emissions from farming.
Conservation and sustainable land management practices can reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide associated with crop and livestock production and can increase the quantity of carbon stored in soils and above-ground vegetation.
Agriculture educators at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCE-Tompkins) work closely with farmers across the county who have adopted sustainable farming practices to reduce nutrient runoff, improve soil health and lower on-farm energy use, but a broad understanding of the extent of those practices has been limited.
A recent project at CCE-Tompkins, funded by The Park Foundation, attempts to fill this gap by cataloging adoption rates for these practices, with the aim of increasing their use by more farms across our county.
Over the past year, CCE-Tompkins agriculture program staff has worked with an advisory group comprised of farmers, Tompkins County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) representatives, and the CCE Regional Dairy and Crop Team to develop and share a survey that measures actions local farms are taking to conserve resources and mitigate climate change.
The survey results provide a baseline against which future progress can be tracked and have been used to create resources to help other local producers adopt the same successful practices.
From the survey responses, eight farms ranging in size from 3 acres to over 5,000 acres were selected as subjects for case studies. Those chosen represented the major farming sectors (dairy, row crops, vegetables, fruit, beef and diversified livestock) in this area. In-depth interviews were conducted with the farm owners who described how their operations had incorporated resource-conserving systems and practices.
The resulting farm “success stories” document sustainable farming practices used at each location, such as reduced tillage or intensive no-till farming, cover cropping, rotational grazing, streambank protection, riparian forest buffers, rainwater runoff containment, windbreaks, perennial-based agriculture and participation in the Conservation Stewardship Program.
One notable success story comes from Walnut Ridge Farm in Lansing, the county’s largest dairy farm with approximately 1,500 cows on 2,824 acres. Like all dairies with more than 300 animals, Walnut Ridge must meet rigorous standards for nutrient management and waste storage set by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation through the dairy’s concentrated animal feeding operation permit.
Soil health and water management are ongoing priorities for this farm, as reflected in the many sustainable practices it has adopted.
These include the addition of grassed waterways, catch basins and tiling to manage water flows; no-till and reduced tillage combined with cover cropping to improve soil health and reduce erosion; regular crop rotation on nearly 2,200 acres; an advanced manure injection practice that reduces the amount of liquid runoff while accounting for levels of nitrogen and phosphorus; and other precision agriculture techniques like computer-assisted sensors for field navigation, soil sampling, seed planting and localized spray applications.
Overall, this farm has improved its bottom line by reducing operating costs, tightening up nutrient management and producing higher yields while being a responsible water and land steward.
Other Tompkins County farms profiled in this project include Grace Wyly Farm and Shelterbelt Farm in Brooktondale, Hemlock Grove Farm in Danby, Carey Farm in Groton, Buck Farm in Lansing, Remembrance Farm in Trumansburg and Stick and Stone Farm in Ulysses. Individual case studies may be read online or downloaded as PDFs at ccetompkins.org/2020FarmProfiles.
Our effort to document sustainable farming practices emerges from the priorities identified in the current Tompkins County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan, a document that guides county and local governments in developing agricultural land-use policies and projects.
Revised most recently in 2015 with support from CCE-Tompkins agriculture program staff, the plan reflects extensive input from local farmers, municipal officials, community members and agriculture and conservation groups.
It not only captures data on current agricultural trends, numbers of farms, acreage, farmer demographics and the economic value of each farm sector but also sets forth priority goals, actions and strategies for farmland and open space protection, including this baseline survey of farming practices to help advance local environmental conservation efforts.
“Without the support of The Park Foundation, we could not have fully realized this objective as set forth in the County’s Ag & Farmland Protection Plan,” said Graham Savio, agriculture and horticulture team leader at CCE-Tompkins. “We are grateful to them for enabling us to undertake this important work.”
The survey will remain open throughout February and March, and Tompkins County farmers who have not yet responded are encouraged to participate at bit.ly/CCEAgSurvey.
In the spring, a summary of anonymized results indicating adoption rates for various farming practices will be shared with key partners serving the farming community as well as interested citizen groups.
This benchmarking project lays the groundwork for efforts to further agricultural resource conservation and climate change mitigation that will include developing a pilot Payment for Ecosystems Services (PES) program similar to some being trialed in other parts of the country.
Through a PES program, farmers could be compensated for ecosystem services they provide to the community, such as improving soil-water holding capacity to decrease the risk of downstream flooding caused by rainfall, or for their efforts to sequester carbon in farm fields to help combat climate change.
The information gathered through the Park-funded survey and interview work will help CCE-Tompkins agriculture staff to understand what farmers across Tompkins County know about PES programs, help them to identify likely participants and inform the development of a pilot program.
Farmers can learn more about examples of PES programs around the United States that provide payment for adopting sustainable practices, and share their thoughts on what form such a program might take in the Finger lakes, by attending a free online presentation — “Incentivizing Regenerative Agriculture” on Feb. 26 from noon to 1 p.m. Visit ccetompkins.org/PESprograms to register for the event and to receive the link to attend online or by phone.
For more information about this survey or other work to further sustainable farming and conservation practices in Tompkins County, please contact Savio at 607-272-2292 ext. 159 or gs***@co*****.edu, or Mila Fournier, agriculture educator, at 607-272-2292 ext. 194 or ym**@co*****.edu.
To consult the Tompkins County Agriculture & Farmland Protection Plan (2015), visit ccetompkins.org/AFPP2015. In addition, many recommended sustainable agriculture practices are detailed in a series of fact sheets compiled by Cornell University researchers Peter Woodbury and Jenifer Wightman in 2018 (available on our website at ccetompkins.org/reducingGHG).
Special thanks go to Monika Roth, former agriculture team leader who secured the project funding and returned from retirement to work part time on this survey effort; Jenna DeRario and Mary Wrege, CCE leads on the project; Janice Degni and Mary Kate (Wheeler) MacKenzie, extension educators on the CCE Regional Dairy and Crops Team who helped develop and share the farm survey; and to Paul Geir at SWCD Tompkins who — along with Janice Degni — contributed to the case studies.