Good Dirt: The American Farmland Trust to Host Long Island Soil Health Field Days This Week

The Farm Beyond at Charnews Farm

The Farm Beyond at Charnews Farm

For almost as long as there has been a Long Island, there has been farming on the post-Ice Age peninsula named Paumanok by its original farming inhabitants. Throughout the centuries, our East End in particular has remained the largest and most successful farming community in New York State. With only 30,000 acres of farmland left (from 69,000 in the 1950s), and a higher demand for food to feed a growing population, the question of whether or not to preserve farming life should rest with an obvious answer. But there are questions about how we farm in our ecologically sensitive area that seem at times more amorphous, though no less important. Anyone who has tried to swim in Peconic Bay in recent weeks will know that the mahogany tide—caused by too much nitrogen in the water—that started in the Peconic River and estuary, has steadily spread East since May, choking out marine life, including the fish and shellfish we eat.

Enter the American Farmland Trust, which helps foster workable, sustainable relationships between farmers and the land. The AFT, with its congenial but forthright New York State Director, David Haight, will host a series of Long Island Soil Health Field Days, with the next event at White Cap Farm on Mecox Bay on the South Fork, and at the Schmitt Family Farm on the North Fork, on Tuesday, September 20. The Event is about helping farmers learn how to take their soil health to the next level, with an emphasis on protecting water quality.

That Suffolk is still number one in farming in the state, even with the over-development that has taken place, is a tribute to careful zoning and agricultural conservation easements to protect farmland, as well as the excellent soil, favorable weather conditions, and dedication of farmers in our area. And, as any good farmer knows, without healthy soil there is little one can do to increase production.

As this ATF infographic illustrates, 16.7% of Nitrogen in the Peconic Estuary is attributed to agricultural fertilizers and 49.6% comes from individual waste water treatment systems and sewage treatment plants.

As this ATF infographic illustrates, 16.7% of Nitrogen in the Peconic Estuary is attributed to agricultural fertilizers and 49.6% comes from individual waste water treatment systems and sewage treatment plants.

“Issues like caring for your soil have become so important on Eastern Long Island because we’re talking about generations of farmers, and an even longer tradition of farming by native peoples,” says Haight. “Farmers have a powerful incentive to care for their soil, as it is integral to the health of their crops and to overall farm productivity.” The Long Island Soil Health Field Days will enable local farmers “to share their experiences and learn from national experts about soil health practices that not only benefit their farms but also protect water quality and build resiliency to climate change,” Haight explains.

Soil health workshops are part of bigger national projects where the AFT helps farmers see soil as an asset, “soil that is biologically healthy and can retain nutrients—without having high levels of nitrogen in the water—so you can have improved yields.” From a climate change standpoint, Haight notes, soil health is paramount, “because healthy soil can retain more water in times of drought. Conversely, if you get really heavy rain, healthy soil can also absorb more water.”

The Soil Days event won’t be all dry lecturing, either. For the soil pit analysis, Haight says, “We’re going to dig a big soil pit and jump in it.” The featured speaker, Steve Groff, is a well-known and respected farmer and cover crop coach from the Chesapeake Bay area (an area with similar ecological issues to ours), and he’ll be joined by John Halsey at Whitecap Farm on Mecox Bay and Phil Schmitt at Schmitt Family Farm, as well as representatives of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

Cornell University's Horticultural Research Center

Cornell University’s Horticultural Research Center

Over the last five years, a number of local farmers have taken part in the “Best Management Practices Challenge,” working with technicians at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County in collaboration with AFT to test conservation techniques on their farms. Results from these on-farm demonstration projects will be shared at the event, along with presentations and hands-on demonstrations for growers to learn how these practices can help improve soil health.

Haight, who has a flower farm near Saratoga Springs, says, “We’ve always seen Long Island as being on the progressive front of working with farmers to be good stewards of the land. Suffolk was first county in U.S. to develop a program to pay farmers to farm, so the land wouldn’t be paved over, which set the tone for the rest of the country. Five million acres of farmland has been preserved because of this.”

But, Haight admits, preservation and sustainable farming is “an ongoing challenge. Long Isand has some of the most fertile soil and a climate that is unparalleled because of the surrounding water. Yet more than 90% of farmland has been paved over since WWII.”

There are several important practices all farmers can utilize to protect and enrich their soil, while protecting our fragile waterways and wetlands. Planting cover crops of different varieties to keep the ground covered as much of the year as possible helps manage different pests and increase the nutrients in the soil. Controlled release nitrogen fertilizer, which can be used in conventional farming, is a coated, granular fertilizer that slowly releases nitrogen to a crop over a period of time, meaning that less fertilizer is needed to improve yields, and therefore less nitrogen is lost to ground or surface waters. It’s more expensive, but at the end of the day yields better and more produce. Tillage practices can also cause havoc with the land: every time you plow, the carbon in soil breaks down and nutrients are lost. Planting certain crops that reduces amount of tillage while still controlling weeds is an excellent answer to this conundrum.

One of the most common misperceptions about farming (and gardening, for that matter) is that the use of organic fertilizers is safer for our waterways than other kinds of nitrogen-based fertilizers. To be sure, using a petroleum-based fertilizer is the worse type one can use, but whether fossil fuel-based or manure-based, either way there’s nitrogen in all fertilizers (because all soil needs nitrogen to grow food; it’s just not something you can do without). “The key is applying the nutrients,” Haight explains, “is to apply them at the right level in the right way and time so the plants take it up and it doesn’t spill off the soil.”

American Farmland Trust will host the Long Island Soil Health Field Days in partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, Long Island Farm Bureau, Peconic Land Trust, USDA NRCS, and Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District. Both events will be held on-farm, with an evening session on Tuesday, September 20th from 4:30-7:30 p.m. on the South Fork at White Cap Farm on Mecox Bay, and a morning session Wednesday, September 21st from 8:30-11:30 a.m. at Schmitt Family Farm on the north fork. All attendees will receive a free meal with their $25 registration, and giveaways such as hats, water bottles and soil testing supplies. Attendees will also be eligible for a discounted rate on a Cornell Soil Health Test compliments of AFT. For more information, go to