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March 9, 2021

New PASA Report Details Soil Health on PA Farms

Luke 8: 15 : 15 But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance. 

The health of the soil is a central theme in the Gospel, especially reflected in Jesus’s parables. These land-oriented passages convey their intended lesson, but also point the disciple towards understanding that Christ uses the very soil we depend on for the foundations of God’s truth.  

On March 4th, PASA Sustainable Agriculture released its 2021 report on just how healthy that foundational soil is in Pennsylvania. Called “The Soil Health Benchmark Study” the research “is designed to help farmers monitor and evaluate the nuanced soil health strengths and challenges that can exist simultaneously within their fields.” It has been ongoing since 2016, and researches have collected samples from over 100 farmers in Pennsylvania and Maryland. 

Developed and administered by PASA Sustainable Agriculture and Cornell Soil Health Laboratory, Future Harvest and the Million Acre Challenge, Penn State Extension, Rodale Institute, and Stroud Water Research Center, the study has had immense success itself, as well as for farmers. A majority of farmers, 92% to be exact, who have submitted samples continue to do so for several years, reflecting its value to their own professional endeavors. A number of farmers outside of the studied region have expressed interest in sending their own samples to diversify the project, showing the growing national interest in the research. 

This year’s published study reveals several noteworthy findings for creation care advocates and farmers alike. These include:  

  • Perennial pastured livestock farms are the “gold-standard” for soil health. Whilst row crops and vegetable farms also maintain healthy soil, the absence of animal grazing may result in a weakened aggregate, resulting in greater erosion and too high levels of phosphorus.  
  • The weakened aggregates of 54%-60% of row crop and vegetable farms due to intense rains in 2018 were built back successfully after mild weather in 2019. The risks of wetter seasons in the northeast due to climate change, however, means that weakened aggregates will become more common in the future. 
  • Farms with healthy soil balance tillage with more holistic methods. Farms that had no tillage and organic farms that tilled intensively but used little mulch, compost, and manure had equally strong aggregates. The researchers add, though, that “planting cover crops, allowing full-season fallows, and carefully timing tillage are likely key to balancing tillage and soil health, but we need more data to evaluate these techniques in the context of our study.” 

As spring and the growing season begin, the findings of this study can equip farmers with vital information for maintaining the health of their soil.  

You can read the report in full here. 

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