Going Green with Ag in N.C.

by | Apr 7, 2022

Farmers and agriculture industry producers across the state are implementing practices that strive toward a more efficient and resilient future. The North Carolina Foundation for Soil & Water Conservation, a nonprofit established in 1999, creates innovative conservation programming to promote and conserve the natural resources in North Carolina. Their Carbon Farm Planning project and their multi-species cover crop initiative are two of their more recent programs that support “green” initiatives. Additionally, the Foundation’s sister nonprofit, The North Carolina Association of Conservation Districts, awarded the 2021 Conservation Farm Family of the Year award to S&S Farms of Pitt County. Learn more about their farm in the video at the end of this blog and keep reading to hear about how these projects are impacting our communities, state and nation.

The Carbon Farm Planning Project consists of seven teams across the state with seven champion farmers who are in the process of drafting a Carbon Farm Plan that will build soil health through a carbon lens. According to Amanda Egdorf-Sand, Executive Director with the N.C. Foundation for Soil & Water Conservation, “for this project, our organization is partnering with seven teams across the state to expand opportunities for agricultural resilience at the farm and community level by testing ways to increase carbon cycling in southeastern production systems. The teams include Soil & Water Conservation Districts, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), The N.C Department of Agriculture & Consumer Service’s Soil & Water Division, the USDA Agricultural Research Service, N.C. State University’s Amazing Grazing program, the Carbon Cycle Institute, the Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project through the Roanoke Center and champion farmers.”

Research and planning for this project is utilizing the USDA COMET-Farm tool, which analyzes carbon changes on the farm. A variety of farms across the state are participating, including row crop farmers, agritourism operations, livestock farms and agroforestry. Each farm has a different end goal in mind, but use practices that farmers are already familiar with to improve agriculture resilience by boosting soil health, which results in sequestered carbon in the soil. Ultimately, the foundation anticipates having a Carbon Farm Plan for a North Carolina farmer available for public view at the end of this process that serves as a model to build upon. Through online marketing and awareness, as well as in-person field days at each of the farms, the teams and the champion farmers are getting the word out about improving on-farm resilience. Funding was provided by a USDA Southern Sustainable Agricultural Research Education grant, along with monies from the N.C. Agriculture Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Conservation Collaboration Program in partnership with Virginia Tech University.

Another project currently underway is the multi-species cover crop initiative. This project is a partnership between the N.C. Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation, five Soil and Water Conservation districts and champion farmers across the state, that utilizes multi-species cover crops on the farm without tillage. “Participants planted farm plots for cover crops utilizing a combination of cereal rye, daikon radish, hairy vetch, crimson clover, Austrian winter peas and oats,” Amanda Sand explained. “The purpose of the project is to demonstrate the use of multi-species cover crops to reduce erosion and increase soil health, soil-water holding capacity, and soil organic matter.” The project also supports the national soil health movement.

Four of the participating farms traditionally grow row crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, tobacco and sweet potatoes while the other participating farm is invested in pastured cattle, sowing the pasture with an annual rye and millet rotation. According to Amanda, “demonstration sites are established on these working farms to show producers that a diverse mixture of cover crop species can be planted in a timely manner, allowed to grow and accumulate biomass and nitrogen, and be terminated without tillage.” Funding for this project was provided by an EPA Region 4 Environmental Education grant that also contributed to the establishment of seven school gardens and five mobile soil classrooms across the state.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Franklin Soil & Water Conservation District worked with Wester Farms to create the very first virtual demo day video of the multi-species cover crop initiative when the scheduled in-person field day was no longer feasible. “Due to the pandemic and everyone’s efforts to limit in-person interactions and promote safety, we had to start thinking of innovative ways to do outreach for this program despite the new restrictions,” Amanda said, “and the video demo day with Wester Farms was one of the ways we were able to showcase the nature and success of this project as well as highlight the ongoing efforts of Wester Farms.”

Jason and Natalie Farmer, co-owners and operators of Wester Farms, place a strong focus on conservation efforts to improve efficiency on their farm as well as preserve it for the next generation. The farm produces a variety of row crops, including tobacco, corn and peppers, as well as manages a herd of beef cattle. They participated in the multi-species cover crop initiative by planting a trial plot of a cereal rye, daikon radish, hairy vetch and crimson clover blend. “This was the first blend that we decided to try in the cover crop trial and we saw many successes with it,” Jason said. “In the coming years we will continue to add new species and conduct trials with a variety of commodity blends.”

The trial blend was planted in October of 2020 and wrapped up in April of 2021. Some of the initial successes that were seen with this cover crop blend were moisture retention, temperature reduction of canopies, increased production yields and improved soil health. “It is a continuing learning experience,” Jason said, “but with the benefits that we have seen in this first trial, I am confident in saying that the future of cover crops on our farm is bright.” Jason and Natalie were also awarded this years 2022 N.C. Young Innovative Farmer of the Year Award for their on-farm efforts and projects. Check out the video below from the N.C. Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation to learn more about the demo day with Wester Farms and benefits seen with the multi-species cover crop initiative.

Another N.C. farm that has seen major success from their conservation efforts is the 2021 Conservation Farm Family of the year, S&S Farms, located in Pitt County. Owned and operated by Steve Sutton and his family, S&S Farms has been working hard to implement sustainable and environmentally friendly practices on the farm since 1974. “I began to have a conservation awareness that has brought us to the point that we are today when I took over the operation in 1974,” said Steve, “and we have accomplished that goal through different things that we have done on the farm.”

Not only has the Sutton family taken a no-till approach to farming, but they have also optimized soil health to encourage earthworms, which work to increase root zone health and installed water ways across the farm to remove surface water and limit erosion. ” We estimate that there are about 800,000 to 1,000,000 earthworms per acre of our land,” Steve said. “Their work is ultra-important to growing the crops that we are trying to grow here because we have to conserve the water that we got yesterday and make it last for three or four days. which, combined with crop residue, is what these earthworms are able to do.” According to Steve, these conservation efforts on the farm protect his row crops each year and allow them to withstand even the most adverse conditions.

“We can all do our part to conserve the environment and save it for our grandchildren and their children,” Steve said. “We are all responsible for preserving agriculture for our families, our state and our country.”

These projects are just a few of the ways that North Carolina farmers are investing in soil health and practices that promote long-term resilience. In addition to the Sutton family, many of our state’s farmers see the value in conservation work and are making it a priority on their agriculture operations. Learn more about S&S Farms in the video below and continue supporting the farmers of our state as they work hard to produce the local items that we love and enjoy in sustainable ways every day!