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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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New Hampshire’s GreenStart Sees Sustainable Agriculture Practices as Key to Food and Fuel Security

September 28, 2011 |

It can be difficult to break down a system and thoroughly examine its component parts without losing sight of the whole picture. Dorn Cox can do just that. As executive director of New Hampshire-based nonprofit GreenStart, he’s working to develop biologically based local food and energy systems designed to return carbon to the soil. To do this, he looks at where and when carbon is entering and leaving the soil – and how to keep it there with as few inputs as possible.

GreenStart’s board was formed in 2006 with the goal of increasing public understanding of and demand for biodiesel. Since then, they’ve shifted their attention more toward agriculture, though biofuel still plays a key role. The goal is to use it to create a closed cycle – in Cox’s words, “sustainably growing the feedstock to make sustainably produced biofuel for operating the vehicles that are used to sustainably grow the feedstock.”

Cox says that the reason he became particularly fascinated by biofuel – as opposed to, say, solar or wind power – is its accessibility. Unlike other technology-intensive forms of energy, biofuel can easily be grown and processed on a local level.

Dorn Cox, Executive Director of GreenStart

“When I became aware of the potential for biodiesel, it seemed like something that would fit a farm scale and community development type scenario,” says Cox. “Something that can be done start to finish within a community.”

He adds that oilseeds, in particular, have a number of benefits: when the oil is pressed you also get a high protein animal feed; sunflowers have a deep taproot so they can be used to help break up the soil; canola oil has an allelopathic effect and smothers weeds.“Working these into rotation for a more complete and diverse agriculture system is really interesting to me,” says Cox.

One of GreenStart’s projects is an Oilseed Initiative that provides local farmers with educational workshops about growing oilseed crops using sustainable methods.

Another project involves experimenting with the two main ways to increase carbon in the soil: cover cropping and reducing the amount of tillage. GreenStart has been testing no-till techniques pioneered by the Rodale Institute – in particular, using annuals to create a thick mulch that provides biomass to the soil and suppresses weeds.

“We take advantage of the fact that annual crops, when they’re close to flowering, all their energy is up at the seed head, so you can accelerate that process by crimping the stem.” Cox explains that using this technique to create mulch gives the soil all of the same benefits while also reducing the required energy in a number of ways, such as cutting down the average number of tractor passes. “Those passes entail less energy because you’re not doing deep tillage. And if you’re using legume cover crops you’re also substituting for either spreading animal manure or using synthetic fertilizer,” says Cox.

GreenStart has had a lot of success with ‘Tillage Radish®’ pioneered by cover-cropping guru Steve Groff. Groff touts no-tillage, cover crops and effective crop rotations as the best way to reduce inputs and increase soil health.

Cox explains that tillage radish works particularly well because it grows very deep in the soil and then is killed by the frost in winter, making the nutrients it had sucked up available to the following crop and leaving holes where the roots had been for water channels. “It’s an example of using the biology of the crops to substitute for what would be diesel,” explains Cox. “You’re substituting field biology for diesel and allowing sunlight and the genetics of the plant to do the work for you.”

This year, GreenStart is building on Groff’s radish findings with research of its own involving planting date trials. “We’re just having farms across the state plant the tillage radish in early August and late August and seeing the difference in how deep the roots go,” explains Cox. They’re also doing experiments with different varieties of hairy vetch. Trials are done both on research plots and Cox’s farm, as well as partner farms, of which GreenStart has about 30.

GreenStart also has a relationship with the Cornell Soil Health lab, which has pioneered a test that provides information about the biological and physical characteristics of the soil, in addition to regular chemical data. GreenStart has collaborated with them to bring their workshops and trainings for farmers and field staff to New Hampshire.

GreenStart sees itself as a sort of go-between, providing a framework through which a variety of other organizations and farmers can connect. “What we do well is fill in gaps between other organizations and create projects between our partners that without us would not be able to exist,” says Cox.

Inputs, Outputs and Physiocrats

“If you have healthy fertile soil, you have a wide range of options of what you can produce and you can produce a lot of it. And it’s the same amount of effort,” says Cox. “I believe that if you focus on the health of the soil as a measure of your success for this very complex system, it’s a way of measuring whether you’re gaining or losing.”

Cox’s rather accountant-like approach to farming is inspired by the economic theories of the 18th century Physiocrats.  Physiocratic doctrine posited that only agriculture yields a surplus, a net product. Physiocrats believed that the wealth of a nation lay solely in the land and its product – the value and output of its agricultural sector. Cox finds this doctrine relevant today.

“French Physiocrats were focused on improving soil quality as the only way to actually improve the wealth of a nation,” he explains. “Through cooperation with nature we can create abundance. You plant one seed of wheat or one seed of corn and it yields a hundred – that’s a true return.”

What the Future Holds

Cox says that for now, Green Start is very focused on New Hampshire, which only produces five percent of its own food and energy. He says he would like to see New Hampshire become more self-sufficient, and that GreenStart’s vision is to strengthen the state’s farm community, improve its rural resources and improve the air, soil and human health.

“Our state motto is live free or die – yet we’re one of the most dependent states,” he says.  “Part of our mission is really about developing the capacity to feed and fuel ourselves here in New Hampshire.” But, he adds, “We’re focusing on New Hampshire but a lot of the technology and techniques are more or less universally applicable.”

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