Soil fertility is critical to good crop yields. The Commonwealth is endowed with high-quality, prime farmland throughout the State. Healthy soils provide many benefits in addition to greater yields – they require less fertilizer and less irrigation, and they help to minimize runoff. Maintaining healthy soils is also an important climate mitigation and adaptation strategy, as healthy soils sequester carbon and are more tolerant of both drought and severe precipitation events. So called “carbon farming” recognizes and rewards farmers for management actions that have environmental benefits, such as reduced water use and runoff.
Soil erosion can lead to a loss in soil fertility, as well as to contamination of adjacent water bodies with nutrients and solids carried in runoff. Over-application of nutrients, in addition to being an unnecessary expense, can also result in polluted water, exacerbating the aquatic invasive species problem. In urban settings, soil contamination can limit opportunities to expand production and requires assessment, remediation, and, in some cases, soil replacement.
USDA-NRCS, UMass Extension, UMass Amherst’s Department of Resource Economics, MACC, and other technical assistance providers assist farmers in nutrient management planning and will be integral in providing support for implementing this plan’s recommendations. Recently, MDAR regulations on plant nutrient use have been released and will apply to agricultural lands in December 2015. These regulations will require farms ten acres or larger to develop and follow nutrient management plans, which will result in a new demand for new nutrient management planning. A comprehensive and coordinated technical assistance effort will be needed to help farmers meet this new regulatory requirement.
Recommendation 2.1: Monitor and manage soil for optimal health, and ensure the optimal application and management of nutrients.
Action 2.1.1: Expand nutrient management planning and implementation technical assistance, especially in light of the new regulatory requirements. The USDA-NRCS, UMass Extension, MACC, and other technical assistance providers should provide increased resources and expertise.
Action 2.1.2: Increase soil testing on land used for urban farming where food is grown in soils of unknown quality. Cities could use Boston’s soil safety protocol as a model.
Action 2.1.3: Explore with MassDEP streamlining the assessment and remediation of contaminated soil on land used for urban farming.
Action 2.1.4: Develop a resource guide for urban farming soil remediation that includes best practices, applicable regulations, and funding sources. City, State, federal agency programs should be included in the guide.
Action 2.1.5: Municipal and regional planning staff should collaborate with urban farms to secure EPA Brownfields Assessment Grants, EPA Brownfields Cleanup Grants, and PARC monies.
Action 2.1.6: Continue to collect data on carbon levels in soil to identify areas that need interventions and to track progress. Carbon data is currently being collected by the nonprofit organization Soil Carbon Coalition.
Recommendation 2.2: Provide tax benefits or other financial incentives to increase voluntary farmer utilization of certain best practices to support soil fertility.
Action 2.2.1: Provide additional financial support beyond what NRCS now provides and expand markets for cover crops. UMass Extension is researching cover crops and can help identify new markets such as using grain for the craft beer industry.
Action 2.2.2: Research the feasibility of offering incentives, such as property tax reductions, to farmers and landscapers for maintaining soil organic matter.
Action 2.2.3: Explore carbon credits as an additional tool for implementation of the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act, a framework for reducing heat-trapping emissions to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Recommendation 2.3: Ensure optimal application of fertilizers and soil amendments to soil.
Action 2.3.1: Encourage the appropriate use of fertilizers and expand nutrient management technical assistance to provide guidance to farmers on the exact types and amounts of nutrients needed.
Action 2.3.2: Provide education and guidelines for alternatives to typical soil amendments, such as wood ash and paper fibers. There needs to be greater availability of information about these amendments and guidance from MDAR on their proper utilization.
Action 2.3.3: Expand public/private markets for Massachusetts-produced compost.
 Soil Carbon Coalition. (2015). Soil Carbon 101. Webpage accessed October 2015 from http://goo.gl/oKLMKT.
 MA EOEEA. (2008). Global Warming Solutions Action. Accessed October 2015 from http://goo.gl/d8gLUn.