Addison farmers test soil-saving methods

ADDISON COUNTY — A tenet of good business practices is to minimize risk. In agriculture, where profit margins are thin, this is especially true.
Yet Paul and Mark Boivin, who own Vermont Golden Harvest Biofuels in conjunction with their 400-acre farm off Goodrich Corner in Addison, have for the last five years taken an unnecessary risk. At the behest of agronomists from the University of Vermont Extension, and with the help of a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the brothers have experimented with a variety of new soil management practices in an effort to reduce erosion and nutrient runoff.
“Mark and Paul were willing to get in on this grant, called a Conservation Innovation Grant,” said UVM Extension agronomist Rico Balzano. “It’s a demonstration of cover crops so we can show farmers.”
Mark Boivin said he wanted to help UVM Extension test new soil management practices in the hope that it would both benefit his farm and encourage other farmers to start using the practices.
“You can’t just tell a farmer, ‘You really ought to be doing this’ because they’re going to say, ‘Show me how it’s done,’” he said.
A centerpiece of the program was the implementation of no-till and strip-till farming, methods of planting that minimize soil disturbance. This decreases soil erosion and limits agricultural runoff that ends up in Lake Champlain, which is less than a mile from the farm.
Another key piece of the plan is planting cover crops of grasses — often rye and clover — to grow through the fall and into the spring. Cover crops offer a multitude of benefits: Organic matter provides soil with valuable nutrients and roots from these plants penetrate the ground to make the soil more porous. Instead of rainstorms washing away entire layers of loose soil, cover crops prevent erosion by deflecting the blow of raindrops.
“Instead of falling from way up in the sky, those raindrops are hitting the ground only from those six or eight inches,” Paul Boivin said. “That’s a prime example of how that breaks up the velocity of the rain hitting the ground.”
The Boivins grow corn, which Vermont Golden Harvest Biofuels sells as a fuel source, and soybeans.
They just planted a new cover crop for the fall. In between rows of corn, which are now as tall as a man, winter rye is beginning to poke through the soil. After the corn is harvested, the rye will grow throughout the fall until temperatures drop below freezing.
Mark Boivin said rye is a good cover crop because it only needs temperatures above 35 degrees to thrive, making it a perfect answer to Vermont’s cold fall and spring seasons. Corn, while a high-yield crop and a staple of the Boivins’ operation, needs temperatures of at least 50 degrees.
What makes switching to no-till and strip-till farming a larger risk for the Boivins is that results aren’t seen in just a season. Instead, it’s a long-term investment.
“We talked to some farmers in the Midwest and they said before you approve it or condemn strip-tilling, it’s a five-year gig,” Paul Boivin said. “One year isn’t going to tell it.”
Originally, the Boivins used the new methods on only 30 acres. This year, they allowed Balzano to experiment with more than half of their cropland, including 40 acres of corn and 180 acres of soybeans.
The reason for the increase, Mark Boivin said, was to provide a large sampling area for both themselves and the agronomists.
“If you don’t have a large enough area, you really can’t tell,” he said.
Now at the end of their five-year test, the brothers said they had good news to report.
“The verdict is we’ll probably never go back to conventional tilling,” Paul Boivin said.
His brother said they are still trying to figure out what methods work where, and what cover crops produce the best results, but overall, the program was a success.
“When this cover crop system is figured out, I think the acreage we’re going to strip-till is going to increase,” Mark Boivin said.
Balzano said if farmers like the Boivins weren’t willing to go out on the limb for the sake of science, UVM Extension would not be able to fulfill its mission of sustaining and advancing agriculture throughout the state.
“Their support is huge,” Balzano said. “Otherwise we would just be writing in our newsletter about things we found from other universities.”
Balzano said farmer participation is integral because it allows agronomist to test scientific hypothesis about soil management in a field setting.
“We could design a project and find participators like Mark and Paul to see what it does here in Vermont,” Balzano said. “It may work in Pennsylvania or Iowa, but how does it work here on these clay soils? That’s what we’re trying to pin down.”
Mark Boivin was quick to point out that he and his brother are by no means the only farmers willing to risk failure to improve agricultural practices.
“All farmers are always experimenting,” Boivin said. “The thing is, the Extension can help the farmers with their experimentation by bringing in the technology.”
He added that Extension agronomists also share research among farms.
“They also find out what works and doesn’t work, so people aren’t reinventing the wheel,” Mark Boivin said. “Everyone can determine on their own what might work or not work on their farm.”
Balzano said he hopes the Boivins’ success story encourages other farmers in Vermont to adopt similar soil management practices.
“Now that these guys have a couple years of cover cropping under their belt they can say, ‘Hey, we did it, and it worked,’” Balzano said.
Balzano and other UVM agronomists will be able to continue their work, thanks to a new grant from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The funding, through the Lake Champlain Agronomy and Conservation Assistance Program (ACAP II) allows agronomists like Balzano to visit individual farms to work with growers to develop new crop production methods using cover crops, reduce tillage and improve manure handling to reduce soil and phosphorus runoff into the Lake Champlain watershed.
UVM Extension plans to report on their findings from the Boivins’ farm and others at a soil health field day. The event will be held Aug. 29 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Vorsteveld Family Farm in Panton.

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