April 14, 2013

Farming in the basin

Peter Hagar, Agriculture Educator

---- — Concerns about agricultural impacts on the environment have been a hot topic lately both here and across the lake.

Like any human activity, agriculture does indeed have effects on the environment; some good, some bad. With modern farms getting bigger, there are both concerns and opportunities to be addressed with respect to environmental impacts.

Over the next few decades, farmers will need to learn to produce more food while at the same time reducing the impact of their farming practices. And with the increased consumer interest in agricultural practices and how food is produced, farmers faces many challenges.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), formally the Soil Conservation Service, is the federal agency committed to conserving natural resources on private lands. During the 1930s, poor agricultural practices and years of drought led to the infamous Dust Bowl period. Hundreds of millions of tons of topsoil were blown from the southern Plains states.

Since then, farming techniques such as strip cropping, terracing, crop rotation, contour plowing and cover crops were advocated and farmers were incentivized to practice soil-conserving farming techniques. Later on, local soil and water conservation districts were formed to serve farmers, landowners and local governments.

Today, there are many programs available to help farms reduce their environmental impact.

With the help of these agencies, farmers today are doing more than ever to adapt practices that protect the environment and keep our streams and rivers clean. Many of the government programs that farmers benefit from today involve setting aside erodible lands, fencing off streams from livestock and fostering habitat for wildlife. These programs help us all by creating more green space and buffers between cropland and water sources.

One beneficial conservation practice that has been long known about but slow to gain acceptance in the North Country is the growing of cover crops following annual crops such as corn. This year, however, there seems to be increasing interest in their use.

Cover crops are beneficial because they reduce erosion, scavenge and retain nutrients not utilized by the summer crop, add organic matter to the soil and improve soil health. Keeping a growing plant in the soil reduces erosion from wind and rain, adds organic matter when it is later plowed under and helps reduce compaction from heavy equipment. Some cover crops also have the added benefit of being harvested in the spring for additional feed.

Because our growing season is short and winter comes quickly following harvest, it is often difficult to plant a crop that will grow quickly, establish and survive the winter. Several innovative ideas have recently been discussed.

In Vermont last year, a pilot project was done involving aerial seeding of winter rye into 2000 acres of standing corn. Our local NRCS office has been recently taking applications from farms that wish to give aerial seeding cover crops a try in New York. Another option that will be available this fall will be the Soil & Water District’s no-till drill. With the ability to plant directly into corn stubble right after harvest without additional tillage, cover crops can be established up to Oct. 15.

Because of our proximity to Lake Champlain and the many farms along its shores, Cornell Cooperative Extension, in collaboration with the Lake Champlain Basin Program and the Clinton County Soil & Water District, will be holding a series of on-farm meetings over the course of the growing season to highlight lake-friendly farming practices and best-management practices for the reduction of non-point source pollution.

With the cooperation of local farms and other agencies, we hope to raise awareness and increase acceptance of practices that will benefit us all.

Our first meeting of the “Farming in the Basin” series will be held on April 24th at 7 p.m. at the Dimock Farm in Peru. A long-time participant in conservation programs, the Dimock Farm has implemented many best-management practices to reduce nutrient, toxin and pathogen runoff to Lake Champlain. They currently utilize winter rye as both a cover crop and spring forage crop on about 50 acres of crop land.

We encourage all interested farmers, landowners and others to come and learn more about how farmers, local, regional and federal agencies are all collaborating to reduce agricultural non-point-source pollution in the Champlain Valley.

For more information and directions, contact Peter Hagar, CCE Clinton County at 561-7450 or

Peter Hagar, agriculture educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, Suite 5, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 561-7450 or