PLENTY SUMMER 2020 | Page 37

and regeneration—rebuilding the soil’s ability to function as a living system. Despite that, soil is still one of the great mysteries of the natural world, as unknown as the deepest oceans. After generations of thinking about the soil primarily from an agricultural nutrient perspective—how to add the right amounts of N, P and K to grow a crop—farmers and scientists are beginning to recognize the biological complexities and ecological synergies that make soil not just a substrate for production, but a holistic, multi-dimensional entity that can, when managed well, lead to increased profitability and resilience for farms, multiple environmental benefits, and even potential mitigation of climate change. The Million Acre Challenge, a collaborative project funded in 2019 by a grant from the Edmund Stanley Heroic Futures Initiative of the Town Creek Foundation, seeks to work with farmers across the state of Maryland to build the health of their soil over the next decade. Its founding partners, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Future Harvest, Fair Farms (a project of Waterkeepers Chesapeake), The Hatcher Group, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, recognize the real opportunity that exists in this moment for farmers to develop the capacity of their soil to improve regional water quality and biodiversity, reduce inputs to increase profitability, improve both drainage and water holding capacity to reduce the impacts of severe weather events, and recapture atmospheric carbon. Maryland farmers have been national leaders in conservation for more than thirty years in their efforts to better understand the health of the Chesapeake Bay, adopting cover cropping and tillage reduction strategies known to be key contributors to healthy soils at rates far beyond those of the rest of the nation’s farmers. Because of its geographic and soil diversity, Maryland also boasts a diversity of farming methods and products that mirror the nation’s, from orchards and dairies to vineyards, diversified vegetable production, pastured livestock, largescale poultry, and traditional row crop farms. Each of these types of farms has the potential to implement practices particular to their own soil types and production methods that will benefit them in a wide variety of ways. From simply adding a cover crop or eliminating a tillage pass to more complex and extensive combinations of silvopasture or grazing annual cover Plant diversity, continuous cover, and reduced soil disturbance help promote soil health statewide. crops, every step counts, and every step brings us closer to one million acres of healthy soil in Maryland, and to a healthy, resilient agriculture that fosters a positive connection with the land. The Million Acre Challenge’s Soil Health Benchmark Study, now preparing for its second year of research in Maryland, identifies soil health benchmarks that will help farmers determine whether their management practices are achieving the desired results and where improvements may be possible. The study also helps farmers learn from each other and collaborate on innovative solutions to soil health management problems through regional hubs, workshops, webinars, and Future Harvest Field School programs. Study collaborators will contribute to a growing body of soil health data that farm- plenty I summer growing 2020 37