Legislature Embraces Maine Healthy Soils Program

6/3/2021

Signals Commitment to Agricultural Resilience in the Struggle Against Climate Change

Maine State House — Yesterday, Maine’s House of Representatives followed the lead of the Senate, voting unanimously to support LD 437 – An Act To Establish the Maine Healthy Soils Program. Broad bipartisan support for healthy soils indicates an increasing awareness of the critical role that agriculture must play in sequestering carbon and mitigating the effects of climate change. Maine joins 14 other states that have adopted healthy soils programs. Seventeen more states have healthy soils legislation pending. 

“I’m proud of our state for recognizing the important role our farmers play in protecting one of our most valuable resources: the soil that nourishes us,” said bill sponsor Sen. Stacy Brenner, who also serves as board president of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “Once Governor Mills signs this into law, and the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry sets up the program, all farmers in Maine will benefit from this investment in our future.”

Soil health can be measured in various ways, but there are some overarching qualities that healthy soils all have in common. They have high percentages of organic matter and biodiversity, a strong structure and hold high amounts of water and nutrients. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service identifies the best soil health practices as: keeping soil covered as much as possible. minimizing soil disturbance by reducing or eliminating tillage, maximizing biodiversity, and keeping plants growing throughout the year in order to feed the soil.

“Healthy soils mean healthy ecosystems, healthy farms and a healthy agricultural sector in Maine,” said Sarah Alexander, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “While maintaining organic matter in soil is at the heart of organic farming, all farmers across the management spectrum reap the benefits of these practices, especially as we face increased drought and severe weather events.”

Continually improving soil health helps to reduce soil erosion and benefits the nutrient- and water-holding capacity of the land. This helps to enhance agricultural resilience to droughts, pests and heat waves, among other climate challenges. Healthy soils can also reduce farm costs associated with pesticides and fertilizers, as healthier soils produce more resilient crops.

This legislation creates a one-stop-shop in the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry for farmers seeking healthy soils information, technical support and funding opportunities to implement best practices for improving soil health.

“Maine Farmland Trust is thrilled that the Legislature passed the Maine Healthy Soils Program bill,” said Ellen Stern Griswold, the trust’s policy and research director. “Over the last couple of years, and especially after the terrible drought conditions last year, an increasing number of farmers want to know more about soil health and how it can benefit their farms. This legislation will provide critical information, tools and assistance to help more Maine farmers use practices to build the health of their soil and, in doing so, realize the climate change resilience, mitigation and economic benefits they provide.”

Since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, strategies for reducing soil erosion have shifted from land shaping to nutrient management to soil structure and, now, to soil health — recognizing the importance of biological activity in the soil. All Maine farmers want their soils to be healthy but many face significant barriers ranging from a lack of understanding of best management practices to limited land access for crop rotation. Financing soil health practices and accessing technical assistance through federal and state grants can also create barriers to implementing soil health practices.

The Healthy Soils Program will have a fund associated with it, though the program will not require appropriation of state funds from the state’s current budget. However, Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry enthusiastically supports implementation of the program with existing resources and will be ready to receive federal and philanthropic funding right away, as well as state funding in future years.

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