NOFA: Spreading Soil Health Practices, Keeping Fairness in Organic


By Elizabeth Henderson, NOFA-NY

The seven chapters of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) have been engaged in a multi-year project to identify the best practices for building soil health and increasing soil carbon and spreading that know-how to more farmers and gardeners. Way back in 2007, the fall issue of the NOFA interstate publication The Natural Farmer focused on Climate Change and Soil Health. Most organic farmers already pay attention to soil health and strive for integrated whole farm plans with complex interrelated goals. By holding round tables at our winter conferences and with the help of the New York and Vermont organic certification programs, the NOFAs have identified the farmers in our region with outstanding soil health practices. Once identified, we enable these farmers to share best practices and innovations with other farmers through farmer-to-farmer workshops and field days.

The field days during the 2019 season took us to farms where we could observe demonstrations of no-till equipment, cover cropping strategies for organic no-till and the use of tarps, soil microscopy and the way social practices that strengthen a farm team can also improve the creativity of the farm in building soil health. Following the tours, participants engaged in round table exchanges about their soil building practices and discussed these questions:

1)   What are the main practices that YOU are using to build healthy soils?

2)    What additional research is needed to identify and demonstrate the effectiveness of healthy soils practices?

3)   What would be the best incentives or support mechanisms that would help you and those you know accelerate adoption of these practices?

The responses to these questions were carefully noted down and by the end of the year the NOFAs will create a report summarizing them.

All of the chapters feature soil health at winter conferences. Workshops at our conferences cover the science of soil health (soil health through biology, cover crop mixtures for soil health), and also a wide range of practices that build soil carbon – integrating livestock with cropping systems, growing perennials, utilizing cover crops for animal feed, improving compost quality, working with forests, carbon sequestration through agroforestry and silvopasture, no till vegetable soil preparation and post season management, and changing diets to support carbon farming practices. Our annual conferences have taken themes like ‘Diversify! Regenerate!’, ‘Healing the Climate, Healing Ourselves!’, and ‘The Climate for Change’ with keynoters like Dr. Elaine Ingham, Eric Toensmeier, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, Andre Leu and Leah Penniman.

The NOFA MASS chapter has taken the lead in providing resource materials for this initiative – see This initiative includes an on-line discussion group for farmers; a database of farmer practices; Soil Carbon Restoration: Can Biology do the Job? by Jack Kittredge; a traveling program for gardeners delivered by Sharon Gensler, a gardener and educator with 38 years of experience; and a new handbook for gardeners. [1]

Since the laboratory tests for measuring soil carbon are still unreliable and also expensive, the NOFA Mass chapter has selected a number of tests adapted from agricultural institutions like National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Cornell which are simple, hands-on and can be done by farmers and gardeners themselves to determine soil quality, vitality and carbon sequestration capability. They have concluded that the best procedure is to run these tests annually on the same ground and note changes since the last time – is biodiversity growing, is there greater vitality, are changes in management having the results you want?

The NOFA certification programs encourage prescribed grazing – NOFA New York and Vermont introduced 100% grass-fed standards.

All chapters are also involved in coalition-building efforts to pass soil health legislation in their states to provide incentives and technical assistance to farmers, support research to increase understanding of soil health and the connection between soil health, the nutritional value of food and human health.

For many organic farmers, care for the land goes hand in hand with a commitment to social justice. This commitment has led NOFA to become one of the founding partners of the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) which offers a way to represent both those values. AJP’s Food Justice Certification (FJC) program is the gold standard for domestic fair trade. AJP grew out of the Principles of Organic Agriculture and traces back to the start of the National Organic Program (NOP) in the 1990s, when farmer organizations and farmworker advocates realized NOP lacked standards for fairness in organic trade or for decent treatment of people who do the farming.

In 1999, NOFA, Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI – USA), Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas/Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), and Florida Organic Growers (FOG) began working to keep fairness in organic agriculture by developing an add-on to the organic label. In 2007, the NOFA Interstate Council formally endorsed AJP, and in 2013 agreed to be one of the four partners in the new 501(c)(3). A standards committee of farmers, farmworkers, and organic community stakeholders ensure the standards are comprehensive and realistic.

The FJC standards cover each link in the food chain, from seed to table:

  • Fair prices for farmers negotiated with buyers and based on actual costs to produce food that does not abuse the environment, laborers, or livestock;
  • Living wages, respect, and decent working conditions for all food workers;
  • Transparency of expectations for workers, farmers, and their trade partners;
  • Grievance procedures and conflict resolution free from retaliation;
  • Protections for children from hazards and assured access to schooling;
  • Access to healthcare and freedom from exposure to toxic materials;
  • The right to organize for both farmers and farmworkers;
  • Closing the income gap between the highest and lowest paid employees within a company;

Since its inception, AJP has helped increase public awareness of the farmers and their workers who do the work in producing food, and provided training programs and technical assistance for organic farmers to improve labor policies and practices to make their farms more socially resilient and just. Learn more at