As surely as springtime will return, the frost will leave the soil and farmers will begin anew the task of planting this year’s harvest, Mohonk Consultations can be relied upon to supply abundant food for thought in the form of conferences and forums on subjects related to the sustainability of natural resources. While threats and challenges such as pollution and climate change are addressed with due seriousness, always the emphasis of these gatherings is on finding positive solutions.
A regular annual offering from Mohonk Consultations (MC) over many years has been the Spring Forum, held at Mohonk Mountain House and featuring panel discussions, presentations and breakout sessions that bring together creative thinkers from many partner organizations throughout the region. The last such event to take place live, before COVID-19 made in-person convocations dangerous to participants’ health, was the “Supporting Farmers and Farmworkers in the Hudson Valley” forum held in April 2019.
One year later, the onset of the pandemic forced the cancellation of the planned 2020 Spring Forum, “Finding Common Ground,” whose theme was strategies for conflict resolution. MC managed to find a creative solution in 2021, presenting “Finding Common Ground” virtually as a webinar. While a remote question-and-answer session had to replace the fertile breakout sessions of past years, the up side was that the new format became accessible to many more participants, and a recording can still be found via a link on the MC website.
Since the omicron variant of COVID was still peaking when it came time for MC to plan the 2022 Spring Forum, “Farm Fields to Riverfronts: Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Change in the Hudson Valley,” once again it was made available virtually. This happened on March 30, timed to be part of the Graduate Programs in Sustainability at Bard College’s Worldwide Teach-In for Climate Justice, along with hundreds of other such educational events on five continents. If you missed it, you can view it now at www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaM1UV3JDaQ.
Following an introduction by MC Board member Brad Bird, “Farm Fields to Riverfronts” brought together speakers from three regional organizations to discuss some promising recent approaches to coping with climate change at the local level. Bird noted that the major front on which climate change is impacting the Hudson Valley has been the increased frequency and severity of flooding events, and all three speakers addressed that challenge – and its impacts on farming especially – from different perspectives. Techniques for response to climate change are being tested on two fronts: mitigation, which reduces the magnitude of the problem and generally requires a global approach, and adaptation, which reduces vulnerability to the problem and works great in local applications, according to these experts.
Heather Eckardt, a Scenic Hudson staffer who coordinates the Northeast Carbon Alliance (NCA) project, introduced the themes of the forum with a sort of “Carbon Cycle 101” PowerPoint, then went on to share examples of how regenerative agriculture can help mitigate climate change while improving agricultural soils. This holistic approach to farming promotes biodiversity, restores ecosystems and captures carbon from the air by simple, sustainable methods for of revitalizing soils.
NECA is working with a network of “research farms” to determine best practices in this area, and sharing its findings with Alliance members via a shared GIS platform. Another task force on water systems is exploring ways to sequester “blue carbon” in water bodies. More information about NECA and its working groups can be found at www.northeastcarbonalliance.org.
Vivid examples of techniques for keeping carbon in the ground were highlighted in the PowerPoint presentation by Aaron Ristow, director of the American Farmland Trust’s Genesee River Demonstration Farm Network. This program monitors and evaluates efforts by seven dairy farms and four grain farms in western New York, covering nearly 48,000 acres in total, to implement climate-adaptive measures that maximize soil health. All employ improved nutrient management, cover crops and reduced tillage; some have adopted the no-till approach.
Ristow reported some impressive results documented since the regenerative agriculture program started in 2018: Soil quality is visibly improving, resisting flood damage better and, in terms of cost/benefit analysis, the farmland is actually becoming more productive. In a study focusing on water quality improvement, he said, “All four farms observed reduced soil and water runoff, and all four farms observed greater reduction of emissions.” Photographs depicted how participating farms are adding biomass and nitrogen by planting early cover crops, mowing and leaving them atop the soil as mulch when they plant their main crops, without unduly disturbing the soil structure.
The final speaker was Lyndsey Cooper, climate outreach specialist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson River Estuary Program, who also works with the Cornell University Water Resources Institute. In addition to the Estuary Program’s ongoing grant support for waterfronts, estuarine habitats and fisheries, it assists with the Climate Smart Communities program, which many Ulster County municipalities have already joined.
In partnership with Cornell University’s Department of Landscape Architecture, the Program has recently embarked upon a case study of local community climate-adaptive design (CAD). The focus of the initiative is on nature-based solutions including green infrastructure such as living shorelines, floodable wetlands and ecologically enhanced bulkheads and revetments that can protect the Hudson estuary from wave energy and erosion during storm surges.
Each year a new community is selected by the Estuary Program and Cornell to test out how these strategies can be implemented on a local scale. Guidance on how towns can apply for the next round can be accessed at https://wri.cals.cornell.edu/hudson-river-estuary/climate-change-hudson-river-estuary/climate-adaptive-design/cad-app. Additional information on the CAD program is available at https://wri.cals.cornell.edu/hudson-river-estuary/climate-change-hudson-river-estuary/helping-communities-become-climate-resilient/hudson-river-flood-resilience-network.