Q&A with a Sustainable Farming Expert

    August 6, 2019

Written by Ashley Guenard

Fair Farms had the chance to speak with sustainable agriculture advocate, Nevin Dawson. Nevin is the University of Maryland Extension Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator and Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) Professional Development Program Associate. We learned about how he got started in his line of work, why he is so passionate about it, and some challenges Maryland farmers are facing in terms of soil health.

As a child, Nevin was always playing outside which prompted him to join the ecology club in high school. His interest in environmental sciences led him to obtain two degrees in forestry and start his career with the University of Maryland Extension (UME) as a Forest Stewardship Educator. Nevin says that “Forestry and agriculture are not so different . . . growers are thinking about inputs, weed management, yield, and markets in both cases.” Now Nevin wears two hats: coordinating train the trainer programs in soil health for agriculture service providers through UME and administering USDA SARE’s six grant programs “I get to help farmers understand the value of a diverse soil ecosystem that benefits the environment and their bottom line.”

We asked Nevin what he thinks are some misconceptions in his line of work with sustainable agriculture.

Nevin: “I think a common misconception is that there is only one best way to grow food and fiber in terms of sustainability. Every practice has benefits and drawbacks in each of what SARE defines as the three pillars of sustainability: profit over the long term; stewardship of our nation’s land, air and water; and quality of life for farmers, ranchers and their communities. For example, a farm that doesn’t use synthetic herbicides avoids the risks associated with those products, but then generally must rely on tillage for weed control. Tilling the soil breaks up its natural structure, reduces beneficial fungi, and accelerates the loss of beneficial soil organic matter through decomposition. Farmers can help counteract these effects by adding compost and/or manure.”

A big challenge that farmers are facing is how to increase carbon rich soil on farmlands which will improve their crops and the environment. What can farmers do overcome this challenge? 

Nevin: “This will require a farmer to change their practices, inputs, or even buy new equipment, all which come with some perceived risk. Several groups in Maryland are working to develop incentives that reward farmers for building organic matter in their soil. This is primarily because every increase in organic matter represents an equivalent reduction in greenhouse gases, benefitting the general public.”

What can everyday Marylanders do to help conserve our land and water?

Nevin: “Know your farmer. Labels like ‘USDA Certified Organic’ give you an outline of a farm’s practices, but they don’t tell the whole story. A non-certified farm may have a more sustainable operation than many certified farms. A certified organic farm that doesn’t use good crop rotation and composting practices could be losing soil organic matter over time due to tillage. This will likely reduce yields and is also a missed opportunity for reducing greenhouse gases by locking up atmospheric carbon in the soil. On the other hand, some of the best farmers don’t see value in the time and money it takes to obtain and maintain certification. Talk to your farmer directly or look for information online to see if their values match yours. Think about whether you’re willing to pay a little more for products grown the way that you think is best.”

We want to thank Nevin for sharing with us and for the work he does to help our farmers and environment!


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