Helping New England Farmers Improve Soil Health Through Collaborative Learning - American Farmland Trust

We’ve detected that you are using an outdated browser.

Please use a new browser like Chrome, Firefox, Safari or Microsoft Edge to improve your experience.

We’ve detected that you are using an outdated browser.

Helping New England Farmers Improve Soil Health Through Collaborative Learning

This fall, the Climate and Agriculture team at AFT New England launched our first Soil Health Management Planning Cohort Course. This course offers a year-long program that guides farmers through the NRCS Soil Health Management Planning process in a peer group with other farmers. The pilot launch of the program includes ten small-scale diversified vegetable, hemp, flower, and fruit farmers from Connecticut, with operations ranging from about a quarter acre to ten acres in production. Each farmer in the pilot cohort will select specific fields or plots for which they will develop soil health plans. Learn about our pilot 2023-2024 Cohort below. 

Why Reimagine Soil Health Management Planning? 

The process of creating a Soil Health Management Plan can have many barriers that prevent farmers from accessing available support. AFT’s new approach to a Soil Health Management Planning Cohort Course helps lower some of those barriers by teaching farmers how to create their own Soil Health Management Plans.   

Typically, a Soil Health Management Plan (SHMP) is developed by a Technical Service Provider (TSP), a third-party consultant who has undertaken a rigorous certification process with NRCS. Upon completing the SHMP, the farmer receives reimbursement from NRCS for the plan. The farmer then uses their SHMP funds to pay the TSP. The farmer can then use the SHMP to request further financial assistance to implement the soil health practices they identified in their plan. Originally intended to help increase overall technical assistance to farmers by taking some workload off the plates of full-time NRCS staff, the rigors of TSP certification have resulted in a shortage of TSPs.  

In response to the need for Technical Service Providers, we imagined an alteration to the process. Instead of a TSP working one-on-one with a farmer, what if the TSP used their knowledge of the SHMP process to teach a group of farmers how to write their own plans? A major benefit of this program structure is the opportunity for participating farmers to give each other feedback. Participants can improve the quality of their plans through the power of farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing.

As a bonus, farmers participating in AFT’s Soil Health Management Planning Cohort receive financial assistance ($2000 upon plan completion) for their hard work on their plans. And it is hard work—SHMPs carefully document each farm field’s current baseline soil health condition, characteristics, and hydrology. SHMPs also map out a farm’s soil health goals, equipment inventory, and the steps involved in producing each crop, alongside proposed strategies focusing on improving soil health. Farmers map out their farms to show the locations of fields, wetlands, and sites where they intend to use new soil health practices. Farmers will also complete a process of evaluating the impact that any changes to their practices could have on other natural resources.  

If you’re a farmer in New England, you could be eligible to join an upcoming cohort! Learn more and apply here.  

About the 2023-2024 Cohort 

The 2023-2024 Soil Health Management Planning Cohort kicked off in September with farm visits from AFT New England Soil Health Program Manager Caro Roszell, who completed her SHMP TSP certification for all New England States in 2023. On each visit, Caro, sometimes with the assistance of AFT NE Soil Health Specialist Kevin Antoszewksi, walked the land with the farmers to learn about their farms and operations. Caro and Kevin taught farmers how to conduct in-field soil health assessments (an NRCS tool for visually evaluating soil health conditions and determining resource concerns) and how to collect soil health samples for analysis at Cornell Soil Health Lab. In early winter, each farmer met with Caro or Kevin to review the collected data and to determine whether surveyed fields showed documentable soil health resource concerns. The identification of specific resource concerns in specific fields guided a planning process, as participating farmers learned about the wide range of NRCS soil conservation practices available, determining how to choose and evaluate which practices to adopt. 

In Spring-Summer 2024, the ten farmers in the 2023-2024 Connecticut Cohort will share and provide feedback to each other as they develop their plans, and they will meet in person for a field trip to a soil-health focused farm. We anticipate that all the participating farmers will produce successful plans, but one of the biggest successes, we hope, will be the connections they make. 

Each farmer in our cohort has different strengths and areas of expertise. Some have used mulches effectively, while others have focused on cover cropping. Still others use intercropping to increase production while minimizing land use.  

Meet The Farmers of the 2023-2024 Cohort 

Jacob Honig and Shawn Magill of the CBG Gurus grow the majority of their primary production crop—hemp for CBG— in an intercropping system with fresh fruit and vegetables that they sell alongside their hemp products at farmers markets. Some hemp rows are intercropped with strawberries, sweet potatoes, greens, or radishes, while others have soil-feeding cover crops growing at the base of hemp plants. This system builds soil health through the power of biodiversity and photosynthesis; the benefits of intercropping are well-documented. To build on their goals of building resilience through biodiversity, Jacob and Shawn will focus their soil health plan on bringing a pasture area of their farm into a perennial cropping system with mixed orchard crops. 

Similarly, Freedom Gerardo of SeaMarron farm is planning a perennial, tree-based agroforestry system on a very different parcel of land. His trees will be planted into terraces on a significant slope. The trees’ strong roots will stabilize the land and prevent erosion while producing food for CSA and restaurant sales.  

As Freedom, Jacob, and Shawn develop their plans, they will benefit from technical resources provided through the planning process and from peers in their cohort like Alesia Maltz, who grows a diverse array of perennial fruit crops at Raspberry Hill Farm. Alesia’s plan focuses on identifying a cover cropping plan for raspberry plots to reduce bare soil conditions below the canes, reduce the risk of pest-related losses, and increase biodiversity. A strategy for this plan can be developed with help from the TSP and other farmers in the cohort. 

Just as plant and microbial diversity builds greater soil health outcomes, the diversity of knowledge and expertise woven together in the SHMP Cohort program through guest presenters, field trips, and the cohort members themselves is designed to strengthen learning and improve the quality of SHMPs created in this program.  

Complete list of 2023-2024 Connecticut Soil Health Management Planning Inaugural Cohort  

Tanica Thompson, Natty Roots Gardens in Hartford 

Freedom Gerardo, SEAMarron Farm in Danbury 

Jacob Honig and Shawn Magill, The CBG Gurus in Harwinton 

Alesia Maltz, Raspberry Hill Farm in Colebrook 

Rachel McKenna, Stonewall Acres Farm in Coventry

Chandravir Ahuja, Great Ring Farm in Sandy Hook

Annette Lott, Crosswicks Farm in Goshen 

Brittany Hall and Caley Brooks, Beets and Blooms Farm in East Hampton  

Kaitlyn Kimball, Sunset Farm in Naugatuck  

Mary Claire Whelan, Massaro Community Farm in New Haven

Learn More 

To learn more about this program, please visit 

Applications are currently open for the 2024-2025 Massachusetts Vegetable Producers Cohort (anticipated run date of April 2024 – April 2025).  

We will offer three livestock-focused cohorts in Fall-Winter 2024-2025; applications are expected to be posted in early spring 2024.  

About the Author
Caro Roszell

Soil Health Project Manager

Read Bio