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Empire Farm Days Virtual Soil Health Center

Farmer Panel at the 2019 Empire Farm Days’ Soil Health Center. Photo: Hayley Rylander

The New York State Interagency Soil Health Working Group, New York Soil Health Initiative, and Empire Farm Days have announced the Soil Health Center Farmer Panelists for the 2020 Empire Farm Days. Farmers from dairy, cash grain, and organic vegetable operations will discuss their soil health practices, including efforts to reduce tillage and incorporate cover crops.

This event will be held on July 29-31, 2020. Usually, this event occurs in person at Rodman Lott and Son Farms in Seneca Falls, N.Y, but this year the Soil Health Center program will be virtual.

The farmer panels begin at 11 am daily following the day’s keynote speaker (Exception: Thursday’s farmer panel will be at 10 am before the day’s keynote speaker). The programming includes expert speakers, farmer panels, and a virtual cover crop tour.

On Wednesday, July 29, Forrest Watson of Mulligan Farm in Livingston County; Ryan Akin of Hemdale Farms in Ontario County; Jason Burroughs of Aurora Ridge Dairy in Cayuga County, will talk about their soil health practices in dairy systems. Janice Degni, Cortland County Cornell Cooperative Extension, will moderate the discussion.

  • Forrest Watson is the crop operations manager and fourth generation on the MulliganFarm, where they milk 1,250 cows. For the last five years he has been building a system of no-till, 100% covered soil year-round while also utilizing dairy manure to meet fertility needs. The protection and improvement of the land that provides our livelihood is extremely important to the Mulligan family and everyone at Mulligan Farm.
  • Ryan Akin is the forage, nutrient, and technology manager at Hemdale Farms and Greenhouses of Seneca Castle, NY. This multi-family farm promotes the economic and environmental benefits of reduced tillage, cover crops and crop rotations. Hemdale has a dairy herd of 1,400 cows and grows roughly 3,000 acres of crops including corn, cabbage, alfalfa, wheat, and other specialty vegetable crops.
  • Jason Burroughs is the crop manager and a co-owner of Aurora Ridge Dairy where he manages 2,600 acres at their home farm and another 2,600 at a nearby farm. He grows corn silage, alfalfa, a wide range of cover crops to feed 2,300 cows at the home farm and an additional 2,000 cows at another location. Jason cares deeply about his soil health and local water quality. He has been following Cornell University’s mass nutrient balance planning for over 30 years, has been cover cropping for over 20 years, and works to reduce tillage across his acres.


On Friday, July 31, Aaron Munzer of Plowbreak Farm in Schuyler County; Josh Jurs of Kreher Family Farm in Erie County; Rick Pedersen of Pedersen Farms in Ontario County; Jean-Paul Courtens of Philia Farm in Fulton County will talk about their soil health practices in their organic vegetable/grain systems. Crystal Stewart-Courtens, Fulton and Montgomery Counties Cornell Cooperative Extension, will moderate the discussion.

  • Jean-Paul Stewart-Courtens has dedicated much of his career educating the next generation of farmers. In 2018 he and his wife Crystal founded Philia Farm in Johnstown, NY, to further education and research in regenerative agriculture. Between 2014 and 2017, Jean-Paul created the ProFarmer program at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub in Hurley, NY, an on-the-job training program to provide a path to farm-ownership. During this time, he guided the transition of their 1250-acre sweet corn operation to organic and biodynamic practices.


  • Aaron Munzer and Kara Cusolito own and operate Plowbreak Farm in Schuyler County, New York. Since 2012, they have been feeding the community in a thirty-mile radius around the farm, which sits atop the hills of Seneca Lake. Aaron and Kara harvest vegetables from forty acres (seven in cultivation) and seven high tunnels. They do not spray synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides, and work to promote healthy soils and a thriving ecosystem with cover cropping, habitat planting, compost-based fertility, and reduced tillage.


  • Josh Jurs is crops team manager at Kreher Family Farms, with nearly 6,000 acres of organic cropland. The farm produces organic and conventional grains for its egg operation and grows several vegetable crops for local processing. Josh is currently updating his cover crop program to incorporate different species to build soil health, reduce erosion, and suppress weeds.


  • Rick Pedersen, along with his wife, Laura, is the owner of Pedersen Farms in Ontario County, New York. Rick produces organic vegetables and grain on 630 acres of certified organic land, 270 acres transitional land, and 100 acres conventional land. His primary market is fresh market vegetable production. The Pedersen’s try to keep cover crops on all acres, use a range of tillage strategies to match crop and soil conditions, and inter-seed.

The Soil Health Center at Empire Farm Days is made possible by the New York State Interagency Soil Health Working Group, New York Soil Health and Empire Farm Days.

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