May 12, 2006: I never thought I’d
be happy to see a brand new carboy. As an intern at The Rodale
Institute, I take part in many different research experiments
that use an array of interesting measuring-and-collecting
devices to compile data and eventually draw conclusions. This
includes the huge plastic storage containers (called carboys)
which gather water that infiltrates from the soil surface
through a lysimeter. My background previous to Rodale didn’t
introduce me to this interesting technology.
I do, however, have a pretty broad background in the agricultural
industry. I grew up on a small family farm in southern Maryland
where our primary products are vegetables. We have a few fruit
trees and, in the past, had cows, sheep, dogs, cats, rabbits,
chickens, ducks and a Canadian goose. Our crops are mostly
conventionally grown (some organic).
After completing high school, I studied agricultural science
at Penn State, which gave me an industry-wide perspective
that allowed me to view the whole system from soil to the
finished product. Penn State’s strong support for study
abroad led me to Spain, Morocco, France, Russia, Belgium,
Holland and Germany. In Russia, I learned about producing,
processing and marketing agricultural products there; in France,
Belgium, Holland and Germany, I learned about practice, regulation
and perspectives related to European sustainable agriculture.
These experiences got me thinking about helping developing
countries produce food more efficiently, sustainably and profitably.
During my last summer at Penn State, I worked at the USDA-ARS
Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit. I
mainly worked with switch grass. Scientists are evaluating
its potential for use as biofuel and for conserving marginal
soils. I also worked with other grain crops, legume crops
and chicory, and did research on different weed populations.
When it came time to graduate, I left Penn State with a
greater understanding of the food system. But what I didn’t
learn too much about was how organic farming fits into the
picture; the material taught to me was mostly of a conventional
nature. Since organic agriculture is so important from an
environmental viewpoint, and since consumers are embracing
it, I felt that I should have a solid understanding of this
world as well. By being here at The Rodale Institute, I can
venture into both the cash grains and vegetables with an organic
Organic focuses on building up your soil and recycling nutrients
rather than letting them escape from the system and into the
water supply. Natural inputs like “green manure”
legumes and composted animal manures take the place of chemical
fertilizers, and rotations and cover crops diminish pest and
disease problems. These practices are generally not used in
conventional crop production but when used in combination
can yield great results.
Now why did I start talking about carboys? We were replacing
them because of a new compost-utilization experiment under
way, and many of the carboys had collapsed in the ground.
Coming from Maryland, I tend to enjoy warmer rather than cooler
weather, and it was in the low 40s (and I was out there with
everyone else in the freezing cold). What we had to do was
test to see which ones might have collapsed, dig them out
and then put them back. That might sound easy enough, but
they are pretty deep in the ground, and there is always a
possibility for something unplanned to happen (did I mention
how cold it was?).
To test the carboys, we have to put water in them and pump
it out. So now you can picture a little water spilling and
getting my fingers even colder. Everybody wanted to make sure
that everything would work, which meant tight connections
and a smooth-sounding pump (nobody wanted to have to re-dig
the carboys again). But then came that last bright-white carboy,
in stark contrast to the grimy iron-tinted collapsed ones
that were dug out. It was its turn to be tested and put in
its new home deep within the soil profile.
When I saw it in there, I felt so happy. It then dawned on
me that I was giddy at the sight of a giant plastic container.
But what I was really smiling about was that I helped set
up an experiment that would test different compost recipes,
which eventually will help organic growers in their quest
for providing quality, chemical-free food to consumers.