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 focus.
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.