Planting plastic jugs brings a smile
Rodale Institute intern contemplates where she’s been and what she’s learning.

By Mary Honablew

Editor's NOTE

This season our three interns will be taking turns tracking their observations and sharing what they are learning helping out the research department here at The Rodale Institute.

This next generation of farmers offers insights into what motivates them to go against the tide when so many farm families struggle to keep up-and-coming generations interested in farming.

As they will tell you, it’s a combination of love for the land, good food, sharing community, and a sense of purpose that keeps them going.

--NF Editors

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.