No farm is an island
A Rodale Institute intern ponders organic agriculture’s lessons of cause and effect.

By Genevieve Slocum

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

June 8, 2006: Before I came to The Rodale Institute, my firsthand experience with agriculture had been a patchwork of encounters with fringe movements, small-scale efforts that often seemed futile and impractical, and homemade science experiments. I grew up in suburban Boston, where farms mainly serve the purposes of education (especially day camps for young kids and demonstration farms), small CSAs, land preservation and the fulfillment of aesthetic and nostalgic ideals about our relationship to the land. In the suburban world, farming is often just as much about seeking a return to a “simpler” or more meaningful time in human history as it is about innovation and feeding people. When it comes to actual subsistence, most of suburbia finds itself at Trader Joe’s, Stop & Shop, or Whole Foods, purchasing produce most likely grown in mono-cropped fields somewhere in Latin America or California.

What strikes me about the metro area’s idea of a farm is that it looks like an island from an outsider’s perspective—isolated, makeshift, and scratched out of the rocky New England soil. (I don’t mean to speak about my hometown as if it’s another planet, but it definitely feels that way after spending two months in rural Pennsylvania.) These farmers are predominantly small growers, often a husband and wife team—and maybe some kids—who recognize from the outset that they will not feed a sizeable population. Starting a small farm tends to be more an expression of personal ideals and principles about sustainability and environmentalism than a die-hard business venture.

Throughout high school and college, I have worked at several of these venues. A hydroponic tomato farm, my main source of income during high school, appeared quite different from the nearby small organic growers but, in fact, rested on very similar ideas about small-scale, local production and a market with a direct personal connection between grower and buyer. In addition to supplying supermarkets, the on-site farmers' market spawned a small community around food—a group of citizens who cared about where their food came from and about supporting local agriculture, which to me is the first step towards a consciousness about sustainable agriculture. I have also spent a summer on a CSA on the eastern shore of Maryland—an ambitious 10 acres surrounded by more acreage of conventional corn and soybeans than people—and another few weeks on a communal “experiment in sustainable living” in northern New Hampshire.

Although these farms required business smarts and knowledge of season, weather and soil variations, my impression of organic agriculture has been, in part, that it’s a rebellious ideology, more rooted in emotion than empiricism. Since I have no formal background in agriculture (my degree is in sociology), working at The Rodale Institute these past couple of months has opened my eyes to the technical aspects of sustainable production, and, in particular, how to stay sustainable on a large scale. While my experience has been limited to homegrown vegetables, I have learned about the production of organic cash crops such as corn, rye, wheat and soybeans. Rodale focuses on the reality of large-scale production for the farmer who may already be producing conventionally but might switch to organic if he was made aware of the long-term benefits to his soil and the possibility of comparable yields. As an intern here, I have begun to realize that organic farming can mass produce while still being environmentally sensitive. Rather than investing in chemical inputs like synthetic fertilizers, the farmer’s energies can be redirected into crop rotations, building up organic matter in the soil with the use of cover crops (while simultaneously fixing nutrients in the soil and reducing erosion). Using these science-based approaches, a farmer can still strive for the ideals of sustainability and self-sufficiency.

Working with cover crops, one of the most basic approaches to biological weed control here at Rodale, has been a revelation for me. In my varied farm work experience, I had never heard the term used. A single cover crop can serve multiple purposes, including erosion control, nutrient sequestration and provision, weed control and soil enrichment. Our weed-control work so far in the internship mostly centers around monitoring a hairy vetch comparison trial in which 20 varieties of hairy vetch from all over the U.S. are grown in small plots, with four randomly-placed replications for each variety. As points of comparison, we take plant measurements, chlorophyll readings, evaluate the percent cover and percent bloom of each variety in order to determine how effective it will be at weed suppression once it is rolled, and we take square-foot biomass samples for the same reasons.

I was recently trying to wrestle the small biomass sample from a tangle of hairy vetch vines, and as I pulled the thick mat away from the soil, I noticed a complex ecosystem had formed below it. My fellow interns Mary and Aaron each separately pointed out to me that this underworld was markedly varied from plot to plot. In many of the plots, the mat traps moisture against the soil, so that beneath the slimy bottom layer of vetch is moist, fertile soil teeming with insect life, larvae, sometimes mushrooms, and billions of microorganisms too small to see. Like other legumes, vetch has a higher nitrogen-to-carbon ratio, which means that it will break down in the soil much more quickly than a carbon-rich crop such as corn or rye. With the help of the abundant microorganisms, this will soon lead to a usable form of nitrogen for the corn crop (which will be no-till drilled into the soon-to-be rolled mat of vetch) as well as a rapid boost of organic matter to the soil, building up its structure and absorbent abilities.

Again, the differences among the varieties of vetch are sometimes striking. They can produce adequate biomass and adequate flowering at vastly different times. Some biomass cuts revealed an almost dry patch of soil, while others exposed earthworms breaking through well-aerated, moist and nutrient- rich soil where the bottom layer of vetch had already begun to decompose. But to see these differences reflected in soil quality and in the “little world below the mat” really illustrated the ripple effect created by organic practices. Most of the hairy vetch yielded a soil rich with life and contrasted starkly to the cracked, cement-like soils surrounding the plots. Life needs life in order to thrive, and crops are no different. Diverse life is preferable. Hairy vetch can be pretty hairy indeed if it is an unwelcome visitor, but its effects on the enrichment of organic soil are fully evident even after one season.