This season our interns are taking turns tracking
their observations and sharing what they are learning
as they help out the various departments 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.
November 9 , 2006: Organic farming is a science,
but like anything else its definition tends to be relative.
When taken piece by piece, the conglomerate of wisdom we think
of today as organic practices are neither new nor necessarily
organic. Defining organic depends heavily on context, and on
a practice’s membership in a larger group of farming techniques
Over the past month, I have had the opportunity
to travel to two of the farms where The Rodale Institute is
conducting cover crop experiments to compare similar practices
across varied geography and soil types—Bill Mason’s
farm in Queen Anne, Maryland, and Kirby Reichert’s land
in Grantville, Pennsylvania. These collaborations provide
varied environments in which to test the viability of our
techniques and control for some climate and soil differences,
as well as allowing valuable insights into the lives of the
farmers who make practical, rational economic decisions about
what approaches to use. These farms are the ground on which
the scientific and theoretical meets the practical, tested,
and intergenerational word-of-mouth. As Dave Wilson, an agronomist
here in charge of these experiments, points out, these relationships
are a two-way street of information and resources in which
both parties stand to benefit.
A gain often requires some loss, however obscure. New technology
is often more efficient and practical than what preceded it,
but it tends to supplant knowledge, human skill, and integrated
understanding of a process. An industrial advance creates
a unique dependence on a technology by removing our intimate
knowledge of the process and segmenting it into disparate
parts. We begin to rely on herbicides and fossil fuels, for
example, rather than on the understanding of cover crops,
rotation and diversity that was required of thousands of pre-industrial
generations. Working with Bill Mason and his father, Bill
Sr.—who farm 430 flat, sandy acres on the eastern shore
of Maryland—brought to light the value of these different
experiences and their contexts.
Bill Mason Sr. recalls 1940s standard farming—frost-seeding
the legume Korean Lespedeza into wheat in early spring, a
living cover crop technique which is currently being tested
in several experiments at The Rodale Institute. The young
wheat behaves as a nurse crop for the legume, creating a microclimate
with the shelter of its canopy until the days get warmer.
The freezing and thawing of the soil surface promotes the
seed-to-soil contact and moisture needed for germination,
working seed into soil through contraction and expansion.
Bill Sr. remembers walking up and down hundreds of acres of
drilled wheat rows in the early morning, broadcasting Korean
Lespedeza seed by hand. As the days got warmer and longer,
the wheat growth could take off while the lespedeza grew slowly,
too young to compete with the wheat yet providing a living
mulch to suppress weeds and a way to begin fixing nitrogen.
After the wheat was harvested in July, the lespedeza would
grow for the remainder of the summer and could then be harvested
in the fall as hay for livestock, with the leftover wheat
stubble adding a nice component of straw to the mix.
In our experiments, we now define this technique as a no-till
seeding event, taking the place of tillage to reduce weeds,
and as a “relay cropping” event to provide continuous
ground cover. In Bill Sr.’s day, this was just common
sense, a way to deal with weeds when the ground was too wet
to drive through, and to take advantage of the ground when
it was frozen. Our experiments with living cover crops at
The Rodale Institute tell us that the most successful legumes
for frost-seeding into small grains are those that are low-growing,
won’t compete too much and won’t interfere with
wheat harvesting, such as the Korean Lespedeza, Ladino clover,
and red clover. Biennials, on the other hand, go to head too
quickly and put on competitive tall growth.
Bill recalls later trying to convince his father to use commercial
fertilizer on the farm, which was difficult in a time when
financial risk was a luxury, often avoided in favor of traditional,
trusted methods. By experimenting with a moderate amount of
fertilizer (far less than the norm today), he was able to
raise his corn yields, but with the use of rotation and cover
cropping he still had no need for pesticides.
In many ways then, agricultural technology comes full circle.
We hit the peak of industrial efficiency and then stop to
wonder if this kind of behavior can really be sustained. In
Bill Sr.’s generation, as Dave has pointed out, a cover
crop usually doubled as a cash crop for harvesting but in
essence is the same concept that holds so much promise today
(especially in light of the rising costs of energy and chemical
inputs). It served the purpose of covering the ground over
the winter to prevent the loss of nutrients either by leaching
or erosion and, if it was a legume, would add bonus nitrogen
for the following crop. I begin to wonder if an appreciation
of sustainability, or the concept of sustainability itself,
comes only when we have hit the extreme of technological decadence.
Sustainability makes the most sense in the context of abundance—when
we have the luxury of an endless, subsidized food supply and
the ease of efficient production, only then we can worry about
modifying the process in a way that focuses on quality and
awareness rather than one-dimensional quantity.
It helps to remember that farmers are among the most productive
members of our society, in terms of per-person output. The
average American farmer feeds about 130 people, yet they are
also some of the most undervalued members in our communities.
Perhaps because of the ease and centralization of mass production
(placing it mostly in our peripheral consciousness), it’s
easy to forget the value of food and just how many steps and
calories of fossil fuel it takes to produce every calorie
we eat. Food is actually devalued too often, as reflected
in the national obsession with dieting (and junk food). Industrial
agriculture is a great accomplishment, but one of its after-effects
has been for us to take farmers and food for granted.
Our modern idea of organic therefore depends on our industrial
context and a deliberate striving for sustainability. Bill
Mason Sr. farmed organically “by default”—because
of technological constraints and because of a wealth of intergenerational
knowledge. Dave points out that many conventional farmers
today may use “organic” practices like cover-cropping,
but our definition of organic depends on an integrated approach
and a conscious effort, either for ideological or market-based
Context plays a major role in agricultural research, as well.
This type of research is unique in that there are so many
variable environmental conditions that need to be controlled
for. Our experiments can (or should) never lose touch with
their real-world applications and the farmers who are constantly
putting our results into practice. Agronomy can be seen as
the meeting of scientific theory and real-world variability,
since researchers find themselves adapting experiments to
many soil types and weather patterns as well as to ever-changing
technology. This directly conflicts with the consistency dictated
by lab science and the need to compare controlled results
of long-term trials from start to finish.
Working with Pennsylvania farmer Kirby Reichert, we found
ourselves setting up cover crop trials “on the contour.”
His fields are rented land, scattered over the Grantville
area and fragmented around housing developments. (This provides
yet another example of how farms go undervalued – the
best agricultural land is also prime land for development,
and developers tend to be a more powerful interest. As a result,
Pennsylvania farmers are frequently left to work with the
contour and the segmented land, a dynamic which researchers
must mirror. The paradox is that non-farmers crowd out the
source of their own sustenance.) The fields we were given
to work with were hilly, diverse in soil quality, drainage
and topography. The challenge was to set up representative
plots of equal size, in four to five replications, which,
as we worked around curves and sacrificed a buffer zone here
and there, began to resemble diamonds rather than squares.
As with any experiment, however, each flag must be measured
to the inch and from two perpendicular points.
Staying precise wasn’t as much of a battle at Bill
Mason’s farm, where the land stretches flat and the
soil tests at a glance reveal almost uniformly sandy soil.
Logistics like finding representative space for enough replications
and even driving the tractor straight for disking and planting
are less of an issue. The results of this cross-geographical
comparison are bound to tell us more about the true viability
of organic techniques, not just their success or failure in
Berks County, Pennsylvania. In exchange, we got a little bit
of encouragement: Bill Mason’s first transitional year
of 125 acres of no-till organic soybeans planted into a rolled
rye cover crop yielded 60 bushels per acre! He was thrilled
with the weed suppression he got, and maybe realized that
a certain amount of weeds can be tolerated and even expected
without creating substandard yields.