Sustainability comes full circle
TRI intern learns some valuable lessons from one of society’s most undervalued craftsmen: a farmer.

By Genevieve Slocum

editor's NOTE:

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.

--NF Editors

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 or systems.

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 reasons.

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.