A long love affair with cover crops
In the midst of the current season’s tribulations, planting cover crops lets you think about and prepare for a whole new growing season, with all its unspoiled promise.

By Jeff Moyer, Rodale Institute Farm Manager

Jeff Moyer is the farm manager at the 333-acre Rodale Institute research farm, and has been here for over 26 years, refining the farm's cover cropping and crop rotation systems. The farm has over 1,000 organic apple trees, a 3-acre CSA, 270 acres in a rotation of corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a Japanese market, and 25 acres of experimental research plots that have been used to test and compare the yield, soil health and environmental impact of organic and conventional systems for the last 22 years.

"It's been extremely rewarding to work at The Rodale Institute," says Jeff. "Working on projects and with people who are having a positive impact on family farm practices, economics, and environmental stewardship is very fulfilling. The positive changes I've seen on our own farm over the years—and farms around the world— convinces me that we're on the right road."


How to contact Jeff

Jeff's email:

Phone: 610-683-1420

Mailing address:
611 Siegfriedale Rd.
Kutztown, PA 19530

Posted September 5, 2003: I can’t believe its September already. With summer weather coming late to Pennsylvania, and the usual work load it brings, the weeks flew by. If you read my last article you already know it wasn’t a stellar year for field crops here at the Institute’s research farm. But the corn is starting to show the promise of good yields, the apples should come through well (barring any catastrophes), and the air is beginning to cool off.

More importantly, it’s time to plant cover crops. I love planting cover crops because it encourages me to look forward to another year -- pushing any problems of this growing season to the back of my thoughts. You can’t plan for next year without feeling a twinge of excitement and the promise that a fresh growing season brings. And to get that feeling this early is great.

The primary function of cover crops on this farm is to grow -- or rather fix -- nitrogen. For that reason, all my early covers contain legumes. Most of the ground going into legumes was wheat ground that was just harvested and ground that isn’t slated for hay. For the most part I plant hairy vetch or mixes that contain hairy vetch. This year I’m planting some fields to straight vetch at approximately 28 pounds of seed per acre. I’m also planting a number of fields to a mixture of hairy vetch at 20 pounds of seed per acre coupled with oats planted at about 1.5 to 2 bushels per acre. The oats will winter kill and give protection to the vetch over the winter.

You may recall I mentioned last spring that most of my vetch failed to over winter – a blunder I hope not to repeat. I’m also planting one field with vetch and rye and one field with vetch and wheat. Even though I swear every year I won’t plant rye with vetch I do a little any way. It really produces biomass, but the rye can be a bugger to handle in the spring. As far as grass covers go, I’ll be planting those after the corn and soybeans are harvested.

I’ve been working for years on organic no-till systems. Last year I was able to no-till the vetch since the wheat crop that came before was so clean. This year was just the opposite. The rain we had thru July and into early August left the fields far to weedy to give the cover crops a chance. I had to plow all the wheat stubble in order to establish my cover crops. I’m hoping that by plowing and prepping the fields we’ll get good stands.

Update on the waste water project

I spoke before about our new project for managing the water coming from the restrooms of our visitor center. Several of you wrote to me asking for updates as the project unfolds so I thought I’d briefly mention how the project is going. We have our design team in place made up of folks from in-house, universities, private companies, and other non-profits. I’m excited about the future impact this project will have on how we manage this resource on the rural landscape, where decentralized sewage systems make the most sense.

The design team will be meeting early this month to finalize our plans and solidify our funding. The core of this system will be a multi-celled constructed wetlands to clean up the water leaving the restroom. While we’ll be working on research tasks that support and prove the value of the system, a great deal of our energy will be spent working on educational components designed to reach two major audiences.

On one hand we’ll be working with home owners and those looking at new construction to give them the information necessary to make informed purchase requests. Our second audience will be those technical people and regulators who will be able to endorse and supply the systems the public wants. Our time-line is to begin construction early in 2004. I’m really excited about the long term ramifications of moving these types of systems into the forefront for rural planners. I’ll be giving you many more details and some photos as the project progresses.

This summer we built a walking trail around the perimeter of our research farm. This trail was originally designed to give our staff a quiet place to walk. But we have decided to open it up to the public so everyone can gain access to and enjoy the farm. It runs about three miles in length. If you plan on stopping buy to visit with us I hope you’ll take the time to walk the trail and really see the farm.

This summer was also a time to fix up one of the older buildings on the farm. We have a large “Pennsylvania Dutch” bank barn in the center of our farm complex. The date stone says it was built in 1819. In fact the staff of The New Farm is housed in this barn. Well, it was time for a new roof and a fresh coat of paint. This barn really is the focal point of the farm buildings and brightening up the exterior has really made the entire farm look great.

September is the month we begin harvesting pumpkins. This year’s crop may be a little light in tonnage, and I only planted 2.5 acres of them. But the quality looks good, and I’m sure there will be more than enough to get us all tired of picking them, loading them, and shipping them.

As fall slowly creeps our way, I wish for all of you a safe and successful harvest. Take a moment, jot me an email, and let me know what’s happening on your farm this harvest season.

From One Farm To Another . . .