Harvesting more than just crops

It's been a good season for apples, pumpkins, corn and soybeans here at The Rodale Institute, but it's our cover crop roller that's bearing fruit other farmers can use.

By Jeff Moyer, The 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


October 26, 2004: “Summer’s over, now it’s fall – just the nicest time of all.” So goes the old children’s rhyme. For me it truly is the nicest time of the year. This is harvest time. A time when we can reap the benefits of all those months of hard labor and planning. From apples and pumpkins to corn and soybeans, the crops are either moving into storage or on to market. For us here at the Institute it has been a good growing season. Aside from all the rain (and we had plenty—over 12 inches in September!) we can’t complain. It sure wasn’t a year to make good hay.

But we’ve been able to make hay of a different sort. Many of you have heard me talk or have read in this column about “organic no-till”. Well, on August 17th, I was notified that starting October 1st grant money from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) would be made available to us under their Conservation Innovation Grants program. Having worked on this system’s approach to organic weed management using cover crops for over a decade, I can’t tell you how excited I am. Once word about this grant and the new front-mounted cover crop roller we’ve built got out, the email and phone lines have been humming. It seems that we here at the Institute are not the only ones who see the tremendous possibilities of this system.

If the foundation of the system is the cover crops, the cornerstone has to be our front-mounted cover crop roller. This year we no-till planted corn and pumpkins into hairy vetch, and soybeans into a variety of grains, with rye working the best. We haven’t harvested the soybeans or the corn yet, but the pumpkins were great. They had fewer weeds than where we plowed, disked, packed, planted, and cultivated 3 times. And all we did was plant for the no-till site. The vetch supplied the necessary nitrogen to the crop and the dead mulch provided the weed management. The weeds that did break through ended up getting quite large, so we had a field with fewer but larger weeds. By next season we’ll modify the planter to disturb less soil and hopefully reduce the weed population even more.

Paul Hepperly (our research director) and I had the opportunity to visit farmers in Florida last week as guests of the University of Florida’s North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy. We also met with NFREC faculty and staff and presented information about this project. To say the groups we spoke to were interested would be a great understatement. They saw the huge potential this system holds for farmers of all crops. The real beauty of the system is that while it was designed to be a weed management system for organic farmers, it also has tremendous potential for adoption on conventional farms. As organic farmers we already know about the many benefits of cover crops. Not only can we produce our own nitrogen by growing legumes, but we can actually rebuild the health of our soils. Through well-planned rotations and intensive cover cropping we can grow high quality crops without chemical inputs. Now we have a system that will help us reduce or even eliminate the tillage and cultivation that adds to our labor and harms the soil resources we so desperately want to protect. On conventional farms, soil health can be improved and herbicide use can be reduced.

About two weeks ago I asked the editors of The New Farm to include an appeal to all of you to consider cooperating on our grant. Part of the money we received will be dedicated to on-farm research. The response to that appeal was overwhelming. Many of you have written emails to me requesting more information or suggesting that you were willing to be on-farm cooperators. Again, it’s so exciting to see the interest in this work. Sometimes I feel like a kid at Christmas, bursting with enthusiasm for what’s going to come next. If you think you’d be interested in participating in this project or just want more information, drop me an email and we’ll send it out. You could also look for the article we did on the roller last November to get more information.

We got the combine out this week to prepare for soybean harvesting and true to form found out that the concave adjustment brackets were broken on both sides. While dismantling the front of the machine to get to the parts to replace them we found a bearing was also out on one of the augers. Oh the joys of equipment. I guess it’s true – things only break if you use them. At least we discovered the problems now rather than the day we need to start.

While all this has been going on we’ve been harvesting apples…lots of apples. We have a small but growing pick-your-own operation. It’s great to see families out in the orchard or the pumpkin patch literally enjoying the fruits of our labor. While they’re harvesting fruit they’re also learning about nature and the relationships that exist between farms and food and their personal well-being. So, if you needed another reason to visit the Institute, plan a trip next fall and enjoy some good organic apples.

Until then, continue to send emails and let me know how things are going.

From one farm to another,