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
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
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,