Mirror, mirror on the wall,
what'll be the best variety...come fall?
When it comes to choosing crop varieties, Jeff says you can rely on
the advice of others—or you can see for yourself by conducting
your own on-farm variety trials.

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


April 19, 2005: What variety do you like to plant? Do you prefer open-pollinated varieties or hybrids? These and many more questions like them fill my email inbox and occupy my phone conversations around this time of the year. And the answer always has to be: It depends.

Now I’ll be the first to agree that that answer is not particularly useful and in fact can be downright frustrating. But, it really does depend. It depends on a lot of variables. What state are you farming in, what county, what township, what field? Yes—even what field.

What is the soil like, what type is it, what is the slope, the drainage, the percentage organic matter? Does the field lie on rich bottom land or on a droughty hillside? What is the weed pressure going to be like? Are you planting early or late? What are your yield expectations?

All these factors and more need to enter in to answering the question, “What variety should I plant?”

So how are you to figure all this out? Well, you could talk to a seed salesman, or consult a few seed catalogs, or even ask a neighbor. OR, you could do what we do at our farm, and conduct your own variety trials. Yep, you heard me right—do your own trials right in your own fields, with your own soil and your own management tools, looking at your own unique situation.

I used to read everything I could, talk to the seed salesmen, and ask the neighbors what they were planting. Then I’d select the seed that I thought would be the best. About three years ago, a scientist from a university we were partnering with on a research project asked if he could plant some seeds from a new corn variety next to our standard corn variety as a test . It was a droughty year, and his variety not only out-yielded the one we were using, but produced enough bushels to tip the balance and allowed us to make rather than lose money on the field. That was enough to convince me I needed to start some small variety trials of my own right here on our farm.

Since then, we’ve done corn trials, soybean trials, and wheat trials, all with dramatic and fascinating results. We’ve seen huge differences, for instance, among varieties of corn and soybeans in their ability to withstand varying amounts of weed pressure. In 2003 we saw yield differences of between nine and 60 percent across “similar” varieties of corn. They were all food-grade corn varieties, and they were all planted on the same day with the same planter. Then we hand-weeded some areas and left weeds to grow in others. At the end of the season, the yield numbers showed that some varieties performed equally well whether weeds were there or not.

We did the same thing with soybeans and saw yield differences of between seven and 54 percent. After just two years of trials, it became very clear that these small experiments, designed to look at varieties growing under our own management systems, were paying off. Previously, I had always planted a soybean variety known as HP204, a great food-grade soybean that is reliably sought after in the marketplace. But in my variety plots it took a beating from the weeds, showing losses of up to 60 percent in un-weeded plots. Under the same conditions, Iowa 3006 lost less then 10 percent of its yield potential. Needless to say, now I plant Iowa 3006 soybeans.

In wheat we’ve noticed that when high-yielding varieties are planted as polycultures (mixing them together in the grain drill hopper and planting them together) as opposed to monocultures (where we planted each variety by itself), the net return was greater than any one of the varieties planted alone. I’m not sure why that all works, but I am sure it means greater profits and less risk to the farm.

This all makes a great deal of sense. Most varieties have been produced by seed companies, who evaluate them under strict conventional guidelines, not certified organic practices. They’re also selected for their ability to perform across a broad spectrum of soils, weather patterns and management systems. But on your farm you generally have similar soils, one weather pattern (if you're lucky) and a management system that is unique to you. You may also have a customer base that you can educate to accept the varieties of crops which perform best for you.

What does this all mean for you and your farm? For me it means variety selections can no longer be made by simply reading the catalog or listening to the seed company rep. It means more work for sure, but in the end I can see it means more profit. And if, like me, you find varieties that far out-yield others in your own system, it will be another one of those golden nuggets of information that will make your farm easier to manage.

Drop me a note and let me know about your successes and failures as you search for the varieties that do best on your farm, under your conditions.

From one farm to another,