Green on green
Counting the virtues of small grains, from the soil to the balance sheet.

By Jeff Moyer, The Rodale Institute® Farm Manager

Oats at The Rodale Institute®

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


May 12, 2005: “You can’t make money growing oats.”

I’ve heard it over and over. In fact, I’ve heard that said about most small grains here in the East. Everyone thinks you have to grow corn or soybeans to be a successful grain farmer. One farmer who visited the Institute farm even said to me, “I thought you were a grain farmer.” I said, “I am.” To which he responded, “You farm over 300 acres, where are all the large corn and soybean fields?” The only reason most farmers are growing small grains is to balance out their rotation, and most don’t grow oats at all.

My reply to “you can’t make money growing oats” is, “I can’t help but make money growing oats.” It’s almost too easy. I till the soil and get a good seed bed ready, plant the oat seed, and wait. I do all the field work early in spring, long before anything else is even close to being ready to plant, when time is not as precious as it soon will become. Then in July I go back, harvest the crop and collect the pay check.

OK, so maybe that is slightly over-simplified, but not much. Let’s look at some numbers:

While conventional oat prices were hovering around $1.30 per bushel in August of 2004, organic oats sold off of this farm brought $4.00 per bushel. We had oats in two different points in our rotation. One rotation point yielded about 70 bushels per acre and the other around 105 bushels per acre. That’s an average of 87.5 bushels per acre. So I’m grossing $350.00 per acre. At $2.50 a bushel for (conventional) corn I’d need to average 140 bushels an acre to gross the same amount. And with organic oats there are no herbicide costs, no cultivation, and no fertilizer, so my costs are about as minimal as can be. Just as important, with oats I’m only occupying the resources of my farm for a total of about four months out of the year, freeing them up for either another crop or for cover crop production. That’s a great deal.

AND—yes there is another AND—these figures don’t even include the dollar value of the straw. Straw prices in 2004 were high here in eastern Pennsylvania due in part to short straw length on the wheat crop. For that reason, I baled the oat straw and marketed it off the farm. In most years I like to return the carbon back to the soil, but the money was too good to ignore and I felt that one year of selling off the straw wouldn’t hurt. Oh yeah, the prices. We got $100.00 per ton sold right out of the field. I didn’t calculate the tons per acre for the straw when I baled it, but I think you can tell that it's just the icing on the cake.

We also grow other small grains on this farm—wheat, barley, and rye. This time of the year it’s wonderful to look out across the farm and see so much green. While a lot of corn has already been planted most of it isn’t up yet so those fields look brown and barren. But not the small grain fields.

The wheat that was planted last fall is about a foot tall. The rye is about the same depending on how early or late the field was planted. I didn’t plant any barley last fall but if I had, it too would be green and lush this time of year.

As with the oats, we get good prices for our wheat. In 2005 we sold our wheat for $6.03 per bushel, compared to conventional wheat which was selling for only $2.74 per bushel. Again as with the oats, last year we sold the wheat straw. My wheat yields aren’t as high as many of my conventional neighbors', but 50 bushels an acre is worth the effort. I plant winter wheat in October: It protects the soil throughout the winter, and like other small grains gets harvested in July. As a winter annual, it works well in my rotation, dividing up my work load and helping to break weed cycles.

I grow rye mainly as a cover crop. I always save one or two of my better fields for seed to plant later in the season. From time to time I have extra seed to sell but it's not a big money maker for me.

Like other grain farmers, we also grow corn and soybeans. But we don’t limit ourselves to those “glamour crops.” As farmers across the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast prepare for the possible onslaught of soybean rust, it might be a good time to consider the lowly small grains as you develop an alternative farm plan. I’ve spoken to farmers that are considering flax, spelt, triticale, buckwheat, and even perennial grains. Any of these crops can be a money maker if you do your homework and spend some time setting up a solid marketing plan. Not only can they generate dollars but they’ll diversify your work load, improve and protect your soil, break weed cycles and--like today as I look out my window--they’ll be green long before most of your other crops. I like green!!

Hope you all have a safe and successful spring planting season.

From one farm to another,