ONE FARM TO ANOTHER
Taking the REALLY long view
As fall approaches, Jeff reflects on the past and future of farming on our own little patch of North America--and considers the ecological and economic value of adding perennial grain crops to the mix.

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:
jeff.moyer@rodaleinst.org

Phone: 610-683-1420

Mailing address:
611 Siegfriedale Rd.
Kutztown, PA 19530

 

October13, 2005: Every now and then it's good to take a long, LONG term view of our farms. The kind of look that really gives you a different perspective on things.

For example, The Rodale Institute’s farm was once home to members of the Lenni Lenape Indian tribe, also known as the Delaware, whose lands stretched throughout the Delaware River Valley in what is now New Jersey, Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania and southeastern New York. Archeologists from our local university have told us these people had a rudimentary agricultural system going back as far as 10,000 years. Wow! I don’t care what time frame you want to put that in, 10,000 years is a long time to be producing crops on a piece of land.

Now obviously the food production system they participated in was drastically different from what we do today. But it does beg the question: What will food production systems look like 10,000 years from now? I'm willing to bet that whatever the system is, it will be quite different from what we see today. The farming systems of the future will probably look as foreign to us today as the farming systems of 10,000 years ago do.

This type of perspective thinking is not just an exercise to pass the time of day. Rather, it should encourage us to think about how we are treating our resources. If we continue to farm the way we are farming, will our soil still be productive thousands of years from now? As farmers and stewards of the land, it's our responsibility to ask ourselves that question.

One of the projects we have been working on here at The Institute that takes a long-term view of food production is our Perennial Grains Project. It may not survive for thousands of years, but it's designed to work for many years just the same.

Most agricultural grain crops currently being grown are annual crops. We till the soil to prepare a seed bed and plant these crops every year. But, what if you only had to plant a crop once every 5 to 10 years and could harvest a crop from it every year? Sounds good to me. As you can well imagine there are many benefits to a system based on perennial grains, including reduced soil erosion, lower annual inputs, less fuel consumption and less labor. Not to mention that systems including perennials will build up soil organic matter, increase water infiltration and boost biological activity.

We started on this project many years ago by screening a number of perennial grains for traits such as vigorous growth, favorable flavor, ease of threshing, large seed size and potential for machine harvesting. Based on these criteria, intermediate wheat grass, Thinopyrum intermedium (also known as Agropyron intermedium), was selected for its potential as a cash grain crop. Since that initial selection we have been working on designing cultural practices to enhance the perennial nature of the crop while exploiting its ability to produce seeds. We have also begun a small breeding program with partners at the USDA-ARS Plant Introduction Center by taking single plant selections and growing them out repeatedly.

It’s true that annual grains will out-produce perennial grains every time. This is because they have been bred to maximize their seed production, putting no energy into perennializing their root structures. On the other hand, the massive amounts of inputs needed to support annual production come with a hefty price tag in terms of dollars and environmental damage. It’s been estimated that for each pound of food consumed in the United States, 22 pounds of soil are lost to erosion. That is a enormous loss. Since perennial grasses exist in the same site from year to year, most have developed built-in resistance or tolerance to insect pests and diseases. When coupled with a legume understory to fix nitrogen, a grain growing polyculture could be an economically sound alternative to annual crop production.

The Rodale Institute isn’t the only organization to recognize the potential for perennial grains. Similar work is being conducted in the United States in the Upper Midwest and Great Plains, as well as in Canada and Russia. The development of perennial grain cropping systems is far more complex than the development of a single crop species. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

By developing a system based on annual crop production, our ancestors created a highly productive agricultural system. But that system has shown a greater and greater dependency on external inputs. Now, as we look to the future and our need to protect soil and water resources, it is time to put our increased knowledge of agronomy, plant breeding, and ag-engineering together with improved technologies to develop systems that include perennial plants in the cropping sequence.

Today we are dealing with a whole different set of circumstances than we were 10,000 years ago. Regardless of the type of agricultural system you follow, as you look to the future for that long term perspective I think you’ll see that perennial grains can form an essential ingredient within a regenerative and sustainable farming system.

Enjoy your long term perspective and let me know what you see in your future.

From One Farm to Another

Jeff