Poring over catalogs, making wish lists
Decisions about next year's seed orders can make a big difference for your farm--and for the organic community as a whole.

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


December 8, 2005: I know it's December and I know the crops are all harvested. But I'm not quite ready to start thinking about planting next year's crops.

But the seed catalogs are pouring in. It doesn't seem to matter what you plant—vegetables, grains, corn, soybeans, whatever--it's time to order those seeds. Especially if there are certain varieties you know you need.

As a research farm, we have many projects that require certain varieties or particular seed sizes. That all requires ordering early. Actually I think it gets earlier every year. The varieties you order and even the size of the seed can have a huge impact on the success of your field season. We've been performing our own variety tests looking at corn, soybean and wheat varieties grown under our own rotational systems and we've seen some amazing things.

For example we've seen differences in how various corn and soybean varieties respond to the presence of weeds. Some corn varieties have shown a yield differences of up to 60 percent when weed pressure is at 2000 pounds per acre, while another variety in the same field, same soil type, all growing conditions the same, showed no reduction at all. So in this case, yields for the same variety without weed pressure were 120 bushels per acre. But in the presence of weeds the yields dropped to 75 bu/ac. At $6.00 a bushel, that 45 bu/ac means a difference of $270.00 per acre. So you see, variety selection really does make a difference.

One of the big problems we have as organic farmers is the lack of research exploring variety breeding and selection under organic conditions. Most of the germplasm all of us use was propagated under conventional growing conditions where all the weeds are eliminated with herbicides and all the nutrients are supplied through chemical fertilizers. As organic farmers and growers we are taking those seeds and growing them in fields that depend on rotations, cover crops and cultivation to manage the weeds and legumes, composts, manure or natural-source fertilizers to supply the nutrients. We have seen that the plants respond in different ways to these different growing systems.

As organic farmers we often have different criteria by which we judge the quality of a variety. For example in soybeans I want a plant that grows fast, gets tall and bushy, and closes the canopy quickly. I plant soybeans on 30-inch rows and cultivate. Many conventional farmers today plant soybeans on 7-inch rows so they like an upright bean to take advantage of this particular seed spacing. For corn I’m willing to sacrifice some yield potential to get a plant with fast germination, early seedling vigor, and a robust root system. I want corn to jump out of the ground and grow fast to get a jump on the weeds. Then I want it to have good root growth characteristics to forage for the nutrients it needs since I don’t place them conveniently at the base of the plant in a soluble form using chemical fertilizer.

As organic farmers we really need to support the breeding of crops and the production of seed for the organic industry by asking for and buying organic seed whenever and wherever we can. I know some farmers have said to me, “Yeah, but it costs more and the rules say you can plant conventionally grown seed as long as it is untreated,” and technically they are correct. But until every segment of the industry benefits we all suffer.

When it comes to vegetables the choices are infinite. I always look for seed varieties that exhibit good disease resistance, weed tolerance, good root growth, and of course flavor since I generally know my customers and I’ll hear about it if they aren't the best. Now that’s not to say that my conventional counterparts don’t often want the same things I do, it’s just that different varieties respond to different farming systems and as organic farmers we need to know what those responses are. Since most seed companies and university test plots don’t include duplicate variety trials, with one representing a conventional system and one that represents an organic system, it’s up to each of us to experiment on our own farm.

As you look through those seed catalogs over the next few weeks or months, don’t be fooled by the glossy pictures or yield data reporting. Ask the right questions, shop for varieties that express the traits you need on your farm and try some test plots on your own with the weeds, rotations and production systems you use. This is all time well spent. If you’d like more data on the work we’ve done here at the Institute’s research station in Pennsylvania drop me an email and I’ll be glad to send it to you.

For now I wish for all of you a joyous holiday season. Stay warm and safe.

From One Farm to Another