Oil price spike creates incentive for real change
Why tinker with fuel and fertilizer efficiencies when innovative organic synergies offer a way to change the whole system?

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

Click here

611 Siegfriedale Rd.
Kutztown, PA 19530

September 14, 2006: Good news! I just passed a service station this morning and I see fuel prices actually dropped a few more cents per gallon for unleaded gas. But diesel prices still remain high.

This situation prompts several questions in my mind:

Here’s question number one. I know nothing about the refinery business, so my question to you may seem a bit naïve: If diesel fuel is a less-refined product than gasoline, why does it cost more? I especially wonder this given the fact that most of the customers for diesel use it in a commercial application.

Whether you run a conventional farm or are certified organic, higher fuel costs will affect your bottom line in more ways than one. As we look toward next year’s field season, this may have an impact on how you manage your resources.

So, here’s question number two. Why does the price of nitrogen fertilizer go up when energy and fuel prices go up? The answer to this question is easier than the answer to question number one because it’s based on science—not politics and economics. Nitrogen is a gas that makes up about 78 percent of the atmosphere we breathe.

The problem is most plants can’t use it in this form, so we’ve figured out a long time ago how to mix air (containing nitrogen) with natural gas (an energy source), put it under pressure of between 300 and 1,000 atmospheres and heat it to about 900°F and “wa-la” (the way we say voilà around here)—you have anhydrous ammonia or a nitrogen source that plants can use.

Now, many of you might not use anhydrous ammonia, but most other forms of nitrogen fertilizer start with anhydrous ammonia as their base. Urea, for example, is created through a reaction of anhydrous ammonia and carbon dioxide under additional heat and pressure, so the cost of production is directly linked to the cost of natural gas.

Now we come to question number three. What can we, as farmers, do about all of this?

There isn’t much we can do about the cost of energy or fuel, but we can do a lot to minimize the impact these costs have on our operations.

Here are several things to get you started:

First, start by getting overwintering cover crops into your rotation to lock up soil nutrients. Even if you aren’t certified organic, cover crops should be one of the tools you have in your tool box. Say, for example, you purchased nitrogen fertilizer, or used animal manure and applied it last spring on your fields. Some of that nutrient mix didn’t get taken up by this year’s crop. Unless you trap it this fall with a green and growing cover crop, it will leach out of your soil and end up in the ground water where you’ll never get to reclaim it. So, plant that cover crop and sponge up the extra nitrogen you’ve already bought.

Next, think about how you can “grow your own” nitrogen with legume cover crops. You know that 78 percent of the atmosphere is nitrogen and that legumes have the ability to “fix” or take nitrogen out of the air and, through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in the root zone, turn it into a form other plants (your crops) can use. So why not use legumes to supply most, if not all, of your nitrogen needs?

You should see if you can cut input costs by taking a closer look at your overall fertilizer needs. You may find out that by setting more realistic yield goals and not over-fertilizing your fields you can save more than enough dollars to buy the cover-crop seed.

And here’s the last question that really gets us back to my first comments. Why are we making so many trips across our fields in the first place, burning up that valuable diesel fuel?

Of course we need to get our crops in the field and get them back out at harvest time. But do we, as organic (or non-organic) row-crop farmers, really need to make 8, 9, or even 10 trips across the field to do our primary tillage and secondary tillage passes, planting, then the weed management through several cultivations, and then harvest the crop when we should be looking more closely at organic no-till?

If you haven’t read about our organic no-till into cover crop work, you should. This fascinating system takes advantage of those cover crops—which already shield us from high energy costs—by putting them to work managing our weeds and mulching the soil. Visit our No-Till Plus Page to read more about it.

As the true cost of energy from oil begins to play a larger roll in each of our operations, we’ll all need to keep asking ourselves these and other questions that grow out of a life when fossil fuel costs were less important, relatively speaking.

I believe more and more farmers—conventional and organic—will be taking a much closer look at cover crops and no-till opportunities to manage their energy needs. Many of the farmers who checked out cover crops to cut costs in the ‘70s and ’80 found they could save money, but they also realized how much more rewarding, and promising, it was to farm with nature rather than to use energy to try to fight it. And they never looked back.

Right now, I’m running out of energy. It’s time to eat!

From One Farm to Another