Spring gleanings as winter melts into spring
Ruminations on the busy season, challenges in the organic sector and our cutting-edge research.

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

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611 Siegfriedale Rd.
Kutztown, PA 19530

Posted March 15, 2006: Mid-March. There is still a little dirty snow on the ground, but the sun is getting higher in the sky. Spring surely can’t be far away.

We still have two tractors torn apart in the shop, so our winter work isn’t as far along as we had planned. I hope you’ve gotten all your winter projects completed, have your field plans laid out in detail and have all your resources lined up and ready to go.

Speaking of resources, let me mention again the need for all of us, as organic farmers, to use certified organic seed. I wrote about this in detail in my November 2006 column. I don’t think I’ve written about any topic that has received as much feedback as this topic.

Many of you wrote to tell me you agreed with my main point: We all need to support the organic industry from seed to table. But many also wrote to say you have tried organic seed and found it lacking in many of the characteristics farmers depend on. We all need accurate germination data, fair representation of plant type and growing requirements, as well as yield quantity and quality information. As a community, organic farmers cannot be expected to buy seed that is not true to type, uniform, free from weed seed and possessing good germination characteristics.

Organic seed providers need to know that their just being organic is not reason enough for farmers to purchase their products. We all realize that this portion of the industry is less mature than some other sectors may be. From the letters we’ve received I can tell the support is there, but the seeds need to measure up to the quality standards farmers have grown to expect—and need—to make their farms successful.

Now let’s get back to thinking about spring. It’s too early to tell if our cover crops have survived the strange winter weather we experienced this year. The winter started out unusually warm for an extended time, then it turned cold, then very cold, and we still had snow on the ground last week.

My plan is to use our no-till roller to no-till plant our corn and soybeans and even some oats. Last fall we over-seeded a cover crop of forage radish into our soybeans at leaf yellow stage. The radish seedlings were a little spindly while the beans kept their leaves, but then grew through the fall and early winter to form roots that ranged from one-half inch to 3 inches in diameter. My hope is that the winter-killed radish will suppress the weeds enough that we can no-till plant the oats.

Maximizing organic no-till

Our goal is to use our cover-crop based no-till system to plant as many crops as we can in our crop rotation, as often as possible. We’re not capable of no-tilling every crop every year. We’ll till the soil as needed at some rotation points to establish our cover crops. We know if we can get an excellent establishment of my cover crops that we’ll stand a very good chance of growing our cash crop weed free, with little or no tillage, with no extra nitrogen and a whole lot less labor.

There is no place on the farm that feels more like spring right now than the inside of our greenhouse. This week we sowed all of our early brassicas. The onion and leek seeds were started weeks ago. We have always used our own compost as the base ingredient for our potting mix. We add perlite and vermiculite to the mix along with some peat moss.

This year we are switching from peat to a coconut-fiber byproduct called coir. This is all part of our goal to use renewable resources wherever possible, and the harvesting of peat has environmental impacts in terms of its renewability.

The smell of the damp soil coming from the mist rack in the greenhouse lets me know planting season is coming fast.

Well, it’s off to finish the farm’s organic certification forms—that nasty paperwork. It’s probably that time on your farm as well. Hopefully, you’ve taken my advice and that of many others and kept up with your field and crop records, your soil and water test data and your financial accounting so that the process is painless.

Almost painless, that is. I’ve started keeping track of all our field work on a Microsoft Access file. It’s so easy to fill out the paperwork once the information is entered—just a few keystrokes and clicks and let the printer do its thing.

If any of you have come up with good new ideas for farm record keeping—especially for your organic certification requirements—let me know so I can share your techniques with other farmers.

Because that’s how we all learn.

From One Farm to Another