Make time to leave home for farmer-to-farmer learning
Choose well and plan carefully to get the most out of summer field days.

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

June 14, 2007: The calendar may say it’s just past spring, but it feels a lot like deep summer to me. Here in southeastern Pennsylvania, the weather is hot and humid. We hadn’t had any substantial amount of rainfall for weeks until we got a series of thunderstorms, starting with one that dumped 3 inches in an hour or so.

Not exactly what we ordered when we asked for rain. (Somehow the request got confused in the communication pipeline.) And we certainly didn’t order the hail that came along with the downpours. It chopped up head lettuce that was going to be harvested last week in the first CSA distribution of the season and dinged up some of our apples. Fortunately, the corn was small enough to not be injured and the soybeans weren’t out of the ground, so they were safe.

Besides unsettled weather and thunderstorms, summer brings with it time to attend field days—those rare opportunities to get off your own farm, leave your to-do list behind and visit research farms, neighbors or other farmers who welcome you to “come and see.”

These are great times to learn and ask questions about new technologies, techniques, enterprises and farm practices. From pasture walks to marketing talks to scientific studies, there are literally dozens of learning activities right outside your door.

I know what you’re thinking—“Who has time for that?” I encourage you to take the time, find the time, or make the time—but, by all means, go and learn.

How can you get the most out of your field day experience? Having been on both ends of these activities, hosting and attending, I can assure you they are a better venue than winter PowerPoint presentations for getting first-hand information and to see the results of particular operations for yourself, especially if you follow some key tips.

So here are my seven steps for field day fulfillment:

1. Choose carefully.

It is important to pick and choose events that focus specifically on the interests, crops, livestock or marketing plan most relevant to your own operation, or possibly to changes you are thinking about incorporation into your operation. This way, you can maximize your experience and get the most information for your time investment.

I specifically used the words “time investment” because this truly should be thought of as an investment in the future of your farm. In many cases the growth or success of your farm depends on the adoption or adaptation of new technologies, equipment or information into your operation.

2. Do your homework.

That’s right—plan your questions in advance. Taking on this additional effort before you arrive will increase the chances you will feel the day away was worth it on your way home. Think through the relevant changes you’re considering. Weigh the pro’s and con’s that you can imagine, determine what pieces of information will help you make your decision and explore the secondary impacts on the rest of your farm system. Formulate the questions that will get at what you really need to know.

As a presenter, I can tell you that well-thought-out questions go a long way to steering the discussion in productive directions. They actually aid me in knowing what information will help my audience. By taking the discussion beyond the basics, everybody has a “value added” experience.

3. Don’t be bashful.

Some folks don’t like speaking up in a crowd. Others may feel that their question will seem foolish. Neither feeling should keep you from speaking at a farm-centered event meant for learning.

If you have a question or comment, you can be certain someone else has it as well—but is even more bashful than you are. If you feel better working one-on-one, stay behind when the group moves on, and discuss the issue further with the farmer or presenter. Their goal is to get you the information you need, so pick their brain while you have the chance. If lots of people linger and you don’t get face time with the presenter, jot them a note with your contact information for follow-up later.

Everybody has to apply what they see at the field day to their own farm and future. Questions that help with this adaptation-and-imagination process will help everybody.

4. Be a good listener.

It’s easy to miss comments, questions from the audience or discussion points addressed on a chart. Be as attentive as possible. This is your opportunity to gather the information you’ll be putting to work down the road on your own farm. If you’ve arrived at the start of a presentation and paid close attention, you can be more confident that your questions will let the presenter cover new ground.

5. Be prepared to be amazed.

Don’t be so focused on what you think you came to learn that you miss out on some unexpected treasure. An open mind will be a useful tool as you explore new ideas.

6. Make friends.

Farmers are all here to learn and to share; in fact, information sharing in the sustainable agriculture community is a big deal. New farmers who are willing to discuss “what they don’t know” can nearly always find a veteran willing to honor their effort with generous help and counsel. Livestock producers exploring grass-based systems frequently form local grazier groups that rotate hosting pasture walks to support one another in the steep learning curves each is bound to encounter.

Go ready to engage people who asked the question you wanted to ask, who live close to you or who just seem like the kind of person you would enjoy keeping in touch with in your farming enterprises.

7. Take notes.

No matter how good your memory is (mine is terrible), you’ll undoubtedly forget some details (seeding rates, a phone number, material source, etc.), equipment manufacturer’s contact information or another piece of vital data. Nothing fancy here; a piece of paper and a pencil will do just fine.

Armed with these tools and a desire to learn, you’ll be able to cash in on this “time investment” in the future months and years. As we all learn together, see you at a field day!

From One Farm to Another.