Seize pre-harvest gaps to plan on-farm research
Identify options you can test yourself to guide better management.

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

Posted September 14, 2007: I missed writing to you last month—vacation! I'm not sure I deserved it but it felt great to get out of town and see a different part of this great country of ours. I headed West—way west—out to Wyoming, open country filled with fresh air, blue sky, lakes and rivers filled with trout, fields with horses, and no crops to maintain. It's good to get away.

But, I'm back. The farm looks good and I'm ready to get back in the saddle. Well, at least into the tractor seat.

September in Pennsylvania is my favorite month. We're still enjoying the warm days of the end of summer, but the cool nights of fall are beginning to creep in. It won't be long before harvest season for corn and soybeans will be here, and we've already begun picking the first apples of the season. Melons are about over, but pumpkins are right behind them.

This time of year is a time of change, for the weather and the work we perform. This year, fall is a real time of change for us at The Rodale Institute. We have a new chief executive officer in Timothy LaSalle, we're putting the finishing touches on a new strategic plan to help steer our organization, and we're beginning some new and challenging projects.

Fall is a good time for every farmer to consider the changes he or she might have lurking in the back of their minds. For example, if you're even remotely considering the use of cover crops in your rotations, get them started now. You can always decide how to deal with them later in the spring, but if you don't plant them now you’ll need to wait another whole year to try again. Don't be afraid to experiment a little bit. Get a hold of some hairy vetch, crimson clover, Austrian winter pea or even some rye seed and get it into one of the open fields where a summer crop was already harvested, or into an old hay field that might be past its prime.

Every farmer should be a researcher

It may be hard to think about next year already, but this time of year is a great opportunity to do it. Ask yourself a few important questions:

  • What's working well for me this year?
  • What's not working and really could be improved?
  • How can I manage my resources better?

If you come up with some cropping ideas, take steps to put them into practice. Start experimenting on small pieces of land so you can explore these new ideas at a scale that limits your risk. Set up your strips so that they are easy to manage. This way you can fit the field work into your schedule without any wasted time. The nice part about your own on-farm research is the results are extremely relevant to you and your particular farm situation.

What should you consider? Look at different crop varieties, because this choice can have a huge impact in organic systems. You can look at different cover-crop species, try different planting dates for your cash crops (in soybeans this can affect your weed pressure by more than 50 percent) or even investigate alternative crops.

If you want to try some no-till work by rolling cover crops, see our no-till page here at to read stories and find advice on how to get started.

Plot your future

The point here is that fall is a great time to plan these small-scale, on-farm experiments. Setting up your plots now in preparation for next spring will save you time and aggravation down the road. Then, this winter when you’re working on your equipment, you’ll know exactly what you need to change or adjust to accommodate your plans.

On another note, fall can be a great time to apply any soil amendments to your fields. I like to use this time of the year to get my compost applied as well. Since composting stabilizes the nutrients in the material, you aren't as apt to lose them through the winter—especially if you are planting cover crops over the top. This can save time in spring when every minute becomes even more precious. Other soil amendments can just as easily be applied in late summer or early fall, when the soil is usually drier and crops are out of the way. If you use a custom applicator, they generally are not as busy this time of the year, so it's easier to get them to come on your schedule.

By this time next month we’ll be firing up the combine and heading out to harvest corn and soybeans. Before you know it, it will be winter, the soil will be hard and you will be (happily) stuck inside. So get an experiment or two in the ground and send me any ideas you have.

We all learn more when we share our ideas, our successes and our failures.

From One Farm to Another,