Fall drought demands invoking Plan D—or creating it, if the impact will come next spring
Disruption of crops with critical roles to play in your rotation means act now to make the best of a dry situation.

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

November 16. 2007: Autumn has been dry. So what’s your Plan D? By now many of us in the East—especially the upland Southeast—and other places scattered around the country are tired of the “D” word. Yes, “drought.” It seems you can’t turn on the news without hearing about another community about to run out of water or one that is imposing water restrictions on their residents.

What about our farms? Fortunately, droughts like the one we are experiencing this fall don’t come along too often. Here in eastern Pennsylvania we did get several inches of rain in recent weeks, but boy, was it dry up until then. Most farms had their silage cut weeks ahead of schedule and we had corn dry in the field by mid-September.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy harvesting fall crops in shirtsleeves under nothing but bright sunshine and blue skies. But those cover crops we planted aren’t too happy: the winter wheat is up but slow growing, and I know many folks have it much worse. These weather patterns pose many questions regarding impacts on your crop rotations and cover crop selection. Questions pop up like: Should I still plant wheat? Should I switch to another cover crop? Where can I find seed in a hurry?

On our farm, just like on yours, there are no easy answers. I may be off base here, but I never try to second-guess my crop practices because of the weather. I tend to follow the plan I’ve laid out and the calendar for field activities I’m used to. I’ve gotten several calls this fall asking me what individuals might do differently if the rains don’t come. All I can tell them, or you, is that short-term weather patterns will affect healthy organic soils less drastically then conventional soils. This is in part because of the greater amounts of carbon we’re sequestering in the soil. Carbon is like a sponge, soaking up any rain that does fall and holding in the root zone where crops can use it.

Long-term dry spells are a whole other matter. There may be no sense planting valuable cover crop seeds in the fall if they have little, if any, chance to survive, and those fall-planted grains may not make it either. In this case you’ll need to really re-think your plans for spring. You may be depending on that cover crop for nitrogen if you’re using legumes, or on the small grain to get into a hay crop. There are no pretty alternatives here, but thinking through the situation now may help prevent a crisis several months down the road.

If your legumes fail, or if you never even got them planted, search now for alternative sources of fertility. These could be animal-based manures, organically approved materials from bagged sources, compost (your farm’s or purchased) or even spring-planted legumes to help supply subsequent crops with the nitrogen they’ll need to meet your yield expectations.

In case you never get your winter grains planted or they don’t survive the winter, develop a plan now for how you’ll change your crop rotation to satisfy your Organic System Plan. Be sure to document all the changes you make to your plan and send them to your certifying agency so that they are up to speed on what’s happening on your farm.

Even though you may still be harvesting (as I am) and it’s hard to think about your next cropping season so soon, you may want to order seeds now for next spring as an insurance plan. If a winter grain field hasn’t made it, think about planting a spring crop instead.

The main point is Have a back-up plan. Everyone faces different situations, and needs to sort their best remaining options if the desired “adequate moisture” scenario has failed to materialize. Taking time now to develop Plan D or E or whatever will pay huge dividends later.

Send me your questions, post them on one of the New Farm Forum pages for others to address, or talk to folks who know your operation and whom you trust. But, take a good look at where you think you’ll stand … then make a plan.

And, of course, pray for rain. Many of us could sure use some.

From One Farm to Another,