ASK Jeff: The Rodale Institute’s farm manager, Jeff Moyer, answers your hardcore farming questions

How can we fertilize neglected land for best productivity while preparing it for organic certification down the road?

Posted May 11, 2004

What Jeff brings to the table

Jeff Moyer, who’s been the farm manager here at the 333-acre Rodale Institute research farm for more than a quarter of a century, receives lots of mail from farmers just like you asking for advice. Jeff’s hands-in-the-dirt experience over the past 26 years has run the gamut from refining the farm's cover cropping and crop rotation systems (including managing 270 acres in a rotation of corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a Japanese market) to overseeing The Rodale Institue Farming Systems Trial®, the world’s longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional agriculture. We thought it would be fun and informative to share some of these farmer-to-farmer exchanges, and Jeff’s practical wisdom, with our readers … and we’ll be doing it on a regular basis.

Got a question of your own? Send it to Jeff at:

Dear Jeff,

We are looking into the possibility of raising organic beef here in northern Idaho. We have 130 acres available, 20 in pasture, and the rest in hay. We need advice on how to fertilize the land for best productivity while preparing it for organic certification down the road. We have a lot of Rodale books on organic gardening and, back in the ’80s, we raised organic produce for the local market in Spokane, Washington. However, we don't know where to turn to now for sound advice about the most economical way to get this run-down farm into good shape. I see by your website that you use exclusively your own compost on the farm there; that is part of our goal as well.

We are planning to do the composting using municipal wastes, along with our own manure and from nearby horse ranches, etc., in the long run, but right now we are looking for a quicker "fix" as to what we can apply to the poor pasture and hay ground to get them more productive. They have been neglected for many years. The hay has had many years of commercial fertilizer to it; the pasture none (except manure from the cattle). Both are pretty sparse with actual grass, and high in weeds.

Perhaps you can refer us to some organic fertilizer resources as well as somewhere we might get some consultation.

Thank you for your help!
Luana and Wilbur Hiebert

Dear Luana and Wilbur,

Thanks for the email and your interest in The Rodale Institute®. First I’ll start by saying I have no experience with your specific growing conditions in northern Idaho; my experience has dealt mostly with East Coast agriculture. That said, your situation is one I hear often from across the country as more and more people are taking charge of land that has been overworked in the past. The farm that houses The Rodale Institute Farm was much like yours in terms of condition when we took it over in 1971, but within a few years it was brought back to life. I have no doubt that your land will respond the same with some hard work and some good soil building techniques. My first suggestion is to get a copy of the book Building Soils for Better Crops by Fred Magdoff (Sustainable Agriculture Network, 2000). This book will help guide you as you set out to improve your land.

There are organic sources for any and all nutrients you’ll need to grow hay and pasture. Keep in mind that these materials generally cost more than their chemical counterparts and may be more difficult to find. The best and cheapest materials are those that are biologically based and right there on the farm. Growing legume hay, for example, will produce all the nitrogen you need by fixing it from the air.

Start your process by getting a good soil test done on each of the field areas you’ll be managing. While the chemical analysis only tells you part of the story of what is going on in the soil, it is a great place to start. You can assume the biological activity is low and the overall health is poor, but that will change. First get the phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) balanced in the soil, do some tillage to remove the existing weed pressure, and get a new crop of hay and/or pasture grass established.

You don’t need to do all the areas at once—work into a rotation and don’t open up more land than is necessary to prevent erosion. Your county extension agents are a wealth of knowledge. While they probably won’t know much about organic practices, they should have a solid basic understanding about timing of planting, crop variety suggestions, tillage, irrigation tips, and soil test interpretation. Once you get the hay established, mowing and baling will control the weeds.

There should be one or more organic certification organizations working in your area. Oregon Tilth ( does for sure. Check with them about local fertilizer suppliers. Sometimes regional buying clubs are set up among organic farmers to purchase and ship in fertilizer at a substantial savings. It will be to your advantage to start a relationship with whomever you want to certify your land since they will be very useful. They may also be able to supply you with a list of member farmers in your area who can also offer advice.

Once you know what you need in terms of fertilizers, you might want to contact Fertrell at (717) 367-1566 and ask for Dave Mattocks. If he can’t help you, he will know who can. And last but not least, visit The New Farm online for more information and a farmer-to-farmer discussion area--Talk-- to ask your questions to thousands of other farmers and experts.

I know I didn’t answer all of your questions specifically because at this point they are just a little too general. If you can focus in on specific points, I’ll sure try to get the information you need out to you.

Good Luck with your operation.


Have some questions to Ask Jeff? E-mail him directly at