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

Sould I use treated sewage as a fertilizer and is there a crop or weed that reflects soil fertility?

Posted June 16, 2005

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,

What is your opinion of using treated sewage for garden fertilizer (termed NutriGreen in my community)? It is banned from use meeting federal standards for organic approval. Is there scientific data, pro or con? Also, you told me that a good stand of crimson clover does not reflect the level of soil fertility. Is there any cover crop or weed that does?

Edward L Alexander, MD
Organic gardener

Dear Edward,

The position of The Rodale Institute coincides with that of the federal guidelines for certified organic agricultural practices. Unfortunately, most of the research that's been done on treated sewage has been done by the industry that has the product and needs to find a home for it, so could be a bit suspect. I personally think there are some wonderful uses for the material in mined land reclamation, road bank revitalization, and major construction projects where large amounts of earth has been relocated. Food production, especially vegetables for human consumption, is not the best use. If you planned on using the product, I would be very careful. I certainly would not plant root crops into it and harvest them for personal consumption.

You also asked about plants as soil-health indicators. This is not my area of expertise; however I will say that the presence of certain weeds can be an indicator of soil pH, organic matter, or nutrient content. Cover crop quality may or may not be an indicator. My suggestion is to go to Gempler's catalog and look at the soil health test kit they sell based on the design by Dr. John Duran, USDA-ARS. You could use the tests in the kit and cross reference the results you get to the weeds you see over time and develop your own rating system to use the weeds or cover crops as indicators.

Hope this information helps. Good luck with the 2005 growing season.



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