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

I've never farmed but would like to begin planting on my 2-acre lot.

Posted November 9, 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,

I have a 2-acre lot. It is low cut, and no chemicals have been used in the past five years. I have never farmed, but I think I should take the following steps on sunny days: 1) Take a soil sample and send it to be analyzed. 2) Then use vinegar to burn back the grass. 3) Use a hoe to remove dried grass. 4) Plant a winter cover crop of clover. 5) In spring, till the cover crop 6 inches into the soil. 6) Based upon the soil analysis, add nutrients to soil at an appropriate amount of time before planting.

I am still researching and have not selected the main crop or decided on how much of the land will be used. I think I must begin some type of land improvement program as soon as possible. Please give me some feedback on my plans

Steve Beach

Dear Steve,

Here are my thoughts on the subject. Vinegar can be used on a large scale but it isn’t a cheap proposition, and organic vinegar should be used if organic certification is a concern. Next, I don’t like the concept of using vinegar since it fosters the “one-to-one” substitution model that traps many farmers. In the larger scheme of things, input substitution is a crutch that keeps us in the chemical system.

Your idea of building the soil is great. I suggest you read Building Soils for Better Crops by Fred Magdoff (Sustainable Agriculture Network, 2000) as a starting point. You really should have an idea of what crops you intend to plant and what sort of rotation you will incorporate into their plan. From that point, we could talk about feeding the soil with compost and diverse cover crops (both legumes and grasses). That’s where I’d start before you rush off to “burn off” the grass already there and purchase nutrients in a bag. You may need potash or phosphorus, which the soil test will help you determine.

Hope this helps,


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