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

What can I do to build soil on land that’s more desert than farm?

Posted July 13, 2006

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? Click here to send it to Jeff.

Dear Jeff,

I recently purchased a piece of land that seems to be all sand: Sagebrush grows great. I want to turn it into an organic farm but will have to wait on certification. While in the waiting stages, what can I do to build the soil?

Mike Marsh

Dear Mike,

There a couple of things you should be doing while waiting for certification. First, get started by taking some soil tests from the field areas you want to plant. While this test won't give you all the answers, it will tell you where your soil is from a chemical point of view. You should also be working on building your farm system plan. This will include the crops you'd like to grow, etc.

Once you have an idea of what you'd like to produce, start to design a crop rotation that will indicate what crops will follow other crops in a time sequence. Try to develop a five- to seven-year plan. Depending on what is in the field now and where you'd like to be in each point of the rotation, you might be able to get some cover crops started in certain fields. These cover crops will be the backbone of your soil-building plan, contributing nitrogen through legumes, mining minerals, holding soil in place, and contributing to the soil organic matter content, which in sandy soil will be a big help.

You might also begin to search for materials suitable for composting. Making compost from municipal waste, yard waste or animal manures can be an important component to your soil-building program. As you begin to formulate an organic system plan, you should be able to see how and where the pieces fit together. If you have specific questions along the way, drop me an email or ask the question of other farmers through New Farm's forum section to keep you on the right track.