Perfecting organic no-till systems nationwide
The Rodale Institute Experimental Farm receives NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant to build and distribute 10 organic no-till assemblies tailored to regional production needs

By Laura Sayre

September 28, 2004: The Rodale Institute's organic no-till system, described in The New Farm in November 2003 (to read the original story, click here), will be replicated and disseminated to farmers across the country thanks to a grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The $541,050 grant, officially announced on September 16, 2004, was made within the NRCS Conservation Innovation Grants program. Grant monies will be matched 1:1 from non-federal sources.

"In many ways, organic no-till represents the best possible farming strategy for temperate systems," says Jeff Moyer, Rodale Institute farm manager and project director for the grant. "It brings together the environmental benefits of organic production—eliminating chemical pesticides and fertilizers and improving soil quality through composts and cover crops—with the conservation benefits of reduced or zero-tillage."

Dubbed "No-till Plus," the three-year project is centered on The Rodale Institute's development of an innovative crimper-roller implement that converts a standing cover crop into a weed-suppressing, soil-building mulch. Because the roller is designed to mount on the front of a tractor, it can be paired with a no-till planter assembly to knock down cover crops and plant a primary crop in a single pass.

Activities to be funded by the grant include continued testing and improvement of the organic no-till system at The Rodale Institute farm in eastern Pennsylvania; fabrication and distribution of ten similar cover crop rollers to cooperating farmers across the country; and documentation and publicizing of the project on NewFarm.org.

Moyer has been farming organically for more than 25 years and has long sought to minimize tillage and maximize the use of cover crops to suppress weeds, supply nitrogen, build soil organic matter and prevent erosion. The new front-mounted roller was constructed in 2002 and first used on hairy vetch and small grain cover crops in the 2003 field season. In 2004, Moyer and his farm operations team used the organic no-till system to plant pumpkins, corn and soybeans.

Collaborating farmers wanted

With the help of the NRCS grant, the system will be outreached and field-tested in the seven U.S. regions where conventional no-till is most widely practiced: the Southeast, Delta, Appalachia, Northeast, Corn Belt, Great Lakes and Northern Plains states. Regional collaborators will work with a variety of major crops, cover crops and geographies and will be encouraged to suggest modifications to the system based on prevailing needs and experiences. Farmers interested in participating are encouraged to contact Moyer directly at jeff.moyer@rodaleinst.org.

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, 52.5 million acres – or 17.5 percent of all U.S. planted cropland – were in no-till management in 2000. One of the goals of the project is to discover how many of those acres could potentially be converted to organic no-till. Although some conventional no-till farmers use cover crops for fertility and weed suppression, on average, conventional no-till requires as many or more herbicide and pesticide applications as traditional tillage systems.

For a complete listing of NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant awards, visit:
http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/cig/2004grants.html