Early one morning in mid-September,
The Rodale Institute (TRI) researcher Dave Wilson, farmer
Kirby Reichert and TRI intern Liz Stauffer met at the Kohler
farm just east of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to stake out test
plots and start seeding fall cover crops. Reichert was ready
with his Farmall 826 tractor and 10-foot Tye stubble drill,
cleaned and ready to go. Wilson and Stauffer had brought the
pin flags and tape measures, a dozen bushels of rye and hairy
vetch and a sketch of the experimental layout.
The 5-acre test field was laid out along a contour toward
the back of the property, and included four replications separated
by 30-foot buffer zones (scientific principles require a minimum
of three reps, but the Institute researchers like to do one
more for good measure). Each replication would consist of
six strips, 10 feet wide by 100 feet long, to accommodate
six different cover crop "treatments" to be rolled
down for planting no-till corn next spring: regular hairy
vetch alone (HV), another type of hairy vetch known as "Auburn
early cover" (AUEC), HV + rye, AUEC + rye, HV + wheat,
and AUEC + wheat.
"One thing I've learned from our trials is that the
[cover crop] combinations sometimes grow better than the straight
stand," said Wilson, explaining the presence of the small
grains along with the nitrogen-providing vetch.
The first task was to test the drop rate of the drill. Wilson's
goal was 25 lbs/ac on 7-1/2-inch spacings, and the seeding
table on the underside of the drill's hopper cover suggested
the necessary settings to achieve this. But for scientific
(and for that matter, practical) purposes it was necessary
to verify that those settings were right. Wilson laid out
a tarp on the ground, Reichert ran over a measured section
of it with the drill, Stauffer counted the seeds that fell
and together they calculated the actual rate.
After that, it was just a matter of putting each combination
into the drill, making the pass down the strip and then drilling
enough additional ground to use up what remained in the hopper.
But the day also offered ample opportunities for discussion
about the weather (hot and dry), fuel prices (on the rise
in the days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast) and
the possibilities for organic no-till (not easy, but promising).
A cooperator on The Rodale Institute's No-Till+ Project,
Reichert has been experimenting with no-till since 1976 and
growing certified organic crops since 1997. Thin, almost wiry,
with a serene demeanor seemingly at odds with a steady diet
of coffee and White Owl miniature cigars, he shares the Institute's
interest in figuring out how to combine the soil conservation
benefits of no-till with the improved returns and other environmental
advantages of organics.
Farming is Reichert's first love and second career. His father
was a farmer, and today Kirby farms his father's land, but
in between he spent 24 years working as a maintenance shed
supervisor for the US Postal Service. For a number of years,
he tried farming on the side, evenings and weekends, but then
one day, he recalls, "I came home and told my wife, 'I
quit.' I was 40 years old, and I figured, if I don't quit
now and do what I want to do, when I retire I'll be too old
to do it."
That was 13 years ago, and although he was earning a good
salary with good benefits, Reichert says, he's never looked
Today, he comes across as at once a typical and an atypical
farmer. He farms a total of around 800 acres, growing corn
and soybeans and hay and small grains. But most of the land
he farms is not his own. One large field—104 acres—belongs
to the Pennsylvania National Raceway; a couple of dozen other
small parcels are scattered across two counties. "I have
30 landlords," he says matter-of-factly. Some of the
pieces are just 5 or 10 acres, and come rent-free in exchange
for the work of management.
He first got interested in organics when he had the opportunity
to start farming some land that had never received agricultural
chemicals. "I thought, manure's the best thing to get
this land in condition—and that could lead to organic."
He now has 170 certified acres. Fertility is not a limiting
factor, since he has access to as much poultry manure as he
wants, free for the hauling, within 15 miles of his fields.
But Reichert is no organic purist. He's planted Roundup Ready®
corn in the past, although he says probably won't next year,
since it and other GM varieties are getting so expensive.
(To guard against cross-contamination, Reichert keeps his
organic and conventional crops on different properties.)
He also grows some high-value specialty conventional crops,
like rye straw for sale to a company that makes landscaping
"blankets" for erosion control. He plants the rye
in the fall, lets it put on good vegetative growth in the
spring and then sprays it with the herbicide Gramoxone®
to dry it as it stands before cutting and baling. He averages
2 tons/acre of straw and gets $115/ton for it. "You've
got to give it enough N, but you can still get a crop of late
beans or corn in afterwards, and you get your winter cover
too," he explains.
As the manager of a "parallel operation," Reichert
can speak to the needs of both organic and conventional farmers,
and that's exactly what he does. He's on the board of the
Dauphin County Farm Bureau, and it's evident from the calls
coming in on his cell phone throughout the day that he has
extensive networks throughout both the organic and conventional
Reichert's biggest organic crop is hay, largely because the
deer pressure on several of the properties he farms is too
intense for big fields of organic corn and soybeans. Fortunately,
he's got strong local demand for the hay and has learned how
to produce a quality product. "All my organic hay except
for one tractor-trailer load is sold within 20 miles of here,"
he says. "I get $170 a ton for [it], and someone told
me recently I could get $200 a ton."
Most of that hay is produced on the Kohler farm, where the
cover crop trials were going in. Casper Kohler, a close friend
and farming mentor of Reichert's, lived here for 61 years
until his death in 2003. With his children's blessing, Kohler
donated the development rights to the Manada Conservancy (http://manada.org),
a land trust based in nearby Hummelstown and dedicated to
protecting the Manada and Swatara Creek watersheds.
For Reichert, it's a privilege to work these fields and to
know that they will remain in agricultural use far into the
future. The effect of suburban sprawl on agricultural viability
is among his most serious concerns as a farmer. Earlier this
summer, he was moving his hay swather along a two-lane section
of Route 22 when a car went to pass him, misjudged the clearance
and ran smack into the header, pulling it clean off the body
of the machine. The car flipped and landed in the ditch—the
driver was taken to the hospital—and although Reichert
himself wasn't hurt, the accident gave him a real fright.
"I thought I was over it, but still every time I get
out on the road I'm thinking about it," he says.
"By my calculations,
25 acres of organic corn has the same value as 100 acres
of conventional corn."
"If you can get
$7.50 for corn, you should be happy. That's the break-even
price for poultry producers around here. I'll take less
per bushel if I can develop a good customer."
In the years to come, Reichert anticipates reducing his conventional
acreage, gradually expanding his organic acreage and eventually
farming fewer acres overall. "By my calculations, 25
acres of organic corn has the same value as 100 acres of conventional
corn" in terms of net returns, he points out. Last year
he got $5.85 a bushel for his organic corn and $2.50 a bushel
for his conventional corn. Prices like that suggest he could
farm less ground and make the same amount of money.
Organic corn prices for 2005 look to be even higher—on
that day in September, Reichert was getting quotes of $7.50,
$8.00, even $9.25/bushel. But it's important not to get greedy,
he cautioned. "If you can get $7.50 for corn, you should
be happy. That's the break-even price for poultry producers
around here. I'll take less per bushel if I can develop a
good customer," he emphasized.
Now, in early November, the cover crops have come up, Reichert's
got all his corn in and he's starting on his soybeans while
continuing to network and brainstorm for next season—maybe
he could do organic rye straw, or spelt as a winter cover
and forage? As Institute researcher Dave Wilson says, the
exploration of a wide variety of no-till cropping systems,
including both organic and conventional approaches, is a central
goal of the No-Till+ project. "It's really as creative
as the cooperators want to get."