NO-TILL+: Farmer cooperator profile

Pennsylvania farmer links organic, conventional farming communities
No-Till+ project cooperator Kirby Reichert grows no-till corn, organic hay and specialty rye straw, among other crops—and keeps an open mind.

By Laura Sayre
Posted November 10, 2005

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).

Parallel production

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 back.

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 farming communities.

Farmland forever

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."