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Rodale Institute Director: Healthy Soils, Healthy Food
If you think about it, it's not so unusual that many of the same principles that organic farmers promote also align with those who support soil health initiatives.
That's why Jeff Moyer's presentation at the Kansas Rural Center's Farm and Food Conference was a hit. "Healthy soils equals healthy food. And healthy food equals healthy people," says Moyer, who is executive director of the Rodale Institute, a 330-acre research and commercial organic farm in eastern Pennsylvania.
"There is no way we can have people become healthy by spraying poisons on the land," Moyer continues. "Spraying herbicides will kill weeds, but it will not equal healthy people."
Now, those two sentences may rile up plenty of commercial farmers. But before you click off this page, keep an open mind. Like all commercial farmers, the Rodale Institute champions technology and science to manage natural resources. This farm destroys any preconceived notion of organic farms you may have. It uses state-of-the-art equipment and technology, plus modern seeds and no-till seeding concepts. Along the way, it has improved the health of its soils. The result is profitability, plus fulfilling its mission to provide healthy food.
Organic or non-, Moyer believes the lessons learned on the Rodale Institute farm can be applied by all farmers.
Cover crop adoption, he reasons, does a host of good things. They can add nitrogen to the soil, suppress weeds, and boost organic matter (which in turn adds water-holding capacity to soils). On any farm, these are good things.
"No matter what system you have, adding cover crops to the system makes it look like magic. There is no easier way to improve yields by cover crops," he says.
When a cash crop is not growing, thick, lush stands of cover crops blanket the Rodale farm's soils. Moyer explains that soils covered with plants (cash crops or cover crops) are more hospitable to the life within the soil. Think about how hot bare ground gets in the summer. Bare soil can reach nearly 110 degrees, whereas soils covered by plants may be 20 to 30 degrees cooler. "Picture yourself as an earthworm. Which would you prefer? 110 degrees is death to soil microbes," he explains.
Just adopting crops isn't necessarily a roadmap to profitability. They have to be managed with much of the same intensity of cash crops, and many farmers don't wish to embrace more complexity.
"I hear it all the time, that farmers don't plant cover crops on time, or use a full rate of seed, because they are 'just a cover crop'," Moyer says. "But you can't expect to get the benefits if you plant late and at half a rate."
Conditioning soil to be healthy is not unlike training a top athlete. "If you were an Olympic athlete and you laid on the couch from now to next summer and just said, 'I’m ready to go,' you wouldn't get very far. We're asking our soil to do just that," he explains. "We try to make our soils exercise and work."
Termination of cover crops is another tough call. The Rodale Institute perfected the crimper-roller system to knock down cover crops ahead of planting. Laying the cover down, and using the chevron plates on the roller to crimp the plants every 15-inches or so, allows these crops to die naturally and serve as a mat to suppress weeds. "We have the roller on the front of the tractor and the planter on the back. It's a one-pass system -- no herbicide, no tillage. The microbial activity doesn't even know we've killed it," Moyer explains. (As an aside, Howard Buffett, who farms commercially, uses a 60-foot crimper roller on his Illinois farm.)
Finally, Moyer pleads with farmers to use crop rotation as a natural means of promoting weed and pest resistance, and boosting soil health.
He cites the 1938 edition of the USDA's "Yearbook of Agriculture," in which Clyde Leighty wrote: "Rotation of crops is the most effective means yet devised for keeping land free of weeds. No other method of weed control -- mechanical, chemical or biological -- is so economical or so easily practiced as a well-arranged sequence of tillage and cropping."
Those words are as true today as they were in 1938.
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