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Championing organic no-till - Jeff Moyer
Last modified: 2011-01-15 22:06:11

Jeff Moyer has been farm manager/director at the Rodale Institute for more than 28 years, has served as chair of the USDA's National Organic Standards Board, and is a founding board member of Pennsylvania Certified Organic. He has also been working on perfecting an organic no-till system that reduces and even eliminates both tillage and the herbicides on which most no-till systems are dependent.

We've shared the challenges and successes of the experiences of Jeff and our research team on the website and at conferences nationwide, including free plans for the cover crop crimper/roller we use here at the Institute. But, Jeff has received so many questions over the years, he decided to write a book, Organic No-Till Farming. We cornered Jeff in his office here at the Institute and talked to him about the book, the system, and the state of agriculture in general.

"As a human being, you can hold your breath for 2 or 3 minutes, but that is not a sustainable respiratory system. For the last 100 years, ag has been holding its breath."  ~ Jeff Moyer

Tell me about organic no-till and how you came to write the book.

Well, you really need to read the book for the whole story but there are some simple nuts and bolts of organic no-till. Tillage is the primary tool organic farmers have to manage weeds in their production systems. But, we have known for a long time that we can use mulch to eliminate annual weeds from our gardens. So, the question became how can we use this technology on a field scale? The trick is to grow the mulch right in the field. So, the system is based on the use of cover crops and biology to manage weeds without tillage. With the invention of some unique equipment to mount on tractors we can manage the cover crops to create a mulch.

Several things inspired me to go ahead and write a book. George Krupper from ATTRA and I were having a conversation after I had presented an organic no-till workshop at a conference when he mentioned there was so much more I had to get across than what was possible in a one-hour presentation-that I should write a book. When I came back and was talking to Ardie Roale, she said the same thing. Just write the first word, she told me, then write another word, and eventually you have a book.
When, why and how did you start farming?

I grew up on a small farm that was anything but organic. My father bought all the chemicals and we sprayed them on everything. We grew vegetables, goats, chickens and ducks. We used to buy cows and pigs and butcher them. There were five kids in the family and we had to make food for ourselves in addition to selling. My brother and I had to work for my father growing and selling the vegetables. My father always thought if we were really busy we wouldn't end up in jail! The funny thing is I hated it. My brother loved it. Now he's an aesthetician and I'm farming.

By the time I was getting ready to graduate high school, it was the mid-seventies and the back to the land movement was in full swing. The concepts of raising your own food and living off the land appealed to me. And I enjoyed the lifestyle. My wife and I wanted that for our kids. I went to college for forestry, but I couldn't find any jobs on the east coast in my field. There was a job at the Rodale Institute.

I always wanted to not have a white line between my work and my life. I wanted my work to be my life, but I also wanted it to be something I enjoyed. I think I've achieved that.

What made you decide to grow/raise organically?

I never liked the idea of using chemicals to produce food. I worked on several farms when I was young and the idea of wearing protective equipment and poisoning the soil made no sense to me. Farming in concert with nature did. It would never have occurred to me to start a conventional farm.

What was the biggest challenge you've faced as a farmer and what was the key to overcoming that challenge?

The biggest challenge was and still is the constant change. Organic farmers work in a system that changes from year to year and crop to crop. Having an open mind and a willingness to learn every day is crucial to managing these complex systems. I don't think challenge is a bad thing. This kind of challenge is good. Without challenges life is boring. That's one of the problems I see with conventional farming-it is boring as hell. By getting rid of the pest and weeds, you get rid of the challenges.

At the production level, the biggest challenge is weeds and that's what led to the no-till work. We work so hard to build up the microbes in organic soil and then we come along with steel and give them all a bad day. How can we use the biological systems to meet this challenge? Organic no-till lets us preserve the health in the soil and still manage the weeds.
How has the agricultural community changed over the last 10 years?

Agriculture is in a period of unprecedented change. Consumer expectations and the challenges of global climate change are forcing all of us to rethink how we farm. There are some basic parameters that remain constant, the fact that we need the soil to grow healthy food and that biology is the key to our success. But, the way we use these resources is changing rapidly. We are now in a global position where less than 20% of our farms produce over 80% of our food. The consolidation and centralization of our food system is not a suitable model for food security or sustainable production.

At one point in time, maybe 15 years ago, organic ag and conventional ag seems to be on a bit of a collision course where one was going to be very similar to the other, and then along came GMOs. In some ways, they were the best thing that ever happened to organic. Suddenly there was a huge and obvious difference that forced consumers to make a decision about their food.

The other huge change was the divorcing of livestock from agricultural production systems. Many conventional ag groups don't consider livestock as agriculture. Ag is growing crops and what you do with those crops-you can feed them to humans or you can feed them to animals. But the animals are not considered an agricultural system. It really is an industrial model. You stuff food in them and out the other end comes processed meat. If you have blind consumers, that's a great idea. But when people see what is happening, they don't support it.

What do you see as the biggest hope for farmers?

The only hope we have lies in Bob Rodale's concepts of regeneration. The fact that the soil can regenerate itself is where the hope has to lie. If it can't or it doesn't, we will be doomed. It really is that serious and dramatic. Iowa is loosing on average 5 tons per acre of top soil That is not sustainable indefinitely. Soil is not a resource we can live without. We can't flush it all down the Mississippi River and expect to eat.

If your hope is placed in highly technical systems, take the arid Midwest as an example. Although agriculture in these areas have been supported for 100 years, it can't last for 500 or 1,000 years. How can we develop systems to sustain people for those periods of time? We need to take a very long-term approach for these things.

As a human being, you can hold your breath for 2 or 3 minutes, but that is not a sustainable respiratory system. For the last 100 years, ag has been holding its breath. Now what are we going to do? We have to focus our energy on the soil not the crops.
What do you think is standing in the way of organic becoming our primary agricultural system?

What is standing in the way is dollars. In the short term there is a lot of money being made with the food system we have. The hope we have is that consumers have the power to change things. Consumers can almost decide overnight to change the food system. They've chosen not to or have been convinced we need not only cheap food, but even cheaper food. We have more food than ever and you can buy lots of empty calories really cheaply. That's not the future of a healthy society. Economic gains put long-term sustainability in the back seat.

What tool couldn't you live without?

Cover crops. They are the biological tools that are the keys to success of our farm.

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Keywords: No till, permanent bed, farming, increase yields, green manure, cover crops, Jeff Moyer
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