Organic Ag & Erosion: Part II

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Dennis “Pesticides Will Save the World” Avery is at it again. This time he used the Star Tribune’s Sept. 6 opinion page to pick on the organic farmers in southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin who were devastated by the August floods. Avery, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute (among the Institute’s various funders is a who’s-who of agrichemical giants), used the massive landscape damage caused by the flooding as an excuse to trot out an argument he has made many times over the years: organic agriculture is a highly-erosive system that poses a major environmental hazard. Therefore, maintains Avery, we should do everything we can to promote chemical-intensive, no-till agriculture, since it benefits our soil and water, as well as our wildlife. And of course, goes his argument, we should at all costs discourage organic farming systems, whether in the market place or via the public policy arena. As I wrote in a March 30 blog, there is plenty of excellent scientific research, as well as practical on-the-farm evidence, to counter Avery’s claims related to the environmental sustainability of organic cropping systems. Since I wrote that blog, I’ve witnessed another practical example of how organic cropping systems can control weeds while building the soil and saving energy. The “Rodale Roller” system is impressive and is an example of innovative agriculture at its best. Unfortunately, it won’t make Monsanto a dime, so Dennis Avery and the Hudson Institute will no doubt choose to ignore it. But then, ignoring on-the-farm realities when they get in the way of advancing the corn-bean-feedlot machine mythology is what being an agribusiness apologist is all about.

I was introduced to the Rodale Roller July 11 during the Southwest Research and Outreach Center’s organic cropping tour. The University of Minnesota experiment station, called SWROC for short, lies in the heart of southwest Minnesota’s corn and soybean country, so it’s no surprise that the bulk of its research focuses on how conventional ag can keep producing more of the same. However, in recent years SWROC has gained a national reputation for its research into organic cropping systems. At the heart of this alternative research is 160 acres of test plots called the Elwell Agroecology Farm. Since the early 1990s, Elwell has been one of the largest certified organic tracts of land at any land grant facility in the country.

Because of the organic research taking place at SWROC, it is home to the University of Minnesota’s Organic Ecology initiative. Outreach to Minnesota farmers who are organic or are interested in making the transition has received a big jumpstart in the past year or so thanks to the addition of organic veterans Carmen Fernholz and Jim Riddle to the Organic Ecology initiative. I recently featured an interview with Fernholz and Riddle on the Ear to the Ground podcast (episode 40). It was fascinating to hear from these two men how far we’ve come during the past quarter-century in terms of support for organic agriculture at the University of Minnesota. Make no mistake, Riddle and Fernholz say, we have a long ways to go before organic farming gets its full due in the land grant system. But progress is progress.

Part of that progress is that organic farmers are able to set foot on an experiment station without being laughed out of the county. In July, many of the 100 or so farmers who showed up for the SWROC tour came to see Jeff Moyer speak. Moyer is the Research Farm Manager at the Rodale Institute, the Pennsylvania-based mecca for organic research. While at SWROC, Moyer talked about how Rodale is producing row crops using a no-till system that combines cover crops such as rye and hairy vetch with a rolling drum mounted on the front of a tractor.

The Rodale Roller system works like this: a low-value cover crop that builds soil and crowds out weeds is planted in the fall. It’s allowed to grow in early spring, and then a tractor pulling a no-till planter comes through to put in a crop like corn. Mounted on the front of the tractor is the “Roller,” a drum with chevron patterned blades running along the face of it. The roller knocks down, crimps and kills the cover crop, making a nice mulch for the row crop that’s being put into the ground by the planter.

The system offers natural weed control, protects the soil and builds tilth. Rodale has gotten excellent corn yields with the system, in some cases beating conventional yields. And it’s now being used by farmers in other parts of the country on soybeans, vegetables, cotton, even peanuts. A bonus to the system is it cuts energy use by 70 percent. That energy savings is partially a result of the tractor fuel conserved by the one-pass aspect of this system. But also contributing to the savings is that no petroleum-based pesticides or fertilizers are being used.

There are some drawbacks to this system, Moyer concedes. One of the main ones is that for it to be the most effective the Roller must be used when the cover crops are putting their energy into flowering, and thus are most vulnerable to being killed by crimping. Rodale is working around this by planting varieties of cover crops that flower earlier. They’ve also found that even when planting is delayed, yields don’t always necessarily suffer significantly.

The bottom line is that this system proves organic cropping and no-till do mix.

“People said there was no way to raise organic crops without tillage,” Moyer told the farmers after they viewed a video of the Roller in action. “Once we had the Roller we were able to produce crops under no-till year after year after year.”

It’s looking like many farmers are getting a chance to put the Rodale Roller to a real world test. The Institute is making Roller plans available for free on its no-till website. The plans are set up to be taken to a local machine shop, where someone handy with a welder and other metal working tools can produce a low-tech roller ready to be mounted on a tractor. Making the plans public property accomplishes two very important things: 1) it gets an innovative piece of equipment out to the farming masses and 2) it makes it possible for farmers and gear-heads all over the country to test, tweak and improve the roller, adapting it to local conditions when needed. After Moyer’s presentation, officials at SWROC showed inerest in experimenting with a Roller and farmers included it on a list of “research priorities” they’d like to see at the Center.

Seeing and hearing about the Rodale Roller was exciting. It’s elegant simplicity and adaptability seem to fit right into an organic cropping system (the Roller could also be used in conventional no-till cropping as a way to build and protect soil while reducing, if not eliminating, chemcal use). But it would be a mistake to see this, or any other gadget, as a silver bullet.

As Jeff Moyer makes clear, the Rodale Roller is part of a system that includes cover crops, good rotations and careful monitoring of field conditions. Under such a system, a revolving drum is just a tool, a tool that could be replaced by something even more innovative in the future. The danger is when that tool starts to become the end in itself, rather than the means to an end. Pesticides are an example of a tool that has starting wagging the dog called food production. These chemicals have become so key to the success of agribusiness—notice that I said “agribusiness,” not “agriculture”—that industry will do just about anything to keep them a prominent player, such as invent a herbicide-resistant soybean so even more pesticides can be sold.

Rodale’s idea to make the plans free helps insure the Roller will remain only a component of a larger system which is constantly evolving. This kind of open sharing of an innovation considered a public good drives people like Dennis Avery nuts. Eventually, if it catches on, the Rodale Roller could pump a lot of economic development into our rural economies by making organic cropping more profitable, saving money wasted on outside inputs and, just as importantly, employing local machinists.

Avery and his funders are interested in economic development of a different sort—the kind that mines wealth in farm country and makes producers reliant on a growing mountain of inputs of dubious value. And when those inputs become more important than the food they are supposed to produce, they spawn enablers like Dennis Avery, who will say or write just about anything to make sure nothing threatens the DuPont dog-wagger.

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