How can farmers keep sediment and pollutants from running into waterways, save money so they can stay in business, and sequester the potent greenhouse gas carbon all in one shot? Not tilling -- or plowing -- soil accomplishes all these goals. But it has potential drawbacks, too. This week, The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan heads out into the field to see what no-till farming looks like when it's married with organic ag. It's part of our Earth's Bounty series on food and the environment.
OPEN: How can farmers keep sediment and pollutants from running into waterways, save money so they can stay in business, and sequester the potent greenhouse gas carbon all in one shot? The conventional wisdom in recent years has been that not tilling -- or plowing -- soil accomplishes all these goals. But forgoing tilling has potential drawbacks, too. This week we'll have two pieces on no-till. First, The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan heads out into the field to see what no-till farming looks like when it's married with organic ag. Then, our Organic Gardeners will give us some tips for trying no-till in our own gardens. Jennifer Szweda Jordan's story is part of our Earth's Bounty series on food and the environment.
JORDAN: When Steve Schoeniger bought his farm a couple years ago, it was kind of like one of those cell phone commercials about places without service.
CELL PHONE AD DEAD ZONE COMMERCIAL MUSIC
COMMERCIAL: You're the folks that bought the old Miller place, in spite of what happened there. Excuse me? Oh they didn't tell you? It's a dead zone.
JORDAN: Schoeniger's cell service is actually OK, but his land has dead zones in ways more significant to a farmer. The previous owner didn't till the fields for more than 15 years. To save money, he used a lot of chemicals instead to keep down weeds that can flourish in an untilled field. Over time, Schoeniger says, this eliminated good topsoil and destroyed many signs of life.
SCHOENIGER: To my amazement, there was not a single worm here on the property, no lightning bugs. There were places where weeds wouldn't grow, let alone crops...
JORDAN: A lot of farmers stopped tilling in the 1970s to cut down on labor and fuel -- it requires fewer tractor trips. Schoeniger didn't want to till either.
SCHOENIGER: I like the idea of less erosion because it's very hilly. The soil's very soft and shalely, so it erodes very quickly.
JORDAN: Besides potential chemical overuse that damaged Schoeniger's land, no-till farmers also often use genetically modified seeds -- another environmentally controversial practice. Schoeniger wanted to farm organically. His son suffers from hyperactivity and anxiety. He says the boy seems to improve on an organic diet. Fortunately, Schoeniger lives a short drive from one of the nation's leading organic agriculture research organizations ñ the Rodale Institute -- in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. The institute's evaluating no-till organic growing. The National Resources Conservation Service has spent 800-thousand dollars on the research at Rodale and other universities.
MOYER AND SCHOENIGER: Good, I'll start the tractor...alright
Nat. Sound: CHAINS SOUND MOVING CRIMPER
JORDAN: Schoeniger's returning a tractor attachment that's key to Rodale's organic no-till process. It's called a roller crimper.
The roller crimper being hooked up to a tractor at Rodale is a 12-foot long metal cylinder with bars set in a v-shape. The bars crimp -- or pinch -- plants, and flatten them.
Earlier this morning at his own farm, Schoeniger rolled over a field of cover crops. Cover crops like rye hold the soil in place between growing seasons. Rodale farm director Jeff Moyer demonstrates how the roller crimper works with the cover crops.
Nat. Sound of CRIMPER IN FIELD
JORDAN: The roller goes on the front of a tractor. Disks to cut troughs in the ground, and seeds are on the back.
MOYER: You can see how we've taken that that thick mat of cover crop, smashed it down on the ground so we have this nice mulch here. You should be able to see where we're cutting through here and (Nat. Sound of crunch, crunch) sticking the seed ñ the seed would go into the ground right here, where that trough is being cut by the planter.
JORDAN: The roller crimper costs about 4,000 dollars. Schoeniger's borrowed it in exchange for feedback on how it works on his farm. Nationwide, the research has had mixed results. A Georgia peanut farmer who tried organic no-till two years in a row said he needed a different-sized roller crimper. A North Dakota research farm gave up on organic no-till one season due to heavy weeds and a drought. Moyer remains optimistic.
MOYER: In every region of the country, farmers and researchers have experienced enough success so that they're willing to keep working on the systems. They're saying to us, 'There's a lot of exciting things happening in the biology of the soil when we use these cover crops, and when we use the no-till... and the system will work, we just need to find out how to make it work.'
JORDAN: Moyer says one thing that IS working is that some cover crops add nitrogen to the soil -- so farmers can cut down on chemical fertilizers. And there are energy savings. A Cornell University study found that organic no-till uses about 60 percent less diesel fuel than conventional no-till.
MOYER: So if we can grow just as much crop material to feed people, with using less energy and less fertilizer, and fewer chemicals, I think the world in general wins.
JORDAN: Back on Schoeniger's farm, no-till organic remains a challenge.
SCHOENIGER AND JOSH: We'll see how it cuts... (JOSH) I'm not really sure how it's going to do...We'll see how it cuts through.
JORDAN: Schoeniger's hired a neighboring farmer to seed his fields. Schoeniger's neighbor doesn't till himself, but he's not sure if his planter will work with the organic methods. His disks aren't cutting through the thick mat of cover crops to get seeds to reach soil. New disks would cost about eight thousand dollars. Last year, Schoeniger and his neighbor farmer came up against some kinks, too.
SCHOENIGER: We planted Sorghum-Sudangrass the wrong way last year -- we didn't realize how it had to get planted. It didn't grow very well. (JORDAN) So then what happened, you lost money? (SCHOENIGER) I lost money and that's part of the experiment ñ part of learning.
JORDAN: Schoeniger remains optimistic that he WILL get organic no-till to work here. He feels like the environment, and his family's health are at stake. As Schoeniger heads toward his home, he stops to introduce his kids who are playing on a dirt path alongside a field.
SHOENIGER: This is Steven and this is Grace.
JORDAN: Then Schoeniger teasingly brushes them away from leaning on his golf cart.
Boy: Owwwww Dad: Oh my God..
JORDAN: For The Allegheny Front, I'm Jennifer Szweda Jordan.
OUTRO: And next week we'll have more on the topic of no-till. Jennifer will be back to discuss Pennsylvania's tax credits for no-till, as well as how it fits into the federal Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill.