Reducing plastic mulch use by expanding adoption of cover-crop-based no-till systems for vegetable producers

Final Report for LNE10-295

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2010: $144,962.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Stacy Glackin
Rodale Institute
Co-Leaders:
Alison Grantham
Rodale Institute
Sandra Wayman
Rodale Institute
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Project Information

Summary:

The three-year research project was meant to assess the efficacy of grass and legume cover crop mulches in comparison with black plastic mulch for production of tomatoes and green beans at the Rodale Institute’s research farm in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and at four collaborating farms. Specific goals of this project were to: 1) reduce or eliminate the expense and waste generated by plastic mulches; 2) improve soil quality through use of cover crops; 3) maintain or improve fertility, as well as weed and disease control, through biological systems rather than petroleum-based inputs, and 4) increase profitability for regional vegetable farmers. At Rodale Institute (RI), we tested six treatments 1) plowed vetch+plastic, 2) rolled vetch, 3) plowed rye+plastic, 4) rolled rye, 5) plowed rye and vetch+plastic, 6) rolled rye and vetch. The collaborating farmers, John and Aimee Good, Doug and Elizabeth Randolph, Mike Baki, and James Weaver, tested their standard method with either cover crop system.

 

Results showed that the early termination of cover crop associated with black plastic mulch resulted in lower biomass when compared to rolled or mowed systems. The rye and rye+vetch cover crops had roughly double the biomass of vetch cover crop. Carbon contribution of cover crops was highest in treatments that received rye or rye+vetch without plastic, nearing 50% more than those with vetch treatments. On the other hand, nitrogen contribution was almost 50% higher in treatments with hairy vetch either singly or in mix with rye.

 

Cover crop mulches conserved soil moisture equal to plastic mulch. Soil temperatures were lower and moderate under cover crop mulches as compared to plastic mulch treatments. There was no significant difference in percent carbon or nitrogen in soil observed across years. However, in the rye+vetch cover crop in 2012, soil percent carbon did increase in the course of the season in both the rolled (from 2.28% to 2.55%), and mowed (from 2.15% to 2.28%) in comparison to that in the plastic (2.3% carbon) system.

 

Across the three year project, weed biomass was lower in all treatments compared with the black plastic mulch system, irrespective of which cover crop combination was used. The next best system for weed biomass suppression was the rolled rye+vetch system.

 

There was quite a variation in tomato yield each year between treatments and systems. While in the first two years, tomato marketable yield was about 80% of total yield in all systems, in 2012 marketable tomato yield was only 23% of total yield due to disease caused by Phytophthora late blight. While rolled and mowed systems showed higher total yields in 2010 than in plastic mulch system, the reverse occurred in 2011. With the organic mulch systems, rye+vetch either matched or outperformed the vetch and the rye systems.

 

The use of black plastic mulch increased the amount of plastic waste fourfold. The cover crop mulch treatments produced 28 lb/acre plastic waste from drip irrigation lines. The black plastic treatments produced 112 lb/acre of plastic waste in the form of drip lines and plastic mulch.

 

When averaged across 2010-2012, the highest total cost of tomato production was in rye cover crop treatment irrespective of the termination system (mowed, rolled, or plastic) and was lowest in vetch cover crop. The highest tomato marketable yields and profits were in the rye+vetch cover crop treatment whether rolled or mowed.

 

During the term of the project we disseminated information on cover crop-based no till vegetable production to over 19,030 growers and others via seven web articles posted on Rodale Institute’s website, www.rodaleinstitute.org. Over 500 farmers, scientists and educators visited RI research and demonstration plots during on-farm field day events or were informed through presentations made by Rodale Institute or extension staff at regional, national and international grower conferences and workshops.Over 160 farmers in the targeted region have purchased equipment and are employing the technology on their farms. Farmers, extension agents, educators, and students were the primary participants in project activities, but policy makers and governmental officials also participated in many of the project’s workshops and field day events. In addition, Penn State University (PSU) Cooperative Extension Agents made seven presentations on cover crops for vegetable production, reaching 190 farmers, and published article on cover crop roller crimping reaching 2,000 farmers. In addition, we produced a 40-page manual entitled “Beyond Black Plastic: Cover Crops and Organic No-till for Vegetable Production” during the term of this project. In the manual, we included main results, and case studies. This can be used as guidance for farmers, extension agents, and interested clientele to learn more about no-till production, cover crops, equipment, sourcing, and important websites.    

Introduction:

Surveys of farmers, conducted by both the Organic Farming Research Foundation and Rodale Institute, have shown that weeds are the primary constraint in vegetable and field crop production. Traditional methods of weed control in vegetable crops include herbicide use (for conventional farmers), tillage, cultivation, black plastic and straw mulches, and off-season cover crop production. However, herbicides, tillage, cultivation, and black plastic are all petroleum-based systems that incur cost to the farmer in terms of time, machinery, and inputs, as well as costs to the environment via waste generation, soil disturbance and loss, chemical contamination, and greenhouse gas emissions. Black plastic mulch is used on an increasing percentage of the 140,000 acres of vegetable crops in the Mid-Atlantic region, costing producers $250-300 per acre and generating 100-120 lb/acre of un-recyclable petroleum-based waste that goes to landfills each year. While black plastic is effective in suppressing weeds and promoting earlier harvests, its cost, inputs, and waste make its use unsustainable over time. What’s more, plastic mulches have also been found to increase soil erosion in exposed areas due to intensified run-off from covered areas under the plastic.

 

As such, development of vegetable crop rotations that include production of cover crops to be terminated as an in-situ, weed suppressing, moisture retaining straw mulch is an important, practical advance to reduce the economic and environmental costs of farming. Cover crop mulches require minimal inputs (only seeds; no chemicals or plastics), fewer tractor passes across the field, and no waste disposal. At the same time, these systems have potential to improve soil fertility by keeping the soil covered year round (reducing erosion), providing greater carbon input, and stimulating biological nutrient cycling.

 

Replacing black plastic mulch with rolled cover crops benefits farmers by: 1) reducing input costs, 2) eliminating removal and disposal costs, and 3) improving soil quality by increasing organic matter and nutrient cycling with cover crop incorporation. Elimination of plastic wastes and soil quality improvements also directly benefit the environment by: 1) decreasing agricultural use of petroleum-based products, 2) reducing need for land-fill space, and 3) decreasing loss of soil sediments and nutrients to surrounding surface water.

 

Based on preliminary data, Rodale Institute proposed a three-year research project to assess the efficacy of grass and legume cover crop mulches in comparison with black plastic mulch for production of tomatoes and green beans at the Rodale Institute’s research farm and on collaborating farms. The research design for the trial at Rodale Institute is a complete factorial design. The two factors are 1) cover crop variety (cereal rye, hairy vetch or combination) and 2) method of termination. The resulting treatments were: 1) plowed vetch+plastic, 2) rolled vetch, 3) plowed rye+plastic, 4) rolled rye, 5) plowed rye and vetch+plastic, and 6) rolled rye and vetch.

 

The goals of this project are to: 1) reduce or eliminate the expense and waste generated by plastic mulches; 2) improve soil quality through use of cover crops; 3) maintain or improve fertility, as well as weed and disease control, through biological systems rather than petroleum-based inputs, and 4) increase profitability for regional vegetable farmers.

Performance Target:

To benefit regional vegetable growers and increase the environmental and economic sustainability of their production systems, this project aimed to inform at least 3,000 growers about the system and support at least 25 regional farmers to implement the cover crop no-till system on 10% of their collective vegetable production acreage (or at least 20 acres), decreasing their input costs for that acreage by 90%, increasing their net income for that acreage by 50%, decreasing erosion-inducing impervious surface area by 80%, increasing organic matter inputs by 85%, eliminating supplemental irrigation needs, maintaining equivalent weed control, improving soil quality, and supporting equivalent yields relative to the farmers’ standard black plastic-based system. The project will also equip eight extension agents with new information on cover crop use and termination for vegetable production that they will incorporate into regional training programs reaching about 400 growers.

 

Impact Objective 1 (Farmer Practices): By the end of this project, Rodale Institute will have documentation that at least 25 regional farmers implemented this system on 10% of their collective vegetable production acreage (at least 20 acres), decreasing their input costs for that acreage by 90%, and increasing their net income for that acreage by 50%, relative to their standard black plastic-based system. This performance objective will be assessed by follow-up phone and web-based surveys of farmer participants at project-related field days, extension-hosted events, and grower-oriented conference presentations.

 

Over the life span of this grant funded work, at least 160 roller/crimpers were sold to farmers and growers by I & J Manufacturing who is the main builder and seller of this tool in the Northeast region. This outcome has far exceeded the milestone of encouraging 25 farmers to adopt the technology onto their farms, and it is a testament to the adaptability of the system and the usefulness of the allocated funds. Other roller/crimper builders may exist that are unknown to project collaborators, and farmers may also have built their own since the plans for building the roller/crimper are available for free on the Rodale Institute’s website. Several of the farmers who purchased roller/crimpers and are using the technology also loaned their equipment to neighbors to try the system on their farms. Of those sold to farmers, the size range is from 5 to 20 feet in length indicating that the roller/crimper is being applied to a diversity of crops and at scales of use from large acreage of grain to vegetable size operations.

 

The names and contact information for each of producers who purchased the equipment are maintained at the Rodale Institute and are not supplied with the public version of this report to protect their privacy.

 

We also conducted farmer participant surveys following project-related field days and grower-oriented conferences during the project period. Survey results showed that 90% of the farmers who attended the field day events have benefitted from the demonstrations on rolling cover crops, organic weed suppression and crop production.

 

In December of 2013, we sent an electronic survey to our e-newsletter subscribers.We had a total of 198 respondents, 71.7% were farmers who have tried incorporating more cover crops into their farming production system. The most common cover crops tried were rye, crimson clover, oats and hairy vetch. Also, 76.2% of the respondents were willing to use cover crops again in their farming system and 14.6% of the respondents tried rolling/crimping the cover crops. About 13.6% of the respondents were willing to test this technique in the coming seasons. About 24.2% of the respondents were non-growers (some educators were also farmers) who recommended cover crops to farmers. At least 5.5% of the farmers have implemented the use of the roller/crimper in their farming production system.

 

Project-related field days were as follows:

 

  • August 10, 2012 – A project-specific field event (an evening field walk) entitled “No-Till Vegetable Production and Farm Food Safety GAP Mock Audit Twilight Field Walk”, was held on August 10, 2012. The event was held at project collaborator James Weaver’s Meadow View Farm, and carried out in collaboration with Penn State Extension. The evening attracted 16 attendees that first spent 45 minutes in the field touring James’ project plots of tomatoes and cabbage, and then took a tour of James’ packing facility with a GAP auditor to discuss steps that growers can take to improve food safety and marketability. The evening events and information were very well received and even led to coverage of the project in the local Reading Eagle newspaper. Survey feedback was positive, indicating that, though many already used cover crops, the farmer participants, who managed over 100 local acres, had learned new practices for both production and packing and planned to integrate them into their existing operations.

 

  • July 20, 2012 – At Rodale Institute’s (RI’s) 2012 On-Farm Field Day, “Showcasing the Value of Research In Organic Agriculture”, eight of the ten famers who returned surveys noted that they already used cover crops, and nine of those ten farmers indicated that the most valuable information they sought and found from the field day event regarded rolling cover crops for weed suppression and crop production. This year’s attendees were again pleased with the event overall (though, to counterbalance the 106° temperatures we had in 2011, this year we had a chilly 70° rainy day) and the primary suggestions for new topics related to RI’s livestock research, about which many people were excited and wanted to learn more (livestock topics ranked second to rolled cover crops/organic no-till in respondent interest). Several respondents noted that the sound system wasn’t always effective in helping everyone to hear, suggesting breaking into smaller groups for training, and a couple requested better signage in the field. A few others reported a preference for the outdoor field tours in the afternoon over the power point presentations given in the morning. All feedback was incorporated into the planning of RI’s July Field Day for 2013.

 

  • July 22, 2011 – At Rodale Institute’s 2011 Field Day, “Showcasing the Value of Research in Organic Production,” 13 of the 14 farmers (93%) who returned the survey indicated that they intended to incorporate new or increased use of cover crops in their operations as a result of information they received at the event, and five noted specific cover crop mulching techniques they planned to try. All the farmers said they intended to make some sort of change to their farming operations. In fact, 96% of the respondents in total, including those who didn’t identify themselves as farmers, planned to make changes to their growing techniques and education programs based on information received at the event. We identified some possible Field Day improvements for next year. This year’s field day attendees seemed very pleased with the event over all (despite the 106° temperatures) and only five made suggestions for other topics to cover, including more coverage of AM fungi, compost tea, urban farming, and guidance on determining specific cover crop mixes, planting rates, and timing for each farmer. Last year’s farmer requests for more stream-lined field days with sessions targeted to different scale farm operations were not repeated, suggesting that either this need was met, or this year’s group of attendees had different needs.

 

  • August 4, 2011 – The researcher-moderated, farmer-led rotating discussion group outlined in last year’s report was carried out informally at the August 4th Farmer Field. Each of the attending collaborating farmers (3 of the 4) spoke to the group about the successes and challenges they’d encountered in their half-year of rolled cover crop vegetable system implementation, and all attendees had the opportunity to ask questions as part of the full group, so all could benefit from the answers (and some had their own anecdotes and experiences to share as well).

 

  • July 16, 2010 – At the July 2010 Field Day, “Emerging Technologies in Organic Agriculture”, 7 of the 16 farmers (47%) who returned the survey indicated that they intended to make changes to their farming operations with cover crops. All farmers said they intended to make some sort of change to their farming operations. We identified some possible Field Day improvements for next year. Some responding farmers requested more stream-lined field days with sessions targeted to farm operations of different sizes and scales. Others suggested that RI increase event advertising by calling farmers, and follow up with a detailed cover crop specific survey asking about acreage adopted.

           

Impact Objective 2 (Farmer Awareness): By the end of this project, Rodale Institute can document that at least 3,000 farmers became informed about the cover crop mulch system of vegetable production, as documented by:

 

Attendance/Participant Surveys at RI Field Days:

  1. July 20, 2012 – At RI’s Annual Field day, we have showcased the no-till vegetable trial to 180 people. The attendees viewed a presentation about the project including the benefits of cover crops, had a tour of the trial, and responded to a survey. At this Field Day, only 16 of the 108 participants completed their surveys for a 15% response rate, due in part to the fact that a group of over 40 farmers from Canada had promised to return their surveys after they had returned home, but then failed to do so. Also, because of the poor weather that day, the afternoon tour ended on foot, rather than on the wagon, eliminating our primary venue for collecting end-of-the-day surveys and thus creating the poor response rate. Of the respondents, almost two-thirds were farmers (10), and most of the rest were extension agents and educators (6), working collectively with an estimated total of 600 farmers and land owners each year. Ninety-three percent of the farmers noted that they had learned about a new production practice, and almost all noted that the new practice they were interested in was no-till rolling of cover crops for production of vegetables and soybeans (new livestock management systems were the other big area of interest).
  2. June 8, 2012 – Project presentations at RI’s June 8, 2012 field event hosted for PA Women in Agriculture (PA-WAgN), entitled “Annual Tour of Rodale Institute: What’s Happening on the Farm” reached over 40 participants, and field tours provided as part of custom group tours throughout the season reached over 600 more visitors of all ages, ranging from elementary and home-school groups to college students to farmer-extension groups.
  3. July 22, 2011 Fifty-eight people attended RI’s July 2011 Field Day, “Showcasing the Value of Research in Organic Production,” where the no-till vegetable trial was showcased. Attendees viewed a presentation about the project including the benefits of cover crops, had a tour of the trial, and responded to a survey. We handed out free copies of “Sustainable Production of Fresh-Market Tomatoes and Other Vegetables with Cover Crop Mulches” by J. Teasdale, so that participants could receive information on how to implement the system on their own farms. At this Field Day, 34 of the 58 participants completed their surveys, for a 59% response rate. Of the respondents, almost half were farmers (14), and most of the rest were extension agents and educators (7), vendors (4), and researchers (2), a group who collectively worked with an estimated total of 1,800 farmers and land owners each year. Ninety-eight percent of the farmers agreed or strongly agreed that the field day encouraged them to explore or recommend the use of cover crops in vegetable production. 
  4. June 3, 2011 – Project presentations at RI’s June 3, 2011 field event hosted for PA Women in Agriculture (PA-WAgN) reached over 40 participants, and field tours provided as part of custom group tours throughout the season reached over 200 more visitors.
  5. July 16, 2010 -Sixty-seven people attended RI’s July 2010 Field Day, “Emerging Technologies in Organic Agriculture”, where the no-till vegetable trial was showcased.
  6. June 4 and 9, 2010 – Project presentations at RI’s June 4, 2010 field event hosted for PA Women in Agriculture (PA-WAgN) reached 42 participants, and RI’s June 9th training session hosted for NRCS scientists and agents reached 59 people.

 

Attendance/Participant Surveys at Grower-Oriented Conference Presentations:

  1. August 10, 2012 – Sixteen farmers and other interested parties attended RI’s “No-Till Vegetable Production and Farm Food Safety GAP Mock Audit Twilight Field Walk”, on Friday, August 10th, 2012. The event was held at James Weaver’s Meadow View Farm, whose 40+ -acre mixed vegetable/nursery/grain farm is located about 5 miles southwest of the Rodale Institute site in Bowers, PA. Participants toured James’ project production field, as well as his packing operation, and discussed current project data with RI staff. Almost all the survey respondents noted that they were currently growing cover crops and interested to try incorporating them more fully into their vegetable systems using the cover crop roller.
  2. April 2012 – Over 60 farmers, researchers and extension agents received information on project production methods and results via Christine Ziegler’s presentation “Impacts of Plastic and Cover Crop Mulches on Weeds, Soil Quality, Yields, and Season Length for Tomatoes” at the University of Minnesota’s “Extending the Growing Season” Workshop held in April 2012 at their Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton, MN. Verbal feedback from the presentation was uniformly positive, with many questions about different kinds of cover crops that can be used in different regions of the country, and timing of cover crop termination and planting.
  3. August 4, 2011 Fourteen farmers and other interested parties attended RI’s “Cover Crop Alternatives to Black Plastic” Farmer Field Workshop on August 4th, 2011. The event was held at RI and featured the fields of collaborating farmers John and Aimee Good of Quiet Creek Farm, whose 8-acre CSA is located at the Rodale Institute site. Participants toured the farm fields and discussed current project data with RI staff and several of the project’s collaborating farmers, sharing successes, challenges, and new ideas to help integrate the system into different sorts of operations. Almost all the survey respondents noted that they were very interested in incorporating cover crops into their vegetable systems and felt that they generally received enough information through the training to allow them to start that transition process.
  4. November 20-23, 2011 – Forty farmers, researchers and extension agents received information on project production methods and results via Christine Ziegler’s presentation “Organic Vegetable Production Using No-Till” at the 11th Annual Iowa Organic Conference in Ames, IA. Verbal feedback from the presentation was very positive, with many questions about different kinds of cover crops that can be used in different regions of the country, and timing of cover crop termination and planting.
  5. May 27, 2010 – About 20 farmers attended Alison Grantham’s “Alternatives to Black Plastic” presentation at the May 27th meeting of the Berks Agricultural Resource Network, a non-profit agency serving the Berks County agricultural community.

 

Independent Page Views of Website Articles:

  1. Cover Crops Go Round Three With Black Plastic”, an article posted on our website in June 2012, described the changes we made to our trial through the first half of 2012, and the details of how the work was carried out in the field.  This posting had1,994 page views with an average view-time of 4:05 minutes. This article is available at http://rodaleinstitute.org/2012/cover-crops-go-round-three-with-black-plastic/. For reference, average view times for web pages, nationally, are approximately 1 minute.
  2. An article entitled “Final Year of Field Research on Alternatives to Black Plastic” was posted in November 2012, detailing more findings from the 2011 season and preliminary data from 2012. The page had917 page views with an average of 3:30 minutes spent on page.  This article can be viewed at: http://rodaleinstitute.org/2012/final-year-of-field-research-on-alternatives-to-black-plastic/.
  3. Black Plastic Alternatives – Year 1”, an article posted on our website in January 2011, described the results from the 2010 project trial of tomatoes planted in rye, vetch, and rye/vetch cover crops that had been mowed, rolled, or plowed and laid with black plastic. This posting had3,916 page views with an average view-time of 5:09 minutes. This article is available at http://rodaleinstitute.org/2011/black-plastic-alternatives-year-1/. For reference, average view time for web pages nationally is approximately 1 minute.
  4. An article entitled “Growing Vegetables with Cover Crop Mulches” was posted in October 2011, detailing more findings from the 2010 season and preliminary data for 2011, tying this work with other research on this topic. The page had 6,189 unique page-views with an average of nearly 5 minutes spent on page. This article can be viewed at: http://rodaleinstitute.org/2011/growing-vegetables-with-cover-crop-mulch/.
  5. Black Plastic Alternatives: Fertility, Variety, Seasonality”, an article also posted in October 2011, covered the 2011 growing season in greater detail, outlining aspects of the production system that were working differently from the previous season and what was working well in both years. This page had 1,981 page views with an average view time of 4:13 minutes. This article can be viewed at http://rodaleinstitute.org/2011/black-plastic-alternatives-fertility-variety-seasonality/.
  6. Infestation Hits First-Year Multi-Variant Tomato Trial”, an article posted on our website in January 2010, described the results from the 2009 trial of tomatoes planted in rye cover crops. This posting had 1,539 page views with an average view-time of 4.44 minutes. This article is available at: http://rodaleinstitute.org/2010/infestation-hits-first-year-multi-variant-tomato-trial/
  7. Escape from Black Plastic”, was posted in June, an article detailing the initiation of the summer research trial and describing various mulches. The page had 2,496 unique page-views with an average 3:52 minutes spent on page.  This article can be viewed at: http://rodaleinstitute.org/2010/escape-from-black-plastic/.

 

Responses to surveys posted in the sidebars of website articles

A web survey was sent via email to all participants of RI’s 2010 and 2011 field days. Seventeen recipients viewed the survey and seven completed it, for a view rate of 20% and return rate of 8%. Two of the seven respondents were farmers (representing 130 acres of vegetables, grains and fruit), one of whom already used cover crops and another who added 20 acres of cover crops as a result of attending the field day. Neither had tried rolling cover crops yet but one was interested in learning more about the equipment, and both felt that the cover crops were a success and were improving their soil organic matter. Two other respondents worked with farmers – one works with 5-6 farmers, and one works with “many”, and the latter is recommending cover crops to his clients. A fifth respondent who didn’t identify as farmer or educator noted that the event increased her understanding of cover crops “enormously” and that she “helped to organize a cover crop conference in Oct 2011 at Princeton University” and “as a result at least one agribusiness company has begun to develop more cover crop options for their farmer’s rotations and we worked with the National Corn Growers Association to collect cover crop data during their survey for the national conference.”

 

Overall, the feedback to the field events was very positive – all noted that they appreciated the information presented and the event as a whole, and wanted to attend again in the future. The same survey will be sent out to attendees of RI’s 2012 Field Day in early January, to capture feedback from that group.

 

In December of 2013, we sent an electronic survey to our e-newsletter subscribers. We had a total of 198 respondents, 71.7% were farmers who have tried incorporating more cover crops into their farming production system. The most common cover crops tried were rye, crimson clover, oats, and hairy vetch. Also, 76.2% of the respondents were willing to use cover crops again in their farming system and 14.6% of the respondents tried rolling/crimping the cover crops. About 13.6% of the respondents were willing to test this technique in the coming seasons. About 24.2% of the respondents were non-growers (some educators were also farmers) who recommended cover crops to farmers. At least 5.5% of the farmers have implemented the use of the roller/crimper in their farming production system.

 

Printed Production Manual

In the fall of 2013 we prepared a production manual based on the reports and data collected within the three-year project to be used as guidance for farmers, extension agents, and interested clientele. The manual is 40+ pages and entitled “Beyond Black Plastic: Cover Crops and Organic No-till for Vegetable Production.”

 

Responses to survey linked to production manual download

These data will be collected once the production manual is made available on RI’s website in March 2014.

 

Impact Objective 3 (Professional Development): eight regional extension agents will each host or schedule to host at least one event, collectively reaching 400 farmers, that includes information on cover crop use and no-till termination for vegetable production.

 

Over the term of the project, PSU Cooperative Extension Agents made seven presentations on cover crops for vegetable production, reaching 190 farmers, and published article on cover crop roller crimping reaching 2,000 farmers.Collaborating local extension agents carried out over two dozen courses in the Southeast region of PA in 2012. In addition to vegetable production courses that included project information on rolled cover crops and organic no-till, course topics included Beekeeping, Potato Production, Soils, Livestock Grazing and Pasture Management, Backyard Poultry Production, Access to Land, Capital and Equipment for Farm Start-ups, Sheep and Goat Management, GAP Food Safety and Handling, and Novice Farmer Study Circles. These courses were attended by almost 500 farmers and extension agents, and another group of these courses is set for 2013.

 

Collaborating local extension agents carried out 19 courses in the Southeast region of PA in 2011. In addition to vegetable production courses that included project information, course topics included: Living on a Few Acres; ABCs of Beekeeping; Potato Production; Introduction to Soils; a Grazing School; Pasture Management; Food for Profit; Backyard Poultry Production; Exploring the Small Farm Dream; Access to Land; Capital and Equipment for Farm Start-ups; Sheep Shearing; and Novice Farmer Study Circles. These courses were attended by almost 500 farmers and extension agents, and another group of these courses is set for 2012.

 

Impact Objective 4 (Researcher/Ag Professional Awareness): By the end of this project, the RI will have documentation that at least 500 horticultural research scientists and extension agents became informed about the cover crop mulch system of vegetable production.

 

This performance objective will be achieved by publication of peer-reviewed manuscript in HortScience, Weed Technology or similar journal publication, web hits and surveys linked to the electronic version of the Production Manual, which will be available free of charge on our website, www.rodaleinstitute.org. The manuscript is in process and a draft will be completed by December 2014.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand

Research

Materials and methods:

2009-2012

We tested three different cover crop combinations with two methods of termination to compare their performances with a control trial of black plastic. We planted rye and vetch in fall 2009 and let them over-winter, to be killed in the spring before planting tomatoes into them. We reseeded the vetch in March for sufficient ground cover.

 

Our cover crop combinations were: 1) Aroostook Rye (seeded at 3 bushels/acre), 2) Hairy Vetch (seeded at 28 lb/acre), and 3) a rye-vetch mix. In May we terminated the cover crops with three different methods: 1) by roller-crimper (mounted on the front of our John Deere 2950 tractor), 2) by flail mower (on the Deutz 6260F), and 3) by moldboard plow (I.H. 145 on Ford 8240). We laid black plastic over the plowed portion and then planted tomatoes directly into this and the now-flattened cover crops.

 

The research design for the trial at Rodale Institute is a complete factorial design. The factors we explored were 1) cover crop variety or combination, and 2) method of termination. We will be completely crossing three cover crop treatments (vetch, vetch+rye, and rye) with two termination treatments (plowing down and covering with black plastic mulch (control treatment), and rolling). The resulting treatments will be: 1) plowed vetch+plastic, 2) rolled vetch, 3) plowed rye+plastic, 4) rolled rye, 5) plowed rye and vetch+plastic, and 6) rolled rye and vetch. An example of field layout of treatments is attached (see Attachment A-Field Experimental Layout).

 

We planted three varieties of heirloom tomatoes in June: 1) Black Prince, a delicious dark slicer, 2) Bellstar, a hearty paste, and 3) Glacier, a cold-hearty early-producer of smaller fruit. Because hairy vetch naturally inputs soil nitrogen, we didn’t fertilize the vetch plots, but the rye-vetch mix and rye plots both were watered with Fertrell 4-1-1 liquid fish fertilizer (rye-vetch mix rate: 0.9 gal/100 plants; rye rate: 1.8 gal/100 plants).  

 

Tomato seedlings were started in the greenhouse in late April and planted out into the field in early June into 50 ft rows spaced at 10 ft. Prior to cover crop termination, cover crop biomass was collected and assessed for carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) content, and weed biomass was calculated in half-meter square quads in the plots at 4 and 8 weeks after planting. Total and marketable tomatoes yields were harvested 2-3 times weekly from August to October and the tomato plants were assessed for biomass and tissue C and N during the harvest period. Pre- and post-season soil samples were also collected and assessed for C, N and active carbon.

Research results and discussion:

At Rodale Institute Site

Cover crop biomass, % Carbon and % Nitrogen: Results showed that highest cover crop biomass was achieved in rolled rye+vetch treatment (13,000 lb/acre) and approximately similar to rye+vetch mowed mulch treatment. However, it was significantly different from treatment with rye cover crop either plowed with plastic, rolled, or mowed (6,000, 11,000, and 11,000 lb/acre respectively). The lowest cover crop biomass was in vetch cover crop treatment whether plowed, rolled, or mowed (4,000 lb/acre). All tested cover crops under plastic were plowed and terminated earlier than those rolled or mowed. Thus they had less time to grow and lower biomass. Consequently, the contribution of carbon of any cover crop treatment with plastic mulch was minimal (ranging from 1,500 to 2,500 lb C/acre).The highest carbon input was in treatment with rye alone (whether rolled or mowed) averaging 3,450 lb C/acre but was not significantly different from those with rye+vetch (either rolled or mowed ones) averaging 3,330 lb C/acre. However, the scenario was different for nitrogen contribution from these treatments. High cover crop N contribution was achieved in treatments that included hairy vetch whether singly or mixed with rye (averaging 152 lb N/acre and 161 lb N/acre, respectively). The lowest N contribution was in treatments that had rye alone (averaging 69 lb N/acre).

 

Soil Moisture and temperature: Across the three years, soil moisture was on average 26% in either mowed or rolled treatments and about 23% in plastic mulch treatments. Differences in soil temperature between black plastic and cover crop mulch treatments was greater early on and fairly minimal by the end of the season. Rolled or mowed cover mulches reduced soil temperature by 5.8oF in June, 2.0oF in September, and 0.5oF in October. There was no difference in soil temperature based on cover crop type. The advantage of cover crop mulch is that it kept the soil temperature moderate (72-77oF) in comparison to plastic mulch (81-84oF) and reduced fluctuation over time.

 

Soil %C and %N: There was no significant difference in percent carbon or nitrogen in soil was observed across years. However, within the rye+vetch cover crop in 2012, percent carbon did increase in the course of the season in both the rolled (from 2.28% to 2.55%), and mowed (2.15% to 2.28%) in comparison to that in plastic (2.3% C) treatment.

 

Weed suppression: Across the cover crop types, vetch was the least effective at suppressing weed growth. Over the three years, there was a variation in weed biomass in all treatments, although the black plastic system was more consistent than the other two. While the black plastic more effectively suppressed weeds in 2011 and 2012, the rolled and mowed systems outperformed the black plastic in 2010. Rolling was generally more effective at suppressing weeds than mowing. The rye+vetch rolled system outperformed the rye or vetch alone rolled systems.

 

Photo 1 (see Attachment D1). A square-meter of rolled vetch plot, photographed 4 weeks after planting tomatoes. These plots had the most weed biomass 4 weeks after planting. The main weed trouble-makers shown here are marsh yellow cress and ragweed.

 

Photo 2 (see Attachment D2). A square meter of rolled rye, photographed 4 weeks after planting tomatoes. Rolled rye plots had the least amount of weed biomass after 4 weeks. The rye provided a much thicker mat than did the vetch.

 

Tomato Yield: In 2010, total tomato yield was higher (averaging 38,000 lb/acre) in either rolled or mowed system than in black plastic mulch (averaging 20,500 lb/acre). This trend did not translate in 2011, where total tomato yield was highest in black plastic system averaging 25,000 lb/acre in comparison to those rolled or mowed (12,500 lb/acre, 10,300 lb/acre, respectively). Unfortunately, in 2012 Phytophthora late blight dramatically reduced the tomato harvest, affecting total and marketable yields in all systems. It is important to note that marketable yields in both rolled or mowed systems were 70% higher in rye+vetch treatments than in plastic mulch. More research is needed to better understand the factors involving the annual variations in mulch performance.

 

Waste Production: When we look at the non-degradable waste produced by black plastic mulch we found that it was around 91.46 lb of waste versus none by either cover crop system. The only non-degradable waste that was produced in the organic mulch was the drip irrigation lines (28 lb/acre).

 

Profitability: The fixed cost per acre in all systems was $9,668 and the variable cost was highest in all systems for the rye cover crop followed by rye+vetch and hairy vetch (Table below). Fixing the price per pound of produce, the marketable yield, revenue and profit varied across systems and was highest in the rolled and mowed rye+vetch system and lowest in the rye alone system. More research is needed to improve the cover crop systems to outperform black plastic mulch in securing higher marketable and total yields (see attached profitability table, Attachment B).

 

At Farmers’ Sites- Case Studies

 

Genesis Farm: Mike Baki trialed RI’s rolled rye/vetch system side-by-side with his standard black plastic system. In 2011, Mike grew summer squash, tomatoes, and watermelon, and in 2012 he substituted peppers for watermelon. The tomatoes were more similar between the two systems, with the rolled rye/vetch plots producing about 75% of what the black plastic plots produced. However, the watermelon and summer squash both yielded about twice as much in Mike’s standard black plastic treatments as compared to the rolled rye/vetch. The rolled rye/vetch treatment cost the farm $202.50 for 300 ft, less than half of the $506.80 cost of the black plastic treatment. Mike is continuing to experiment with the rolled rye/vetch system and hopes to find an effective way to put it to work at Genesis Farm.

 

Swallow Hill Farm: The Randolphs compared RI’s rolled rye/vetch system to a variation of their own technique: rye and crimson clover, rolled instead of cultipacked, with occasional applications of post-emergence herbicide. They planted butternut squash as their test crop with a no-till seeder. In both 2011 and 2012, the squash yield was greater by 27% in the rye and crimson clover system. The Randolphs have demonstrated that crimson clover is a viable alternative to hairy vetch in rolled cover crop systems, providing it is grown in an appropriate climate (hardiness zone 6b). Compared to their former method of cover crop termination using the cultipacker, the roller-crimper provided a more effective crimping of stems, reducing the chances of cover crop regrowth. As a result, there was much less of a need for post-emergence herbicide when using the roller-crimper. Since participating in this study, the Randolphs have switched to using a roller-crimper instead of a cultipacker to terminate their rye or rye and crimson clover cover crop, reducing the use of herbicide on their farm by 40-50%.

 

Meadow View Farm: James Weaver trialed his standard black plastic management alongside RI’s rolled rye/vetch. James’s standard system uses black plastic mulch in combination with hand weeding, vinegar sprays (which cause the tops of plants to die back), and occasional pesticide applications on tougher perennial weeds. James grew two varieties of tomatoes in the test plots in 2011 and tomatoes and cabbage in 2012.

Although the black plastic plots produced 32% more total yield, James reports that the quality of the tomatoes in the rolled rye/vetch was much better due to a good deal of splitting in the black plastic tomatoes. As a result, the actual marketable yields and profit from each treatment were very similar.

 

James says it was a bad year for the cabbages in both treatments, though the black plastic plots had higher yields by about 65%. He would like to transition more of his production to a rolled cover crop mulch system. “Especially as I get older,” James says, “I would be happy to not have to deal with plastic removal and disposal.”

 

Quiet Creek Farm: John and Aimee Good trialed RI’s rolled rye/vetch alongside their own organic weed management approach, which involves tillage and cultivation without black plastic. They used butternut squash as their test crop and did not perform any weeding in either of the years.

 

Weed pressure in John and Aimee’s test plots varied between 2011 and 2012. In the first year, weed biomass was higher in the rolled rye/vetch treatments by about fourfold. In 2012, however, the Goods’ standard bare-soil treatment had twice as much weed pressure as the rolled rye/vetch. The average yields of the two systems ended up being very similar. The rolled rye/vetch brought 13,503 lb/acre, while John and Aimee’s standard management brought 14,249 lb/acre, a difference of about 5%.

 

Since their participation in this study, John and Aimee have started to incorporate cover crops into the system. They now plant rye grass and clover in the paths between black plastic rows, adding organic matter to their soil and reducing the erosion that would otherwise occur due to the increased runoff from the plastic. In addition, John reports that this technique creates a much more pleasant space to work in between the rows, especially when the ground is wet.

 

 

 

Original Milestones

Completion Date

1

Farmers, extension agents, and researchers (beneficiaries) learn about project and provide their input and reactions via introductory article, feedback survey, and comments on Rodale Institute’s (RI’s) website.

May 2010

2

RI research staff install iButton temperature and humidity sensors, sample cover crop biomass and ground coverage at RI plots (all years) and farmer collaborator’s (FC’s) plots (2011 and 2012).

May/June 2010, 2011, 2012

3

RI research staff collect data on weed density, diversity, and OM inputs.

June/July and August/September 2010, 2011, 2012

4

RI research staff and FCs collect and weigh both total and marketable yield bi-weekly or as needed in each treatment plot at RI and on collaborating farms.

July-September 2010, 2011, and 2012

5

Regional beneficiaries take part in first project Field Day at RI, presenting vegetable/cover crop trials and equipment demonstrations.

July 2010

6

RI research staff work with FCs to plan/establish plots, plant cover crops, and sample soil.

August/September 2010, 2011, 2012

7

RI research staff process, send out for analysis and perform in-house analyses on soil samples.

August/September 2010, 2011, 2012

8

FC’s, select extension agents, and researchers meet with RI staff to review 2010 data (including FC costs and savings) and plan for 2011.

January 2011

9

Beneficiaries review article summarizing 2010 field data, activities, and plans for 2011 on RI’s website.           

January 2011

10

2010 Field Day and conference attendees surveyed to assess adoption of practices and additional information needs.

January-March 2011

11

Regional beneficiaries attend second Field Day, hosted by FCs.

August 2011

12

FCs, select extension agents, and researchers meet with RI staff to review 2011 data and plan for 2012.

January 2012

13

Beneficiaries review article summarizing 2011 field data, activities, and plans for 2012 on RI’s website.

January 2012

14

Beneficiaries and the public learn about project research and recommendations via presentation at annual winter conference.

February 2012

15

2011 Field Day and conference attendees surveyed to assess information needs and adoption of practices.

March 2012

16

Regional beneficiaries attend third Field Day, hosted by FCs.

August 2012

17

Beneficiaries and the public receive 40-page vegetable production manual, available in print and on-line as a pdf.   

March 2014

18

Beneficiaries read final project summary article on RI’s website.

March 2014

19

Researchers and extension agents review scientific project summary via peer-reviewed journal article(s).

Draft December 31, 2014

 

Milestone 1 (Introductory article):

(Completed in 2010) More than 1,500 people viewed the introductory project article for an average of almost 4 minutes. Most viewers who responded to the survey posted with the article indicated an interest in finding alternatives to black plastic and a need for more information (n=10). Some had tried conservative experimentation with cover crops already, and were eager to find plastic alternatives, but were concerned about weed control and lack of equipment.

 

Milestone 2 (iButton installation/sampling):

RI technicians installed three temperature data loggers in each RI plot (n=88) and in all the farmer collaborator’s (FC’s) plots in early June 2012 (n=54). IButtons were successfully removed in October to collect soil temperature readings throughout the season. Average full-season soil temperatures (June through October) showed no significant differences at the RI site in the nine different treatments (as in 2010 and 2011), ranging in from 59°F in the rolled vetch plots in early June to 98°F in the black plastic rye plots in early July. However, when daily soil temperature highs and lows were separated by month, distinct differences emerged among the treatments, with the rye and rye/vetch black plastic plots showing the highest daytime temperatures in June and July (around 82°F) and the rye rolled and mowed plots showing the lowest daytime temperature in July (around 72°F). The month of June showed the greatest differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures for all the treatments, with a change of at least 10°F between the time readings. The swing between daytime and nighttime temperatures decreased over the course of the growing season, as did the daytime temperature differences between the treatments, particularly in August, when daytime soil temperatures showed the smallest difference between the treatments.

 

Soil samples were taken at different points throughout the growing season at the RI site to determine gravimetric soil moisture. Data for April and June have been tabulated and an analysis of the later season readings is on-going. For these two months, average percent soil moisture ranged from 24.2% for rye/vetch in black plastic to 30.6% for mowed vetch, a range similar to those seen in the last two seasons. Though the treatments including vetch appear to hold more moisture in April, differences among the treatments become negligible by June (to be confirmed by statistical analysis in January). This growing season brought fairly consistent rainfall, and as such, coming analysis of the remaining soil moisture data should clarify whether and how the treatments impacted soil moisture later in the season, given “normal” moisture conditions. Soil moisture was not measured at the FC locations.

 

Cover crop biomass was collected for analysis of biomass production, percent N, and percent C. Once again, vetch biomass production at RI was even greater this year than last year, reaching nearly 5,000 lb/acre (compared to 4,000 lb/acre in 2011 and 2,200 lb/acre in 2010). Rye biomass reached 10,000 lb/acre, on par with 2011 (and much higher than the 4,700 lb/acre in 2010), but the rye/vetch treatments produced less biomass, reaching a maximum of about 7,800 lb/acre compared to 11,500 lb/acre in 2011. What is also interesting to note is that the rye biomass nearly doubled from the time of plow termination for black plastic (April 14th) to the time of rolling and mowing (June 5th), while the rye/vetch biomass did not increase as much over that time period. The vetch biomass also did not increase much between the plowing and rolling/mowing dates this year, but this is due to the fact that plowing and rolling/mowing for this treatment happened only three weeks apart (May 22nd to June 5th). Unlike last year, which brought an extremely wet spring, April and May were relatively dry in this area in 2012, which may have hindered vetch growth as much as the excess moisture in 2011.

 

Cover crop biomass at the FC sites, consisting primarily of the rye/vetch mix, ranged from 4,900 lb/acre on April 27th (plow/black plastic at Baki’s) to 12,300 lb/acre on June 1st (rolled at Randolph’s), a range very similar to 2012. Again, Baki’s cover crops showed excellent growth between the plowed and rolled terminations dates (late April to late May) but growth at the Good’s plot (which is located at the RI site) was quite minimal over the same time period. Weaver’s cover crop biomass also only increased from 7,800 lb/acre to 10,000 lb/acre from April 12th to May 30th, indicating that a dry spring may have slowed cover crop growth a bit in the area near RI.

 

Nitrogen concentrations were greatest in the vetch and mixed rye/vetch treatments (200 lb N/acre) and lowest in the rye treatments (70 lb N/acre), which is consistent with what the rye/vetch and rye cover crops produced last year (the vetch alone produced around 70 lb/acre more N in 2012 than in 2011). However, again, the vetch and rye/vetch cover crops showed little or no increase in N content between mid-April and early June, even though the biomass increased. Carbon inputs ranged from 2,200 lb/acre for the vetch (at all termination dates) to 4,500 lb/acre for the rye/vetch mix at the roll/mow termination date, which is right in line with data from 2011.

 

At the FC plots, N concentrations were unusually low this year, ranging from 28 lb/acre in Baki’s plowed/black plastic plots that were terminated on April 27th to 134 lb/acre for Randolph’s plots that were rolled on June 1st. Carbon inputs, however, were excellent in these plots, ranging from 2,200 lb/acre to 5,500 lb/acre on these same plots, which was exactly the same as 2012. We are not certain how to explain the low N concentration in these cover crops, but it is possible that the vetch simply didn’t grow as well over the 2012 winter as it did in 2011, even though the rye grew normally.

 

Milestone 3 (Data collection-weed density, diversity and OM inputs):

After adjusting our weed data collection in 2011 to only assess weed biomass, based on the determination that the weed species data was not of sufficient value, we then adjusted our weed data collection again in 2012. In this year, we only collected weed biomass at four weeks after planting, and after that point, we instead measured the amount of time that was required to control the weeds in the plots. Weed biomass was assessed at 4 weeks, both at RI and the FC locations.

 

At 4 weeks after planting at RI, the rolled and mowed treatments showed similar weed suppression, and in some cases showed statistically similar weed suppression to that of the black plastic (the black plastic serves as a control in this portion of the research, and the weeds collected were those that fell beyond the reach of the plastic, between rows). The mowed rye showed the greatest weed suppression of the non-plastic treatments, amassing less than 4,000 kg/ha of weed biomass, while the mowed rye/vetch amassed almost 2,000 kg/ha of weeds, and the mowed vetch and mowed rye allowed over 6,000 kg/ha of weeds at that date. Despite the fact that the 2012 RI plots produced just as much cover crop biomass as the 2011 plots, they appeared to be less effective at deterring weed growth. In 2011 data, after 4 weeks, the rolled rye/vetch treatments had only 500 lb/acre of weeds, the rolled vetch treatments had 2,100 lb/acre of weeds, and the mowed vetch and rye had about 3,800 lb/acre of weeds. It is possible that the steady supply of moisture throughout the 2012 growing season allowed for greater weed growth, relative to the dry 2011 mid-summer season.

 

After week 4 weed biomass cut, weeds at the RI site were managed with an in-row hand weeding, followed by occasional mowing between the plots. Week 4 weed pressure at the FC plots was extremely low, ranging from 78 lb/acre in the Good’s plowed fields to 1,450 lb/acre in Weaver’s rolled fields (most of the FC plots had weed pressure of less than 500 lb/acre). These weed pressure data are lower than those of 2011, where data ranged between 900-1,500 lb/acre, with a high of 3,000 lb/acre at Weaver’s. Time and methods for weed control after 4 weeks at the FC sites is still being tabulated. The highest pressure in Weaver’s rolled plots (though it still isn’t very high) may again be due to the fact that he planted on raised beds and used the project’s new raised-bed roller to terminate the cover crop. The roller again appeared to give good kill of the cover crop, and the cover crop biomass was comparable with the other sites, but it is possible that the orientation of the raised-bed roller’s angled drums may have moved the crushed cover crop mat in a way that allowed for weed emergence. Since these data are similar between 2011 and 2012, they suggest that the raised bed roller may need some adjustments before being recommended for large scale use.

 

Milestone 4 (collect and weigh marketable yield):

Total tomato yield was collected and weighed twice or three times weekly at the RI site from August 13th until September 6th. The harvest season started at a reasonable date, due to the normal weather patterns, but ended very early due to an outbreak of Phytophthora late blight that struck in late August (only at the RI site). Both total and marketable yields were assessed, and as in previous years, to avoid flooding the market and displacing local tomato farmers, project tomatoes were donated to the Berks County Food Bank.

Because of the blight, marketable yields ranged from 2,500 lb/acre in the mowed vetch treatment (total yield for that treatment was 18,000 lb/acre) to 21,000 lb/acre (50,000 lb/acre total yield) in the rye black plastic plots, totaling over 3,000 lb of tomatoes picked throughout the season. To compare, in 2011 total yields ranged from 15,000 lb/acre in the mowed rye treatment up to 84,000 lb/acre in the rye-vetch black plastic treatment, and a total of around 6,500 lb of tomatoes were picked over the season. These yields are lower than the Pennsylvania 10-year commercial average of 10,500 to 22,000 lb/acre due to blight and the shortened picking season. While the black plastic plots generally yielded statistically more total tomatoes than the rolled or mowed treatments for all cover crop types, there were no statistical differences in marketable yields among the nine treatments. Though these data are rather different from those of 2010 and 2011, due to the impact of blight, they suggest, in their raw form, that the rye/vetch rolled and mowed treatments can produce comparable yields to those of the black plastic, as was seen in 2010. Statistical comparison of all three years’ data is on-going and should be complete by the end of January.

 

Harvest data from the FC is still being tabulated, but raw 2012 data on acorn squash from the Good’s and Randolph’s showed that yields in the rolled plots were higher than in their standard treatments. These data analyses will also be completed by late January.

 

Milestones 5, 11, 14 and 16 (field day/conference presentations):

2012

  • RI’s July 2012 Field Day, “Showcasing the Value of Research in Organic Production,” hosted at RI on July 20, 2012, educated a total of 108 participants on cover crop use, supplemental weed control practices, and no-till practices.      
  • In addition to the July field day, the second project farmer field day, “No-Till Vegetable Production and Farm Food Safety GAP Mock Audit Twilight Field Walk”, on August 10, 2012, gave 16 participants an up-close and focused opportunity to review the trial on an FC’s farm, learn about the FC’s experiences in implementing the production practices, and receive up-to-date trial data.
  • A third outreach presentation entitled “Impacts of Plastic and Cover Crop Mulches on Weeds, Soil Quality, Yields, and Season Length for Tomatoes” was given at the University of Minnesota’s “Extending the Growing Season” Workshop held in April 2012 at their Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton, MN.
  • Project presentations at RI’s June 8, 2012 field event hosted for PA Women in Agriculture (PA-WAgN), entitled “Annual Tour of Rodale Institute: What’s Happening on the Farm” reached over 40 participants, and field tours provided as part of custom group tours throughout the season reached over 600 more visitors of all ages, ranging from elementary and home-school groups to college students to farmer-extension groups.

 

2011

  • Fifty-eight people attended RI’s July 22, 2011 Field Day, “Showcasing the Value of Research in Organic Production,” where the no-till vegetable trial was showcased.      
  • Forty farmers, researchers and extension agents received information on project production methods and results via Christine Ziegler’s presentation “Organic Vegetable Production Using No-Till” at the 11th Annual Iowa Organic Conference, held November 20-23 in Ames, IA.
  • Fourteen farmers and other interested parties attended Rodale Institute’s “Cover Crop Alternatives to Black Plastic” Farmer Field Workshop held at RI in Kutztown, PA on August 4th, 2011.
  • Project presentations at RI’s June 3, 2011 field event hosted for PA Women in Agriculture (PA-WAgN) reached over 40 participants, and field tours provided as part of custom group tours throughout the season reached over 200 more visitors.

 

2010

  • Sixty-seven people attended RI’s July 16, 2010 Field Day, “Emerging Technologies in Organic Agriculture”, where the no-till vegetable trial was showcased.

  • About 20 farmers attended Alison Grantham’s “Alternatives to Black Plastic” presentation at the May 27, 2010 meeting of the Berks Agricultural Resource Network, a non-profit agency serving the Berks County agricultural community.
  • Project presentations at RI’s June 4, 2010 field event hosted for PA Women in Agriculture (PA-WAgN) reached 42 participants, and RI’s June 9th training session hosted for NRCS scientists and agents reached 59 people.

 

Milestone 6 (work with FC):

RI staff worked with the four collaborating farmers throughout each growing season to lay out field treatments; assist with cover crop incorporation, rolling, and crop planting; take cover crop and weed biomass cuts; deliver and plant cover crop seed; sample soil for percent moisture, rocks and fines, and active organic carbon; and answer any questions the farmers had about the project or the work involved. All the farmers were very willing and helpful collaborators throughout the seasons and a delight to work with.

 

The winter 2012 planning meeting provided a good opportunity for all to see each other again, discuss ideas and plans as a group, and make sensible changes for the coming growing season. While the farmers’ 2011 experiences with the rolled cover crop treatments were mixed, ranging from full success at the Good’s and Randolph’s to fairly serious failure at Baki’s and Weaver’s, all four farmers were excited to try the treatments again in 2012, making adjustments for weed pressure (allowing weeding after 4 weeks), and all carried through admirably.

 

Milestone 7 (process and analyze samples):

We have collected and analyzed the plant and soil samples, tabulated and prepared graphs that were published in the production manual.

 

Milestones 8, 9, 12 and 13 (FC, beneficiary meetings and article review):

The FC Winter Workshop in late February 2012 brought the stakeholders together to review the article that had been posted on the website in January and discuss work plans for the coming season. We calculated costs and savings in winter 2013 to encompass both full field seasons of the project.

 

Milestone 10, 15 (field day surveys):

The on-line field day participant survey was sent to participants of the 2010 and 2011 events in mid-2012, and results from this survey are outlined in this report. Surveys were sent to participants of the 2012 Field Day in early January, and results from that mailing were tabulated in late February 2013.

 

In December of 2013, we sent an electronic survey to our e-newsletter subscribers. We had a total of 198 respondents, 71.7% were farmers who have tried incorporating more cover crops into their farming production system. The most common cover crops tried were rye, crimson clover, oats, and hairy vetch. Also, 76.2% of the respondents were willing to use cover crops again in their farming system and 14.6% of the respondents tried rolling/crimping the cover crops. About 13.6% of the respondents were willing to test this technique in the coming seasons. About 24.2% of the respondents were non-growers (some educators were also farmers) who recommended cover crops to farmers. At least 5.5% of the farmers have implemented the use of the roller/crimper in their farming production system.

 

Milestones 17, 18 and 19 (production manual, final article, journal publication):

Due to the time needed to finish processing and analyzing the 2012 data and correlate it with data from the previous years, work on the production manual and final project articles started in January 2013 throughout December 2013. A journal publication will be available in draft form by December 2014.

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

Project Articles/Publications:

 

Production Manual:

Beyond Black Plastic: Cover Crops and Organic No-till for Vegetable Production”, a 40+ -page vegetable production manual, was prepared in the fall of 2013, based on the reports and data collected within the three-year project to be used as guidance for farmers, extension agents, and interested clientele. The manual will be printed in hard copy and made available electronically on RI’s website in 2014 (see Attachment C).

 

Web Articles (see Attachments E1-7):

  1. Cover Crops Go Round Three With Black Plastic”, an article posted on our website in June 2012, described the changes we made to our trial through the first half of 2012, and the details of how the work was carried out in the field.  This posting had1,994 page views with an average view-time of 4:05 minutes. This article is available at http://rodaleinstitute.org/2012/cover-crops-go-round-three-with-black-plastic/. For reference, average view times for web pages, nationally, are approximately 1 minute.

 

  1. An article entitled “Final Year of Field Research on Alternatives to Black Plastic” was posted in November 2012, detailing more findings from the 2011 season and preliminary data from 2012. The page had917 page views with an average of 3:30 minutes spent on page. This article can be viewed at: http://rodaleinstitute.org/2012/final-year-of-field-research-on-alternatives-to-black-plastic/.

 

  1. Black Plastic Alternatives – Year 1”, an article posted on our website in January 2011, described the results from the 2010 project trial of tomatoes planted in rye, vetch, and rye+vetch cover crops that had been mowed, rolled, or plowed and laid with black plastic. This posting had3,916 page views with an average view-time of 5:09 minutes. This article is available at http://rodaleinstitute.org/2011/black-plastic-alternatives-year-1/. For reference, average view time for web pages nationally is approximately 1 minute.

 

  1. An article entitled “Growing Vegetables with Cover Crop Mulches” was posted in October 2011, detailing more findings from the 2010 season and preliminary data from 2011, tying this work with other research on this topic.  The page had 6,189 unique page-views with an average of nearly 5 minutes spent on page. This article can be viewed at: http://rodaleinstitute.org/2011/growing-vegetables-with-cover-crop-mulch/.

 

  1. Black Plastic Alternatives: Fertility, Variety, Seasonality”, an article also posted in October 2011, covered the 2011 growing season in greater detail, outlining aspects of the production system that were working differently from the previous season and what was working well in both years. This page had 1,981 page views with an average view time of 4:13 minutes. This article can be viewed at http://rodaleinstitute.org/2011/black-plastic-alternatives-fertility-variety-seasonality/.

 

  1. Infestation Hits First-Year Multi-Variant Tomato Trial”, an article posted on our website in January 2010, described the results from the 2009 trial of tomatoes planted in rye cover crops. This posting had 1,539 page views with an average view-time of 4.44 minutes. This article is available at: http://rodaleinstitute.org/2010/infestation-hits-first-year-multi-variant-tomato-trial/

 

  1. Escape from Black Plastic”, was posted in June, an article detailing the initiation of the summer research trial and describing various mulches. The page had 2,496 unique page-views with an average 3.52 minutes spent on page. This article can be viewed at: http://rodaleinstitute.org/2010/escape-from-black-plastic/.

 

Field Days/Workshops:

  • August 10, 2012 – Project-specific field event (an evening field walk) held at collaborator James Weaver’s Meadow View Farm, entitled “No-Till Vegetable Production and Farm Food Safety GAP Mock Audit Twilight Field Walk”.
  • July 20, 2012 – RI’s 2012 On-Farm Field Day, “Showcasing the Value of Research in Organic Agriculture”.
  • April 2012 – Presentation by RI researcher Christine Ziegler entitled “Impacts of Plastic and Cover Crop Mulches on Weeds, Soil Quality, Yields, and Season Length for Tomatoes” at the University of Minnesota’s “Extending the Growing Season” Workshop held in April 2012 at their Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton, MN.

  • June 8, 2012 – Project presentations at RI’s June 8, 2012 field event hosted for PA Women in Agriculture (PA-WAgN), entitled “Annual Tour of Rodale Institute: What’s Happening on the Farm” reached over 40 participants, and field tours provided as part of custom group tours throughout the season reached over 600 more visitors of all ages, ranging from elementary and home-school groups to college students to farmer-extension groups.

  • July 22, 2011 – RI’s 2011 Field Day, “Showcasing the Value of Research in Organic Production”.
  • June 3, 2011 – Field event hosted for PA Women in Agriculture (PA-WAgN) at RI.
  • August 4, 2011 –RI hosted “Cover Crop Alternatives to Black Plastic” Farmer Field Workshop.

  • November 20-23, 2011 – Forty farmers, researchers and extension agents received information on project production methods and results via Christine Ziegler’s presentation “Organic Vegetable Production Using No-Till” at the 11th Annual Iowa Organic Conference, held November 20-23 in Ames, IA.

  • June 16, 2010 – Sixty-seven people attended RI’s July 16, 2010 Field Day, “Emerging Technologies in Organic Agriculture”, where the no-till vegetable trial was showcased.

  • June 4 and 9, 2010 – Field event hosted for PA Women in Agriculture (PA-WAgN) at RI.
  • May 27, 2010 – Presentation by RI researcher Alison Grantham on “Alternatives to Black Plastic” at the May 27th meeting of the Berks Agricultural Resource Network.

 

Conference Presentations:

Christine Ziegler

Sunday, November 20, 2011 – Wednesday, November 23, 2011

IA Organic Conference

November 21, 2011

Topic: Organic Vegetable Production using No-Till

 

Christine Ziegler

Tuesday, April 3, 2012 to Friday, April 6, 2012

SARE Veggie Talk

Lamberton, MN

 

Christine Ziegler

January 2013

SARE Vegetable Research

ASHS – Rutgers University

 

Jeff Moyer

7th Annual Organic Grain, Forage & Vegetable Workshop

Wye Mills, MD

March 6, 2012

Keynote Address – Organic Solutions to a Broken Food System

 

Jeff Moyer

Acres U.S.A. Conference

Louisville, KY

December 7, 2012

Organic No-Till Farming: State of the Art

December 8, 2012

Organic Production for the 21st Century

 

Jeff Moyer

Ag Progress Days

August 16, 2012

Transition to Organic Farming

 

Jeff Moyer

October 21, 2013 – October 30, 2013

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Presentation #1; Farming Systems Trial

Presentation #2; Organic No-till

 

Jeff Moyer

April 6, 2013

Beyond Pesticides Conference

Albuquerque, NM

Keynote Speaker

 

Jeff Moyer

April 11, 2012 to Thursday, April 12, 2012

Future Tense Conference

Washington, DC

Homegrown Solutions

 

Jeff Moyer

Iowa Organic Conference Iowa City, IA

November 19, 2012

Integration of Livestock and Cover Crops in Organic Systems

 

Jeff Moyer

IA Organic Conference

Ames, IA

November 21, 2011

Topic: Organic No-Till: What Can Work For Your System

                          

Jeff Moyer

May 24, 2012

The Lands at Hillside Farms/Penn Futures Event

 

Jeff Moyer

MOA Annual Conference 2012

St. Louis, MO

February, 2, 2012

Crop Rotation, No-Till Cultivation, Carbon Sequestration

 

Jeff Moyer

MOA Annual Conference 2013

Springfield, MO

February, 7, 2013

Maximizing Soil Fertility: No-Till Farming Techniques and Other Research on Enhancing Soil Fertility

 

Jeff Moyer

MOSES Conference and OFRF Board Meeting

La Crosse, WI

February 21, 2013 – Increase Crop Yields by 10%

February 23, 2013 – Rolling Rye for Organic No-Till Crops

 

Jeff Moyer

Montana Organic Association Conference

Helena, MT

November 30, 2012

Planning for the Millennium: Challenges and Opportunities panel

Montana Organic Dinner: Keynote speaker

 

Jeff Moyer

OEFFA Conference

Granville, OH

February 17, 2012

No Till, No Drill, No Problem: Integrating No-Till Methods, Into Organic Production Systems

February 18, 2012 – No-Till Organic Farming, Using Compost in Field Crop Systems, Cover Crops for Soil Fertility

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

Although we had some challenges, such as controlling weeds beyond 8 weeks after planting, climate and plant diseases, during the term of the project, we were able to demonstrate to our farmers that the use of cover crops had the potential to replace black plastic especially when rye+vetch was used for vegetable production. Rolling the cover crop could provide moderate soil temperature, has the potential to increase soil carbon over time, and increase profitability when compared to black plastic mulch. We were able to demonstrate and reach out to more people than we have anticipated, more farmers were very much interested to try and adopt the roller crimping technique. Integrating cover crops and terminating method using roller crimper will require more modification to fit the vegetable production system in order to produce higher yield and revenue. The extension agents were very interested, reached out to farmers and demonstrated the importance and use of cover crops.

Economic Analysis

Economic analysis was not conducted as part of these organic vegetable trials.

Farmer Adoption

Our project was very challenging and it was interesting at the same time. Working with collaborative farmers gave us an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of cover crops and tackle some of the issues that farmers had during the application of these treatments. In general, the weed suppression was not as long as expected. The farmers attended our field days, showcased their fields and shared the ups and downs they had but at the end of the project, they felt that there is a great potential for cover crops to replace black plastic especially when they used the roller crimper at the right time. Some farmers indicated that if they can just find a way to increase the marketable yield in cover crops that will reduce much of the non-degradable waste, energy used, and will free time for them to do some other things. We believe more research is needed on cover crop mixtures that suit the vegetable production window and those especially can provide longer weed suppression.

 

Over the life span of this grant funded work, at least 160 roller/crimpers were sold to farmers and growers by I & J Manufacturing who is the main builder and seller of this tool in the Northeast region. This outcome has far exceeded the milestone of encouraging 25 farmers to adopt the technology onto their farms, and it is a testament to the adaptability of the system and the usefulness of the allocated funds. Other roller/crimper builders may exist that are unknown to project collaborators, and farmers may also have built their own since the plans for building the roller/crimper are available for free on the Rodale Institute’s website. Several of the farmers who purchased roller/crimpers and are using the technology also loaned their equipment to neighbors to try the system on their farms. Of those sold to farmers, the size range is from 5 to 20 feet in length indicating that the roller/crimper is being applied to a diversity of crops and at scales of use from large acreage of grain to vegetable size operations.

 

The names and contact information for each of producers who purchased the equipment are maintained at the Rodale Institute and are not supplied with the public version of this report to protect their privacy.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

Research from this project revealed the need to develop earlier maturing cover crop varieties, for example, if vetch could be bred to reach pod-set stage by mid-May, timely to allow early planting of vegetables or even field grains. To overcome some barriers that farmers have, is the need for developing specific planters with some modifications and or attachments that can either successfully transplant or place seeds at the proper depth in high residue conditions and close the seed slot, even if the soil is moist.

 

Additionally, research is needed on evaluating cover crops such as rye+vetch and other cover crop options, over long term period, for a variety of vegetable crops to assess build-up of soil organic matter, weed suppression and vegetable yield. Studies on perfecting planting and rolling equipment timely will reduce cost of production, increase profits and increase adoption of using cover crop as one of the practices for sustainable crop production.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.