Did you know organically grown crops fare better during times of drought? And that organic crops can, in fact, yield as much or more than conventionally grown crops?
Jeff Moyer is well-versed in these questions and so much more after spending 40 years at the Rodale Institute, a non-profit agricultural research and outreach organization in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Today we speak with him about the research conducted at Rodale, including the side-by-side field studies on organic vs. conventional farming systems – research that has been ongoing for 35 years and which has yielded exciting results.
“We find so many exciting and fascinating results when we start looking at what happens when we change the health of the soil,” he says.
Jeff is an expert in organic cropping systems and weed management, and he wrote a book about organic no-till farming published in 2011, which has become an indispensable resource for organic farmers. He was with Rodale for four decades before becoming the organization’s executive director in 2015, and in that time, he’s helped so many farmers make the transition from conventional, chemical-based farming to organic methods.
There’s much more packed into this half-hour, so please click, learn and enjoy!
Interview with Jeff Moyer
March 7, 2016
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Welcome back to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m thrilled to be here with Jeff Moyer, the executive director of the nonprofit agricultural research and outreach organization, the Rodale Institute. Welcome, Jeff.
JEFF MOYER: Good morning, Anne. Pleasure to be here.
AO: Jeff is an expert in organic cropping systems and weed management, and he wrote a book about organic no-till farming, published in 2011. He was with Rodale for forty years before becoming the organization’s executive director. And in that time, he’s helped so many farmers make the transition from conventional, chemical-based farming to organic methods.
Jeff, there’s a lot going on at Rodale Institute. Tell us a little bit about what you’re working on.
JM: Oh, boy, we’re working on so many different things. As you mentioned, we’re a very diverse organization, so we have research, so we have on-plot, on-field research. So we have research scientists and technicians that are out in the world, out in the field, doing the kinds of, generating the kinds of information that farmers need to make the transition from what they’re doing today with chemical-based farming to organic farming.
What’s really interesting is that Bob Rodale, our founder’s son, was very adamant about saying that it’s not good enough to point out problems unless you have solutions. And the solutions in agriculture have to be science-based. So we created our own research station and we conduct research there. So that’s one arm of what we do.
AO: It’s a big one.
JM: It is a big one, and it’s a very important one. It’s an expensive one—it’s costly, because research takes a lot of funding. But that’s what we do.
We also have a very big outreach arm, because just generating information and putting it on the shelf isn’t good enough. We have to get it out into the hands of those people who can use it, and to consumers who want the information and want to know that farmers are on-track. So we have a very large outreach component to what we do as well—a very dynamic website. We do research on everything from honeybees to dairy animals; we have a hog operation; we do apples, we do vegetable crops, we do field crops like corn and soybeans.
AO: And the Rodale Institute is one of those hallmarks in organic farming, right? I mean, it’s one of those places that’s been around forever and people really respect. It’s a place that people go to look for information and resources and ideas. One of the things that Rodale has done is this thirty-year study—[we] call it a thirty-year study but it’s been longer than that now, I know.
JM: Yeah, it’s thirty-five years now.
AO: Thirty-five years. So can you talk about that study? It’s one of the ones that I know a lot of people draw on that work when they’re thinking about the benefits of an organic production system.
JM: Yeah. To get back to your earlier comment, I mean, a lot of people don’t know that organic has been around for a very long time. In fact, J.I. Rodale first published Organic Farming and Gardening way back in 1942. He started putting the word organic in front of the word agriculture approximately in 1938 and was really the first person in this country to do that. And so the industry has really grown out of what happened in J.I. Rodale’s mind and what was going on around the world as he looked at things happening leading up to World War II.
From that, we jump forward to our Farming Systems Trial that you mentioned. And what happened in 1980, the USDA did a study under Garth Youngberg that looked at what Rodale was saying and said, well, if that’s true, why aren’t more farmers doing it? So way back, you know, thirty, forty years ago we already were asking those questions. And what came out from farmers was this concept that we needed more scientific-based research. And so we created this long-term Farming Systems Trial that would compare conventional agriculture to organic systems to see how organic really fared in terms of productivity, but also to see what happens to the soil as we transition from one farming method to another. Could we impact the health of the soil? So while the Farming Systems Trial started as an agronomic experiment, it quickly morphed into a soils experiment, and that’s what we’ve been working on since then. And we’ve gotten a lot of exciting information—over fifty peer-reviewed journal articles, so we know there’s a lot of science behind what we’re saying.
And it has spawned other such projects, like the long-term trial that the USDA now runs at their Beltsville, Maryland, station; here in Wisconsin there’s a long-term trial that’s run by the University of Wisconsin; there’s one at Iowa State. And they all started by following what was happening at the Rodale Institute, to see and document if the results that we were seeing were being seen in other areas of the country by other researchers as well.
AO: So other people are trying to replicate this work. And I know that one of the very important things that has been found in this study is that organic crops fare better in drought conditions. Can you talk just a little bit about that?
JM: Sure. I mean, we find so many exciting and fascinating results when we start looking at what happens when we change the health of the soil. When we change the soil we change the plants’ interaction with the soil; we change the soil’s interaction with water. And if you look at what we’re doing in the alternative agricultural world, in conventional agriculture we’ve created this crop insurance program to try and support farmers when droughts come along. At the Rodale Institute we’re much more interested in drought-proofing the soils so we mitigate the problem of climate change simply by changing the way we farm. So that’s been pretty exciting.
We’ve also found that it takes 45 percent less energy to grow the same amount of crops when you farm organically. That’s because there’s a lot of energy embedded in the inputs that come onto a conventional farm, and those all have to be accounted for in the production of the food. We don’t have those inputs, those external inputs in organic farming so we don’t have to pay that energy bill.
We’re also more profitable because customers and consumers are recognizing the value of organic food. And when you buy organic food, you’re paying the true cost of that production, right at the point of purchase, so there’s no external costs or costs that are pushed off to some other mechanism in the tax structure, like crop insurance, which really should be covered at the point of purchase when you purchase food, but it’s not.
AO: Another thing that happens is environmentally, when you improve the soil, there are benefits there as well: runoff, water retention. Can you talk about that?
JM: Sure. When you look at the microbiology of the soil, which is really a key component of the health of the soil, when we use chemical, salt-based fertilizers and herbicides to grow crops, we inadvertently kill off the microbiology of the soil. It’s not the intended action that farmers are taking—they don’t want to do that, it just happens; it’s an unintended consequence. When you destroy the biology of the soil you destroy the soil’s ability to interact with water, and we get a lot more soil erosion because the soil doesn’t stick together. A lot of that microbial life in the soil actually forms a glue that holds soil particles together, keeps them in place in the field. When they’re not there, the soil washes away.
AO: So this is, in practical terms, if you’re a farmer and you’re getting a lot of rain, the runoff from your field is going to be clear if you’re an organic farmer, in many cases, if your soil is healthy and strong.
JM: Well, two things will happen when it rains. Because we’re building up the organic matter content of the soil, the soil is actually getting darker in color—it’s much more of a rich chocolate brown instead of a light brown. As we build up that carbon, when it does rain we hold the water, so the water that falls on the surface gets retained. If you have a heavy rain and too much does run off, yes, then it would be clear because the soil is staying in place. So the reason our streams look like chocolate milk, as you said, is not because we’re farming them; it’s because of the way we’re farming them.
AO: Right. So it’s not, it doesn’t have to be that way.
JM: It doesn’t have to be that way. And we could still have all the food we want and need.
AO: And so we’ve got healthy, nutritious, and delicious food; we’ve got environmental benefits; we’ve got better drought resistance; we’ve got a better price. Yes, so I look at all these things and I think, well why isn’t there…why is anyone doing it differently?
JM: Well, there’s a lot of factors that come into play. Some of them are sociological because we’ve got rural communities that for the last seventy years have been based on a production system that is not organic. To make that change and that transition can be challenging. We also have a lot of infrastructure that’s been artificially held in place, like crop insurance, like a banking industry that doesn’t understand organic mechanisms; family structures that don’t want to make change. And all these building blocks are in place to hold the status quo. And organic is really trying to break down those barriers, break down those walls, and say there’s a better way, there’s a different way to produce food and we should really take a look at it because we really, it’s a win-win situation, as you mentioned. The environment wins, consumers win, and farmers win.
AO: Yeah, everybody’s going to do it the way that they do it. But what you’re saying is there’s a lot of things in place that keep people farming the way that they’ve been farming, and it’s hard, particularly, I think, for larger operations, right, to make a shift to an organic production method.
JM: Yeah, I mean, some of it has to do with family structure. You know, if you have a younger person wanting to take over the family operation and the family farm operation, what the older generation hears from them isn’t “Hey, there’s something new and exciting I want to try.” What they hear is “Everything you’ve done is wrong and I’m going to set you straight.” That’s not what’s being said, but that’s what’s being heard. So there’s a lot of conversations that take place across the dinner table about that.
But you’re right, there are really two transitions that take place when we shift from a conventional program into an organic program. And the one transition takes place, it’s biological. It takes place in the soil or around the animals. The other is the transition of the farmer and the farm family themselves. And, as you mentioned, some farmers today are coming into organic because they want to capture some of the premium dollars that are being available to them.
When I started organic farming, it was really done from a philosophical perspective, which is what happened back in the 1970s. But as people got into organic, even back then, we realized that we had to be able to make money to survive. It is a business and we have to run it as a business. And so today you have people coming from the business side, but they recognize that in order to stay in the marketplace they really have to buy into the philosophy. Consumers are very astute at determining and seeing through people who don’t really believe in what they’re doing. And so we all end up at the same place. We capture the philosophy and the business sense to stay in place and support the consumers with food that they want and need.
AO: So there’s a big push. You know, everyone from Target to Publix to all across the mainstream grocery store scene, people want in on this. And so we are needing more organic farmers. So the focus that Rodale has on helping people convert from conventional to organic is very timely, very necessary in the industry, of course. And so what are some of the strategies that you’ll be using to help people, and have used for many years to help people pencil it out: Does it make sense? How does it work for our farm?
JM: Well, I mean, you’re absolutely right. Consumers can go into any point of purchase to buy food, whether it’s a local convenience store or a supermarket or many restaurants and order something that is organic. And what’s exciting to me is that we’re starting to see a real broad spectrum and diversity of products. You can buy almost anything you want, from pet food to meat products, dairy, and vegetables. Processed products of every shape and size are now all available in organic. So that’s really exciting.
What it does mean is there’s a huge demand and pressure on farmers to transition to organic and get them involved in the production side. Demand is outstripping supply. In the short term, what we’re doing is we’re going overseas to get product and bringing it into this country. But a lot of people would prefer to buy something more local, or at least something produced here in the United States. So we need more farmers to transition.
We’ve got a couple of strategies that we’re going to be putting in place in the near future. The first one is that we’re going to be creating some mini Rodale Institutes out around the country. There’s a reason that a small state like Pennsylvania is number three in terms of organic production, and that’s because Rodale Institute is there. Wisconsin’s not a large state, but it’s number five in the nation because a great organization like Organic Valley is there, and it’s a hub of activity and it’s a hub of information and knowledge exchange.
We know that farmers learn from other farmers. They teach each other how to do things. They respect the information they get from farmers. And so what we want to do is create sort of mini Rodale Institutes out in the countryside. We’re looking at trying to create two this year, if we can. Again, research is expensive, but we want to do some research and demonstration areas in the regions where we know farmers are interested in transitioning.
For example, we’re looking at Memphis, Tennessee, right now. Right now there’s about 13 million acres in the Memphis, Tennessee, area that are going to be transitioning to something over the next ten to twenty years, simply because farmers are aging. The average age of a farmer in the United States is slowly approaching 59; it’s 58.6 or something like that, and just a few years ago it was 54. So we know it’s the same people farming the same land. And regardless of what they think, no one lives forever, and so we know that that land is going to change management. The average age of a landowner is actually approaching 70 because we have older people who own the land; a lot of land is rented by this aging farm population.
So what’s this land going to transition into? Certainly organic makes a lot of sense. But we know we need information and knowledge exchange in the region so we can be very site-specific. Farming is a local activity no matter how you look at it, and so what works in Pennsylvania doesn’t necessarily work in Tennessee or Montana or Illinois. We have to adjust and get some knowledge out there.
AO: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor. I’m here today with Jeff Moyer, the executive director of the Rodale Institute and a longtime researcher and educator of organic farming practices.
So I know there are several groups around the country trying to address this issue of the graying of the American farmer. And so you say in Tennessee 13 million acres, and I know that each state has a number like that, many, many acres that over the next ten years we’re going to see something happen to. So the graying of the American farmer is really an issue that’s happening all over the country.
And it is inspiring to see young people become so involved in the food system. They want to know where their food comes from; they want to be assured that it’s clean food; organic is definitely a value; local is a value. And young people are looking for direction at how to get to some of this land that’s out there and will be turning over. What would you say to a young person who wants to farm, has no land, doesn’t have the startup costs? What kinds of things can they do to jump in?
JM: Well, like you, we’re very encouraged by the energy that young people are bringing to the agricultural scene today. Several years ago we didn’t see that kind of interest. But I think millennials really do share a different value system among themselves that my generation didn’t. And we’re seeing that in large food companies that aren’t organic, as they shift and change and try to refigure out how to market to a more value-driven population. They’re not shopping strictly on price. They want value for what they’re trying to do. So as young people come into agriculture, they are excited about the potential that organic brings.
Organic is not a farming-by-recipe model. It’s constant learning, it’s challenging, it’s a great opportunity for young people. Certainly farming is a capital-intensive business, and for them to be able to launch a business that requires so much capital can be challenging. But if you look around the country, we see more educational and training programs for young people, so young people can go out and get the knowledge that they need. The Rodale Institute, in fact, has many learning opportunities for farmers or for training new farmers. If you go through some of our programs in particular we guarantee that we’ll place you on a farm to get out there. There’s a lot of farmers who want to transition away from their farm and they’re looking for young people to come in. So we can work a transition process, get people on the ground, get them working, and then eventually take over the operation.
Long-term, what we really need to look at in this country is mechanisms to get people into agricultural where they can be supported with a decent salary. And they may never own the land that they’re farming—it may always be a rental opportunity. But we aren’t looking for tenant farmers who work their whole life and end up with nothing. That doesn’t make sense. We have to figure out a way socially to get the people who produce our food to get an equity position in the operations that they’re farming. And that all needs to be worked out across the country, and there’s many different people looking at models that can work there. But we know that people who work in large industries don’t actually own the industry when they retire, but they make a decent living and they can buy a house and a car and put their children in college, and the kinds of things that people want to do. We have to bring agriculture to that level as well.
AO: Right. We’ve gone from the 1950s and ’60s, where there were many, many more farms, thousands more farms than there are today. And so the farms that are left, they too will be transitioning sometime, as we have had said, in the next decade. So what happens next is a critical moment in our food system.
JM: It is, and many people who grew up on farms don’t want to be farmers. And we have many people who want to farm that don’t have the land and don’t have the resources to purchase the land. And we as a nation have to figure out a mechanism to get them involved and encourage them to do what they’re doing, and what they want to do.
AO: It’s like a big agricultural shakeup.
JM: It is. It’s an exciting time in agriculture, very exciting.
AO: It is. I want to talk about communication a little bit with you. One of the things that’s hard when we talk about organic farming sometimes is how to differentiate organic farming without disparaging other farms. And so we choose to farm organically because we think it’s the best method, just like anybody does anything because they think it’s the best way to do it.
JM: Language is very powerful, and we use it every day to convey our emotions and our ideas and thoughts. And the same thing is true when we’re talking about agriculture. We have to be careful about the words we use. One of the things that the Rodale Institute has always prided itself on is that we’ve never disparaged conventional farmers, or farmers who are farming with chemicals, for what they’ve done. Farmers in general have done what they’ve been asked to do. They were asked to produce the cheapest food they could possibly produce, with some disregard to the resources that were being used to do it. That wasn’t part of the equation. They weren’t rewarded for improving the soil. They weren’t rewarded for environmental concerns until recently. And so they’ve done what we’ve asked them to do.
Now, as a society, we have to reinvent what we ask them to do. And we know that there are many other benefits that farming can bring to the community in terms of environmental protection—cleaning up streambanks, protecting the welfare of our animals… It’s not meat at the cheapest price. And so if there are new values being brought to the table, then certainly agricultural professionals have to, and will, step up and make the adjustments.
What organic agriculture does is it creates a nice platform, a launching pad, to have those conversations. We’re fortunate that we have a USDA standard and a regulation that isn’t based on what organic isn’t but what organic is. So it’s not a matter of saying “We don’t do this, we don’t do that.” It’s what we do instead, and that’s a very powerful statement. And so, as you mentioned, language is important, and it’s important that we have an open dialogue with ourselves in the farm community, and that there’s a place for customers and consumers to have a voice in that conversation as well, because they are the people who pay for everything, in one way, shape, or form.
AO: In the end, they’re the ones who are driving what kinds of systems we are going to be using, right? The end consumer is voting with their dollar every day about what they want to support.
JM: Well, that’s right. And many times, I mean, everybody is busy in whatever their life is, whether it’s raising your family or doing your job, whatever that might be. And you alluded to the fact that very few people, in terms of percent of the population, are currently involved in agriculture, and so they don’t think about it every day. But they do have a voice, and they do vote with their dollars. And they really should become aware of how those votes and choices impact what happens on a farm. And they can impact that.
I always tell twelve-year-old kids that they can change the way wheat is produced simply by ordering organic pizza. If every twelve-year-old went to the pizza parlor and said, “I only want organic pizza,” pretty soon the pizza parlors would say, “We need organic wheat.” The way wheat is produce would change overnight just to supply kids. So kids have power. We all have that power when we purchase food. And we just have to tell people what it is we want, and farmers will step up to the plate and produce it.
AO: That’s a great story because, you know, it’s at the point of contact, right? You tell the pizza guy, you tell the grocery store, you tell the lady at the café—
JM: “I’m not going to shop here unless you have what I want.” If everybody does that, it will change.
AO: And it is changing. It’s a growing, growing—
JM: It is changing. Well, and people are beginning to formulate the link between the way we manage the soil and their own personal health. Again, back in 1942, J.I. Rodale prophetically said, “Healthy soil equals healthy food, equals healthy people.” I don’t think he realized how important that statement was, but what he was really telling us as farmers is our job is not to produce food—it’s to produce healthy people. And we can only do that if we manage the soil differently. So we have to think about that as farmers and begin to change how we produce food. And consumers are demanding it, and that’s what’s exciting.
AO: A consumer, you know, maybe starting with milk—you know, you buy organic milk. And maybe you can’t afford, or think that you’re not convinced necessarily that you want to go all organic, but you don’t just necessarily overnight change to eating all organic foods. But maybe you start, right?
JM: That’s right.
AO: Maybe you buy one thing at a time.
JM: Yeah. We know that a lot of people start purchasing organic products when they have children, and they want to give their children the very best. Don’t we all? And they say, “Well, if organic seems to be better, why would I take the risk and feed them conventional carrots?” or something like that, something that was grown in the ground, when we know children just want to grab them and munch on them. So let’s get them an organic product. And then eventually, over time, they grow into a more organic diet completely.
I have a friend who has a dairy farm and he transitioned his farm to an organic farm. And what he noticed was, over a period of about a year and a half, he no longer needed the veterinarian. The veterinarian didn’t come to his farm—his cows were healthier. And then his wife said to him one day, “You know, I’ve noticed the vet doesn’t come anymore to our farm.” He said, “Yeah, isn’t that a good thing?” She said, “Yes, but we don’t feed our children a hundred percent organic food. Don’t we love our children more than the cows?” And he said, “Well, of course we do!” He said, “Let’s start feeding them organic food.” And she said, “Have you priced organic fruit lately?” And he said, “No.” He said, “Well, our children love fruit,” so he said, “Now I’m planting an organic orchard so that I can feed my children fruit, because of course we love our children more than the cows and we want them to be healthy.”
So we see a direct correlation between the health of animals and the health of people from the food we eat. We see that with cancer patients. Often doctors tell them to get on an organic diet. Shouldn’t we be on an organic diet before we get cancer? Why wait? We know that high-quality food and good exercise will keep us healthy. Let’s get on that road now. And organic really helps lead the way.
AO: Where could our listeners go to learn more about Rodale and what you do there?
JM: Well, the easiest way to get our information is go directly to our website, www.rodaleinstitute.org, and they’ll find a ton of information and ways that they can interact with the institute, the way they can learn from us, and the way they can donate to sponsor the work that we do.
AO: Today’s guest was Jeff Moyer, executive director of the Rodale Institute. Thank you so much for joining us today, Jeff.
JM: A real pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
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