Loran Steinlage, West Union, IA -20th of June 2015

imageToday I have spent the day and evening with Loran Steinlage of West Union, North East Iowa. Loran is a corn farmer, who also grows soya beans and this year some wheat. Plus a few other  diversifications on the go.

When I first arrived the weather was rubbish so we had a tour around the machinery shed. Loran is one of those people who won’t spend money on new machinery unless he can’t make it himself and he seems to be able to make most things. Even things he does buy in seem to get chopped up and re welded how he wants.

His corn and beans are strip till and below is a picture of his strip till rig. He is also CTF.

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The interesting thing for me on both his strip till rig and drill were the discs

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These discs are designed by a local company and a supposed to cut residue better. This drill has cost Loran less than $10,000 where as a new John Deere the same size would be nearly $100,000.

Also in the back of his shed was another one of his creations a rock roller. He has large rocks which he doesn’t want entering the combine and so rolls the ground

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The other interesting thing I had never seen was they receive seed in a plastic box which sits on a platform on the planter and seed is fed out the bottom. No bags needed.

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After lunch Loran gave me the grand tour of Iowa. We drove for about 100 miles. Our main destination was Norman Bourlag’s home place. Norman Bourlag’s was the father of modern wheat and is credited with reducing hunger and saving millions of lives through his wheat breeding. Loran had organised a personal tour around the site

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The irony is that Bourlag was bought up in Iowa that now grows virtually no wheat, it is dominated by corn. One of the only couple of fields of wheat in the area was Loran’s

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He is growing it for a few reasons but it is an experiment. The grand tour continued and we saw this set up

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This is the feed mill area for a huge hog operation. Things are large scale in Iowa.

After the grand tour the weather had improved and so we got out into the field to kick some clods. Loran last year experimented with inter seeding cover crops into corn. He found he has had a yield bump of about 15 bushels per acre in the following crop and the interseeded area has the highest soil health scores when tested. The day before Loran had interseeded some radish into the corn and it had already germinated .

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There was also clover left from the previous year in corn on corn

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Another trial he was doing was planting corn and soya beans together

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Apparently in trials the corn with the Soyabean with no added N has out yielded corn alone with full fertilisation.

He was also trialling out a new cover crop, can you guess what it is?

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Loran seemed to be enjoying himself playing around and trialling different things and seemed to be a lone voice in the area for these practices. I look forward to see what else he gets up to in the future. Good luck Loran and thanks to you and your wife for your hospitality

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Bob Recker, Waterloo, IA – 19th June 2015

So yesterday I spent the whole day with Bob Recker of Cedar Valley Innovation in Waterloo.

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Waterloo is the home to the John Deere tractor factory and Bob is a retired engineer. He also invited a friend Jack Boyer to come along is is also a retired John Deere Engineer. I got the feeling that Jack and Bob are guys that are now retired but are busier than before. The reason that Bob was Recommended to me was because of his work on Strip Intercropping, which in simple terms is having one strip of corn then one of soya beans. (Picture below is from Corn and Soyabean Digest)

 

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Bob had found that the outside rows of each strip of corn he could increase the seed rate from 34,000 to 50,000 seeds and get a large jump in yield. This yield increase would diminish in the second row in and again in the third

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The outside rows would yield about 400 bushels of corn and when the control would be yielding about 200 bushels. The Soyabean yields would take a slight hit due to shading but they thought there was about a $100 per acre overall benefit. The benefit they thought came from the increased amount of sunlight on the outside rows and also increase ventilation keeping the corn cooler and so it matured slower. The problem comes on how do you manage a strip on a field scale when a 3m strip was the ideal width. This was not such a problem when you could control weeds using just Round up with Round up ready corn and soya beans but now there is widespread round up resistant weeds which need herbicide mixtures to control them which would kill either the corn or the soya bean. So now Bob has taken the idea and changed it around. He is now testing in fields options to mimic strip intercropping and seeing what is viable. First idea is to shut off one row of corn

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The loss of one row is more than made up in increase yield. These missing rows would allow farmers to enter their corn all through the season which is not possible once the corn gets to a certain height.

The next idea is to stick to four rows but instead of corn Do something else with the strip.

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Bob thinks that hopefully the bare ground would be compensated by the increase yield of the strip. The issue is what to do with the strip? Plant a cover crop for fertility and soil erosion is a possibility as leaving it bare would encourage weeds. This is a work in progress and Bob admits the biggest challenge he has is to convince any farmer to leave half his field empty! Also he is not sure whether the benefits are different for different varieties. He thinks that the use of robots will allow this idea to become practical. (Bob has a patent for a robotic tractor)

Working on strip intercropping has lead Bob into other areas of research and agriculture. As he was measuring yield of each row by weighing each individual cob he noticed that there was huge variation within the row in yield and he wondered what was causing this variation. So one thing Bob has done is use time lapse photography to watch corn emergence and take this through to yield.

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Delayed emergence in corn has a huge impact on final yield. This coupled with Bob taking aerial photography pictures of corn crops from a thousand feet has led him to consult with farmers to understand the huge in field variation in plant yields from field scale down to individual plants and to try to understand this variation. A lot can been seen from the air that can’t be seen from the ground. Bob is also now using drones to compliment his aerial photography. Along with this is also planting trial plots, talks at farmer meetings and cycles for miles, so busy!

Bob’s friend Jack Boyer is also supposed to be retired joined us for the day. Jack is now a farmer and does research for people like The Practical Farmers of Iowa. We went to Jack’s farm to see one of his trials. He was trialling the use of cereal rye as a cover crop and varying termination dates. So his plots had no cover, cover terminated 10 days before planting and cover terminated a day after planting and he was wanting to see the effect on soya bean yields. The unexpected thing to come out of the trial is the weed pressure difference.

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On the left is the soya beans with no cover. The extra green is weeds and especially round up resistant waterhemp. The difference is huge!

Below is the difference between late termination and no cover

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Jack is now going to leave some plots unsprayed and count the difference in weeds. For him where waterhemp is becoming a big problem this development is huge.

Jack is also experimenting with establishing cereal rye in the standing corn. In Iowa because there is little time between harvest and winter drilling cover crops after harvest is not very successful. So Jack has rigged up his sidedress toolbar bar with a seeder box and splash plates and seeds the rye when he is side dressing his nitrogen. The shank gives enough soil movement to give soils to seed contact.

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This seems to be working very well

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Yesterday I spent 13 hours with Bob and Jack and have forgetten more than I have remembered. I had a really great day with them and found their passion inspiring. Thanks to them for giving up their time and keep up the good work.

Gregg Sanford, Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial (WISCT) – 18th of June 2015

This afternoon I met with Gregg Sanford of the University of Wisconsin at their Arlington Research Station. This is where they have their cropping systems trial. ( http://www.WICST.wisc.edu )

This trial was started in 1990 and was designed to look at many factors of different farming systems effects on soil, economics, yield and other environmental factors.

There are six systems they are running. Three grain systems: conventional continuous corn,

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no till corn soya bean rotation (these are drilled no till soya beans)

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and organic corn, soya bean, wheat.

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Then there are three forage systems: three years of alfalfa and one year corn, ( this is drilled first year alfalfa)

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organic oats underseeded with alfalfa, two years of alfalfa then corn. ( this is forage oats and alfalfa just been cuimage

Then one permanent pasture system, which Gregg is standing in front of in the first picture. There is a dairy on site and they return manure to the plots before corn. They try to treat each plot separately as a field as a farmer would.

They have had some interesting results. The pasture system is the only one that the carbon in the top few inches has stabilised in terms of the amount of C. All the rest have lost carbon over time. All of the systems have lost carbon from the depths of two to four feet. They think there is a few reasons for this. One could be climate. The other is that in the annual systems the carbon is not being replenished at depth as there are not many roots there. Even in the pasture system the roots are not as deep as the original prairie grass. Even the deep rooting alfalfa has not replenished this carbon as the roots are course and not fine. They reckon when this land was first tilled out of prairie they lost 50% of the soil carbon in the first decade or so.

In terms of yields the continuous corn yield about 180 bushels but the corn in the alfalfa rotation yields 220 bushels and the organic corn about 215 bushels.

In terms of economics the organic systems and the forage systems have the best return. The organic systems as their is a premium for the produce and the pasture system as the overheads are so low (no need for expensive machinery)

They have done many studies on the trial which can be found on their website. They also have included a plot of native prairie grasses to see the effects on the soil.

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Gregg has recently been to the UK for a conference on systems trials at Newcastle University. It seems that systems research is becoming more recognised which is great for us farmers as it should give us more relevant results for out in the field.

Thanks to Gregg for the visit. It was a shame is was short as I am sure we could have chatted for ages .

Leilani Zimmer-Durand, Midwestern BioAg , Avoca, Wi – 18th June 2015

Today I was lucky enough to visit with Leilani Zimmer-Durand who works for Midwestern BioAg the company her father Gary Zimmer set up. We had a look around the family farm along with her collegue Tracey and two interns. So I spent the morning with four young ladies! The Zimmer’s farm has been organic I think since about 1995. It is a dairy and crop farm. Wisconsin is America’s Dairyland but in the last few decades the number of dairy farmers has fallen from 200,000 to 10,000 in the state, the number of cows has remained the same. Their farm in on high Magnesium soils in the wooded rolling hills of Wisconsin.

Their general roatation would be 2-3 years of Alfalfa, two corn crops and then soya beans.Firstly we were lucky enough to see their farm worker rotary hoeing their organic sweetcorn

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This is what the crop looked after hoeing

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This is the rotary hoe close up

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This field will be cultivated another two times. Four times in total I think. Speaking to their worker he was talking about corn borer and that all he has done in the past is add turpentine to the bags of seed and gets no problems. Sounds cheaper than trained BT corn seed! They also grow organic corn and they get 180 bushels from 60 units of nitrogen ( fish and chicken manure) the rule of thumb is one pound of nitrogen gives you one bushel of corn. They are achieving it with one to three! They cover crop before corn with legumes and cereal rye. They like to mulch the rye in when green and shin height. They find this gives them great biological activity and nitrogen boost even though the rye is not a legume.

Then we went to see some conventional planted organic soya beans that had just been cultivated.

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After that we went to see some organic no till soya beans planted into cereal rye that was crimped will a roller. This is the second year they had tried this.

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The really interesting this was that next to the seed row where the rye had been parted and their was bare ground there was some weeds coming. Underneath the mulch there was no weeds but lots of moisture and biological activity ( apologies for the thumb)

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The yield last year was only 2-3 bushels down on the tilled system but obviously the costs were much lower.

They were also growing wheat which is rare now in the Midwest. It is a variety from Germany. It is the first year of growing it. There is a huge premium for organic winter wheat in the area.

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They have previously frost seeded red clover and planted barley with it and grown that for forage. Also triticale and peas. They are always trying something new.

In their alfalfa field they also plant it with grasses. The interesting thing is that now their Calcium levels are up they have to increase the seeding rate of the grasses as they do not grow well in high calcium but do in high magnesium, BG control in the UK?

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It was a cracking crop of Lucerne.

The interns that we I spent the morning with were spending the afternoon soil sampling. So the discussion got onto soil sampling protocol. I was releived to hear that they take about 20 cores per field and mix them up and do that once every four years. Exactly what I do. No use of grid patterns, GPS or W shapes, keep it simple!

I had a great morning with the ladies and was interested to see the farm I had read about in “The Biological Farmer”. Thank you to Leilani for her time and for lunch. (It wasn’t burgers which was a relief!)

Dawn Equipment, Sycamore, Illinois – 17th June 2015

This afternoon I actually had no appointments booked but knew that Dawn equipment were close by so I stopped for lunch and just popped into their factory on the off chance. Dawn equipment are a company that construct various add ons to planters including row cleaners and the cover crop rollers I saw at Lucas’s. Their latest launch is Dawn Biologic and their corn  Interseeder. I had seen at Steve Groff’s the crops that had been interseeded but not the machine. Luckily they were just getting one ready for demo as I got there

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This has not been released yet but they are sending some out on demo for development. The idea is to plant cover crops between the rows of corn so the cover is established early and is ready to go when harvest happens. This is particularly useful in more northern areas where there is little chance for establishment after harvest. This operation is carried out when the corn is knee high.

The machine is very simple and light on purpose. It is mounted on the three point linkage of a tractor

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The down pressure is run on air and their is wheels in the front for contour following. The box holds about 6 bushels of seed.

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It is a double disc opener. There is no depth wheel so that is done on the closing wheel. That is why there is a groove in the wheel so their is not too much pressure over the seed. They are going to be selling the units separately so farmers can make their own tool bar. The idea is for it to be affordable and adaptable. The units can be run at different depths and widths and can go as deep as three inches. There is the option to add liquid fert and they think there will be tool bars upto 12-16 units per tool bar. So about 50 feet wide at the most. A great concept and it was good to see one in the flesh. They also mentioned that thought this kind of thing could become mandatory due to regulation.

Russel Higgins, Northern Ilinois Agronomy Research Centre – 17th June 2015

So when I finished my last post I was waiting for my flight to Philidelphia. I had a 50 minute window at Philidelphia to change terminals and connect to my Chicago flight. The Harrisburg plane was there but there was no crew, they were on another plane! So my window kept going down and I was starting to get worried. Once the plane got to Philadelphia I had a long run between flights, I wanted some exercise to run off all the American food but didn’t need the stress too. Once I reached Chicago, I picked up my car and went to my motel. Not the nicest place, not sure the no smoking signs had been adhered too! Also when I woke up there was a dead cockroach on my floor. Lesson learnt, don’t go for the cheapest option!

This morning my first meeting was with Russel Higgins in Shabbona about an hour from Chicago

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Chicago has been very wet recently and this morning was no different as it poured down while I travelled there.there is lots of water lying in low places in fields

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I found Russel by looking up intercropping on the Internet as they have been intercropping pumpkins with corn. What they do is plant the pumpkins which attracts the Western Root Beetle which is a major pest, so they have a good population to then do trials on.

Also at the centre they do herbicide trials where they actually plant the weeds as seen in rows below

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They do trials for chemical companies but they are not allowed to tell farmers the results!

We chatted about water issues in the UK and the US and they are facing major challenges here. The water that comes off these fields end up in the Mississippi and then the Gulf of Mexico, which has the dead zone due to nitrates. At the moment Des Moines city are taking farmer run drainage boards to court over nitrate pollution and the costs they incur removing them. If they are successful this could have major implications nationwide. This will mean that authorities could have control over what farmers apply and how they apply it and also impose restrictions.

At the moment cover crops and no till are not widely practiced in the area. In the spring the soils ( which are fantastic) are damp and cold so no till seems to struggle. Also in the last few years their harvest has been late and so their has been little chance to get covers established. This means they have struggled in their trials to show a yield benefit. Also the soils are very forgiving and productive and farmers are struggling to see the need to change. Russel thinks this change will come eventually but through regulation.

Also technically they can plant crops right to the top of ditch banks

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Though many waterway banks do have conservation ground next to them which they get paid for.

Russel is an Extension Agent and these agencies are coming under pressure from govt as they need to justify their funding. They are like the old ADAS but now farmers can get info from many other places and the Internet, they really have to prove their value.

It was a really good morning chatting to Russel and getting an insight into the challenges of farming in       Illinois. Their problems are very similar to ours. Farmers rents have gone up as the commodity prices rose but have not gone down as they have dropped, they have a massive regulatory pressure coming in the future. The one thing we don’t have is RR Palmer Amaranth, this weed is now in Illinois and seems to be the one that everybody fears. There are also about another seven RR weeds in the state.

Thank you very much to Russel. It was great to get an insiders view of local agriculture.

Lucas Criswell, Lewisburg, PA. 16th of June 2015

I am currently in Harrisburg Airport waiting to fly. I have just dropped off one car, I now have two flights which end up in Chicago and then I have to pick up another car and drive to my hotel and hopefully be there by midnight. So there is plenty of room for a balls up but at least I was not flying to Chicago last night as they had tornado warnings and flash flooding!

Today I have spent the day with Lucas Criswell a farmer in Pennsylvania.

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Lucas and I have a lot in common. We are a similar age, our other halves are primary school teachers, our fathers let us get on with it and we both enjoy trying mad things on the farm which other people tell us won’t work.

The first field we looked at next to Lucas’s house was a field of non GMO corn planted with untreated seed into waist high cover crop of rye, vetch and other things.

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Corn normally has a neonicotinoid seed dressing on but Lucas has been working with Penn State University and they have found that if a slug eating beetle eats a slug that has eaten a dressed seed or plant it sends the beetle into neurological shock and it eventually dies, which is obviously not what you want and leads to worse slugs problem. The one problem he has found of using non GMO seed is that the vigour is not a consistent and can lose some plants. So he is thinking of looking at organic seed lines which have been bred with better vigour for low input systems. He has also found using this seed he has to plant later and make sure the ground is warm but the crops catch up and his yields are good for the area.

Below is a 60 foot strip of corn where Lucas has not used any herbicide.

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The majority of the rye will die from the rolling and there are some vetch coming back but they should be an excellent companion. There was a few weeds but nothing to worry about. This strip will not get any herbicide. In terms of nitrogen he gas managed to reduce his fertiliser by one third through the covers and no till.

Below is a picture of his soya beans

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Yes there are soya beans there you have to look closer

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Still not sure they are there?

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Now you can see them. They are planted into cereal rye which is not rolled. He plants his soya beans early and uses short season varieties so he can get a cover crop in afterwards but he still gets the same yield. He plants the soya beans when the rye is about shin height and let’s them grow together and only takes out the rye later.

Lucas is also growing Rye, peas and canola together as a crop. He also put some Lucerne and Crimson clover out there to bulk out the seed.

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The peas and canola gave struggled this year but he put no nitrogen on them and will try some N next year.

Below is a strip of corn where he has tried mowing the rye to kill it instead of using a herbicide.

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Penn State are doing trials on his farm for slugs and comparing rolling cover and killing early. You can see the rolled rye in the back ground. The interesting thing was the only slug damage was on the corn that had no cover over winter.

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The other interesting thing they have found is slugs lose weight eating corn so they would rather not eat it, so you need to give them alternative food sources.

We then went to see some no till pumpkins where he has planted a pollinator strip to try and reduce insecticide usage. Pumpkins apparently need a lot of looking after!

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Finally we went to the machinery shed. Below is the roller on his planters he uses to roll the rye at planting time

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Today was a great visit with Lucas and a really enjoyable time. Keep up the good work!

Steve Groff, Cover Crop Solutions, Holtswood PA. – 15th June 2015

My second visit of the day was Steve Groff’s farm. Steve is best known as the man who brought Tillage Radish to the cover crop market. I was shown around the farm by Steve and his two cover crop researchers Randy and Dan. Steve has about 700 different research plots on the farm at the moment and works with Dr Ray Weil or University of Maryland and other scientists

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The weather had got very hot and sticky so no apologies for the hat!

Steve has been experimenting with inter seeding cover crops into corn using a Dawn interseeder. The idea is that the cover crop is better established before the winter hits.

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Above is a picture of where the cover crop was interseeded last week. Only some is currently emerged. The cover crop  mix is their Charlotte mix of radish triticale and Crimson clover, they are also trying other mixes too. The corn rows are 30 inches and then their are two rows of interseeded cover crops 10 inches apart.

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They were also doing work on nitrogen payback to try to understand an amount of Nitrogen that is guaranteed to be returned from the cover crops. No easy at all! Dr Ray Weil was also doing deep nitrogen tests to see how far down cover crops scavenge nitrogen and which ones are the best. They seem to get scavenging nitrogen from down as far as 6-7 foot and it seems that oats and radish are the best two for doing this at depth. They though are still waiting for the results.

Steve’s son has the same curiosity as Steve and at the age of 18 is doing his own experiments. Below is pictures of winter wheat on 15 inch rows which he drilled soya beans into the wheat and will harvest the wheat at the beginning of July and the beans later in the year. It is a first time so a steep learning curve.

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Finally we saw Steve’s no-till pumpkins, something he was told wasn’t possible. The pumpkins are drilled into a heavy cover crops which keeps the off the ground which leads to easy harvest and better quality. They had only just been planted

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It was a great and interesting afternoon even if a bit hot and sticky. Thank you for Steve and his team for showing me around.

Rodale Institute, Kutztown, PA – 13th June 2015

My first visit of my North America trip was to Rodale Institute Experimental Farm. Rodale is a charity and the aims of the Institute is to research and communicate best practice in Sustainable Agriculture. I had read some interesting articles about the farm so I took this chance to visit. My host for the day was Aaron Kinsman. He showed me around the farm which is highly diversified, you name it they probably do it.

The first example I saw of companion planting above is onions and lettuce. The idea is the lettuce shade out the weeds for the onions.

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The above is a concept for urban agriculture. The whole tower is full of compost and you then plant vegetables in the top and sides.

We then saw the roller crimperwhich was developed by Jeff Moyer the farms director for rolling and killing cover crops in Organic No Till.

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Aaron then took me to their Apple orchards where they were experimenting with pheromones on ribbons.

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Coddling moth is a real problem for them in apples. The idea of the female pheromones was to attract in the male moths early before the females had turned up. The males would realise there were no ladies and move on so disrupting the life cycle.

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We then saw a prototype pastured pork building. This building gave the pigs shelter and access to food with constant access to the pasture outside. The idea is to save labour from traditional pastured pork. It seemed and excellent idea. The pigs are sold locally to restaurants.

Then I had a fascinating chat to Dr Gladis Zinati an Associate Research Scientist. She is doing work on no-till cucumbers and attracting beneficial insects for natural control. She is using buffers strips and one plant is Lucerne which apparently attracts ground beetles. I wondered whether Lucerne would be good for natural Bruchid control in beans. She had also been working on weed suppression with compost teas. He had found suppression of pigs weed and lambs quarter but with different formulations of tea for each. She is trying to find out whether the suppression effect is chemical, biological or a combination of the two. Blackgrass suppression from compost tea?

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We also quickly looked at the farming systems trial. More information can be found online but it shows that over 30 years organic yields were comparable if not higher than conventional, profit was higher in the organic and so was the carbon sequestration.

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The morning flew by and was over two quickly. I felt I would need more than a morning to really  understand what was going on at Rodale as the list is huge. Many thanks to Aaron and the rest of the staff for giving up their time to speak to me.

 

13-14th June 2015 – Ashford to New York to Pennsylvania

So after 5 months of planning my trip to North America is finally here. So at 7am we left home and headed to the airport. Philippa and the children came to the airport to say goodbye. The hardest part of the trip I think, after a few tears, I was on my way. Next stop New York. I got to New York with no mishaps and felt pretty fresh coming of the plane. I realised this was just an illusion when I stood watching my bag go round the carousel not realising my bag was on it, the Nuffield logo was not showing confusing me. Then I went to to a cash point and walked off without my bag, luckily I realised after 20 yards. I also realised  I was tired and distracted! After a train ride I met my cousin in Manhattan and went to his flat. Then obviously we had a quiet night and went to bed early! Nope, we went to a pub and crawled in at 1am New York time (6am UK time), 24 hours without sleep! Sunday has been a quiet day of wandering around Manhattan. I had one heart in the mouth moment when picking up my hire car, I couldn’t find my driving licence. Then Alan said I used in a bar the previous evening and I had a terrible thought that it was still there or lost. Not great when I have 4 cars to hire over the next month and thousands of miles to drive. Luckily it was hiding in my wallet and I could breathe again.

I left New York about 5pm and drove here to Pennsylvania. My first experience of driving in the USA was in Manhattan in a left hand drive, on the wrong side of the road with jet lag. I was glad to get here to Allentown. Especially as ten minutes after getting here a thunderstorm started and it is now chucking it down with rain. I am now waiting for my supper to be delivered to my room, very American. Hopefully after a nights sleep I will feel refreshed for my two visits tomorrow. Rodale in the morning and Steve Groff in the afternoon. The weather here is high twenties , humid and thunderstorms predicted all week. I have rain jealousy as the farm was very dry when I left. Off now to eat my supper.