Tackling the Thorny Issues, Linking Practitioners

December 2, 2010
A Rangarajan

As the ranks of organic farmers swell in America, so does the need for answers to tough problems in organic agriculture. For example, how can weeds be controlled without soil-eroding tillage? How can risk be minimized? How can farmers learn from one another? Thanks to researcher/educators like Anu Rangarajan of Cornell University, new and transitioning Northeast farmers are getting some answers.

With funding from SARE, Rangarajan is advancing the next generation of organic agriculture with a three-pronged approach: conducting field research on new innovations, training educators, and bringing farmers and educators together.

In the field, Rangarajan has been tackling one of the thorniest issues in organic farming: reducing tillage. Many farmers cut back on tillage to combat soil erosion and compaction. This practice, however, conflicts with organic agriculture, which has long relied on tilling to manage weeds and incorporate green manures, compost and other inputs.

Rangarajan is testing the effect of "zone tilling" on yields in both organic and conventional vegetable systems. Zone tilling limits tillage to four-to-eight-inch slots into which a farmer later plants. By leaving soil-building crop residue behind, the technique reduces soil erosion and conserves organic matter, key conditions for successful organic farming.

She credits SARE for giving her the necessary time and support to experiment with this long-term strategy. "Many grants give you money for a year or two but SARE is in it for the long haul."

George Ayres of Fresh-Ayr Farm in Shortsville, N.Y. is a Northeast farmer benefiting from Rangarajan's work. Ayres collaborates with Rangarajan on research to build soil health by reducing tillage. Although he has not completely transitioned to organic, he has found that the water- and soil-conserving crop residue left behind by zone tilling helps build soil and manage weeds, thus reducing the need for fertilizers and herbicides. Says Ayres, "Anu is challenging us all to get away from chemicals entirely. That's really the goal. We'd all like to be able to avoid buying herbicides if we can."

Field research and collaboration must go hand in hand, according to Rangarajan, who is also SARE state coordinator for New York. She helped found neon, the Northeast Organic Network, a forum for farmers, researchers, extension educators and nonprofits to share information across state lines. She also co-organized a SARE-funded, eight-month organic agriculture training for extension educators.

Emilie Swackhammer, one of 22 extension educators selected for the course, says she can now better assist transitioning farmers in Pennsylvania where she works. As a result of the seminar, Swackhammer was asked to join the board of directors for Pennsylvania Certified Organic, the state's only USDA certifying agency.

Rangarajan is quite pleased with the results of the training program. "These educators are now developing training in their own states. The network is expanding."

View Related SARE Grants:

Topics: Conservation Tillage, Crop Production, Cultural Control, Natural Resources / Environment, Organic Agriculture, Pest Management, Soil Erosion/Stabilization, Soil Management, Soil Quality/Health, Transitioning to Organic, Vegetables, Zone Till
Related Locations: Northeast