No-Till Proponent Garners Award for Lifetime Research

9/22/2012 7:00 AM
By Anne Harnish Food and Family Features Editor

Rodale Honors 'Organic Farming Pioneers'

KUTZTOWN, Pa. — A USDA scientist who toiled for 34 years on weed-control solutions for farmers was honored Sept. 14 at the Rodale Institute’s Organic Pioneer Awards in Kutztown.

The researcher, John Teasdale, who focused on weed ecology and cover-crop management in long-term farming trials, was the founding research leader of the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab at the Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Md.

He studied conventional and organic farming systems, observing a variety of factors such as reduced tillage and cover crops while comparing weed control, crop yields and soil fertility.

Teasdale brought a multidisciplinary approach to his research and provided farmers with new weed-management tools such as no-till.

“John has been an integral part of what they call sustainable agriculture,” said Rodale Institute’s Coach Mark Smallwood, as he presented the award to the scientist at the institute’s Farming Systems Trials.

Though recently retired, Teasdale said he is still working out the details of how to best use no-till or reduced-tillage farming.

“We’re going to have to move away from monocropping and toward diversification of crops,” Teasdale said.

As drought continues to be a factor in the future, the focus will have to change from two- or three-crop rotations to more diverse rotations, partly due to growing variabilities in the spring, summer and fall seasons, he said.

Neighboring dairy farmer James Burkholder has been partners with the Rodale Institute for more than a year, grazing his herd on 100 acres of its certified organic pasture. In return, he allows Rodale to gather data about his herd, including its transition from a conventional to an organic herd.

Burkholder opened up the farm to a tour before the Rodale award ceremony.

Burkholder received organic certification in April and now sells to the milk cooperative Organic Valley.

“When Rodale invited me (to be its partner), I thought it would be stupid not to take advantage of it,” he said. “With all the milk price volatility now, I’m so glad I did. The cows’ health has improved. They have much better immune systems. Our vet bills are reduced by 80 percent.”

Burkholder milks 55 cows, with 147 on grass. He said his last somatic cell count was under 150,000. He said it used to be 300,000.

During a dinner of mostly Rodale-grown food, four other Organic Pioneer Awards were presented to innovators in organic farming, including Pittsburgh businesswoman Carla Castagnero. She is the co-founder of AgRecycle, the largest source-separated composting operation in the state.

Started 21 years ago, her company was the first recipient of a Pennsylvania General Permit for composting and now boasts clients like the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Zoo.

“Our goal was simple — to save organic scraps,” Castagnero said, about her company’s origins. It’s a simple idea, according to Castagnero, “There are those who want to divert to us and those who want to buy.”

Kim Tait, a third-generation farmer and owner of Tait Farm Foods, dedicated her Organic Pioneer Award to “all the women in ag.”

“Ag is one of these vocations that chooses you,” she said, “but it can also chew you up and spit you out.”

Tait Farm is a diversified business that includes a certified organic farm, a CSA, or community supported agriculture, an on-farm retail store, and a line of value-added products.

USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan was honored with an Organic Pioneer Award for her work with organics, and local and regional farming, including USDA’s Know Your Farm, Know Your Food project. Merrigan’s award was accepted by Mark Lipson in her stead.

Lipson, a USDA organic and sustainable agriculture policy adviser, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has made it clear that USDA must serve all forms of agriculture.

Lipson spoke of Merrigan’s work during the past three years, including her enforcement of the national organic standards. He also said that during Merrigan’s tenure, the department had completed a nationwide organic farming survey, begun the process of aligning crop insurance programs for organic programs, and established the first trade codes for import and export of organic food products.

“It’s all a work in progress,” Lipson said.

Tom Harding of Agrisystems, an agribusiness consulting company for organic growers, processors and marketers, also received a Rodale award.

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