Elvin Ranck, a Mifflintown, Juniata County farmer, says when he started switching from conventional farming methods to organic, it was 1986. Ranck was the lead-off speaker at the two-day Organic Valley/Organic Prairie/CROPP Cooperative ‘Balancing for Profit’ Agronomy School. At that time, he said, he never thought that Pennsylvania would be supporting organic like they are today. “I grew up with organics being in the family. My father, trying organic fertilizer, and another relative trying it also, both said it didn’t work. When they used it, it just flopped.”
Then, in 1983, Ranck says he started noticing some things in the 40 cows that he milked, just having to constantly treat them for mastitis, ear infections, and assorted ailments. “I started to hear a little bit about grazing,” he remembers, “and so we started grazing. And that was our entry into biological organic farming.”
Before 1986, Ranck noticed that his soils were 1.8 to 2 and the soil was getting hard. That was when he adopted the Moron Theory: “I was doing everything Penn State advised at that point. If you used a little bit of spray, for example, and it worked, you put more on and did a better job. And that’s the way we lived,” hence the More On [Moron] Theory.
Ranck was certified in 1987. He recalls there were about a dozen organic farmers in the eastern part of Pennsylvania, and they had to find their own markets.
“We’re thinking ahead, what’s coming next year,” says Ranck. “Part of the way we think is that pretty much with any field in our farming operation we can tell you actually what will be planted there five years from now. We follow a system. Any time that we’ve broken that system over the years, we’ve suffered consequences of weed pressure, production loss or loss of quality in forage. Fall tillage for us is important. Then in the spring, we’re out tucking that cover crop, that residue that’s left on the soil through the winter that came back again.”
Ranck says he’s tried growing cover crop that got real high, and plowing it under. And that works fine providing it rains. “We’re in Juniata County where we have a lot of light soil, and we have to think about that issue. For us it works to actually get out there early when the cover crop is six to eight inches that has good roots sown under it for organic matter, and just tuck that under.”
Steven Fisher is the owner of a farm that abuts two other farms owned by his two brothers in Honeybrook, PA. Day Two of the Organic Valley Agronomy School was hosted there. The brothers all have their own versions of crop rotations and the cover crops that they use, and yet there are a lot of similarities. Steven addressed his cropping systems, tillage implements he uses, cultivation methods, how he employs manure, and any other amendments. “This cornfield,” he indicated, “was a pasture for five years and I took offense to having to put the corn in. That was cultivated twice. I didn’t use any weeder because I was too busy making hay.” He added that the weeds aren’t too bad with a relative couple of thistles and a few red roots but “it looks like it’s going to do all right.”
Across the driveway, Fisher notes he had straight oats in during autumn, and had no-tilled oats in the spring, the first time he had tried that. “Cows took the oats off and I put Sudan grass in. As far as crop rotation, we did a lot of triticale and rye grass for plow-down with liquid manure on that. Sudan grass has been worth it since it grows back better; we get more cuttings off it, more grazings.”
Fisher also said weather has been good for alfalfa. “I made a lot of bales, almost 10 round bales per acre. This is third year alfalfa, hybrid alfalfa. It’s really done well for me, so I think I’ll let it stand for another year for sure.”
Fisher tries to put cover crops in everything that’s not going to get new-seeded alfalfa. They put clover out on June 29. “We did that last year, putting clover in with triticale and rye grass for more diversity, and it worked pretty good for grazing and for plow-down.” Fisher uses Freedom red clover and usually has it in by September.
One of the reasons for choosing the Fisher Brothers farms was the fact that they treat pasture as a crop. They, and a number of other farmers, graze annuals but often pastures tend to be marginal areas, those grounds where it’s tough to get a crop in. “We have a lot of rocks here,” Fisher says. “We’re picking up rocks all the time, which is why we have pasture here. It still grows a good crop. That way we’re not plowing up rocks every year. About every five years or so I put corn in just because we know it’s going to grow after grass like that.” No inner seeding was undertaken in the pasture in those five intervening years.
“The Fisher Brothers are not just planting straight alfalfa, said Mark Kopecky, Soils Agronomist, CROPP Cooperative. “I mean that’s a nice way to get good quality feed and everything like that. But for the sake of the soil and the sake of the cows, everybody likes diversity and variety. Another thing about this is following a pasture or hay field with corn. You can get the bulkier nitrogen for a really good corn crop just from plowing down that forage crop.”