We got it!! We got it!! We got the grant!!

Back in November, my friend (and partner in crime) Andrea and I applied for a North Central Region SARE Farmer Rancher Grant. SARE stands for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and is an organization that supports and promotes sustainable farming and ranching. According to their website, they offer competitive grants and educational opportunities for producers, scientists, educators, institutions, organizations and others exploring sustainable agriculture. The title of our grant application was Roller-crimper Construction and No-till Organic Weed Control Trials.

You see, weed control is an organic farmers #1 problem. Organic farmers can’t spray their crops with herbicides, and so have to rely upon heavy tillage for weed control, which can lead to soil erosion and a continued dependence on fossil fuels. Conventional farmers have their no-till, where they don’t till the soil at all and just drill next season’s crop into the left-over stubble from the previous season. This technique does a great job of controlling soil erosion, but unfortunately depends upon heavy herbicide applications to kill the weeds.

Andrea, however, read one day about a roller-crimper being used for organic no-till agriculture at The Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. She told me about it and we ooh-ed and aah-ed over it for days. I may have even drooled a little. You see, I haven’t been able to convert to organics as fast as I’d like because we don’t have much farm equipment. It costs lots of money (literally hundreds of thousands of dollars) to buy the various plows, cultivators, and planters needed for an organic crop farm. If we could do no-till organic, then we’d only need to buy a roller-crimper and a planter. But the question remains, how well does it work? I mean, sure, it works on Rodale’s farm because they’ve been organic for over 25 years. But would it work in the Midwest, in our climate, on our tired, overworked soils?

Quickly thereafter, we received an email from our friend Margie at Extension about an opportunity to apply for a Farmer Rancher grant through SARE. In typical Andrea and Jackie fashion, we thought about it for maybe 2 minutes and said, “Let’s go for it!” Did I mention we had 10 days until the grant application deadline? We put our heads together and worked like mad women literally all day, every day, for every one of those 10 days–writing, editing, budgeting, editing, finding collaborators, editing, etc. etc.–until we finished. The grant was due at 4 PM Nebraska time and I pushed the ‘send’ button at 2 PM.

The remarkable thing is that neither of us are experienced grant writers. But our enthusiasm built steadily throughout the 10 day process and we knew that when we had sent that application we had done a pretty darn good job.

Even so, I didn’t really think we’d get the grant. (I have this thing about second-guessing myself.) So you can imagine my surprise when we arrived from Panama to a message on my answering machine from Margie, “Congratulations. You got the grant!”

To which I eloquently exclaimed, “Holy Sh*t! We got the grant!”

Anyways, here’s a picture of a roller-crimper in action:

To utilize a roller crimper, you plant a fall-seeded cover crop on your land. By the time you’re ready to plant your field to a cash crop the following spring, be it corn, vegetables or what have you, the cover crop is mature. You mount the roller-crimper onto the front of your tractor which will, as the name suggests, roll and crimp the cover crop, killing it and creating a weed-suppressing mat. At the same time, you pull a weighted planter behind the tractor that will cut a path in the thick mat and plant your seeds. Only one pass through your field to roll, crimp and plant, which saves time and diesel fuel. Brilliant!

We proposed three demonstration plots at three separate farms. At Irish Grove Farms, I will compare weed pressure in my no-till organic corn plot (using the crimper and cover crops) to the weed pressure in my non-GMO no-till conventional corn fields that will get sprayed with an herbicide for weed control. Andrea, at Hazard Free Farms, will compare weed pressure between her no-till organic melons and her organic melons that rely on heavy tillage/hand weeding. Another farmer, Kathryn, will compare her organic no-till sunflower field with a field where she interseeds a companion crop into her sunflowers for weed control. All 3 of us will also do cost comparisons, keep weather journals, the whole 9 yards. We will also hold field days where people can come out to see what we’re doing.

Three different farms. Three different crops. All using the roller crimper. Pretty exciting.

Our hope is that the roller crimper will be an effective weed suppression tool for organic fields. But we realize that our one-year trials will face some major obstacles (weeds). Especially since our land has only been recently taken out of chemical-intensive agriculture. It takes years to rebuild the soil. As Midwestern Bio-Ag’s founder Gary Zimmer says, “You’ve gotta earn the right.” Meaning you have to do the long, hard work of rebuilding the soil before you can expect great yield results from organic no-till.

Honestly, we haven’t earned the right to expect great yields from our organic no-till plots. But we know for a fact that we can still learn a great deal about weed control in organic agriculture. We want to test how well the roller crimper works, and how much time it will buy us in weed control. Even if the cover crop mat is effective through June, that is long enough to reduce herbicide use by 50% in conventional fields. Which to me is huge.

Anyways, I’m super excited and a lot nervous about this opportunity. I’ll be sure to keep you posted as we get started.