Learning the Latest About Organic Farming

Western Illinois – Do a Google search on the phrase "organic food" and you'll come up with 29,800,000 results. Obviously there is a great deal of interest in the topic. This week, you can shun the computer and head into the field for a first-hand look at what's happening in organics.

The Organic Agriculture Research program at Western Illinois University will hold its annual field day on August 7 from noon until 4:00 p.m.

The event is free and open to the public. It will begin with a lunch featuring organic foods. Advance registration is required for lunch.

The field day will take place at WIU's Allison Organic Farm and the neighboring Kane Farm. Both are in southwestern Warren County.

The theme is "Cover Crop Innovation." Assistant professor of agriculture Joel Gruver says cover crops prevent erosion and help reduce environmental losses of nutrients. They also can add carbon to the soil and suppress weeds and insect pests.

"Basically you are diversifying your crop rotation by adding in a new species but you wouldn't necessarily have to diversify your cash crop rotation," says Gruver.

He says a commonly used cover crop during the winter is cereal rye. It can provide quick cover but can also pose a challenge.

"The big challenge with cereal rye is that it can grow very fast in the spring and get away from you," says Gruver. As a result, farmers are trying other cover crops such as annual rye grass. Gruver says it might be the hottest new cover crop in the Midwest.

"Many farmers are starting to try annual rye grass because it grows lots of roots but not nearly as much of a top so the residues are not as hard to manage in the spring," says Gruver.

Gruver says students in his Soil Fertility class came up with the idea of "cover crop innovators." He says they interviewed farmers across the Midwest to learn how cover crops are being used in new ways.

"How are they solving the problems that led to many farmers abandoning cover crops?" says Gruver. "How are they using new species? How are they solving new types of issues that might not have been on the radar when cover crops were more popular?"

Gruver says organic farmers use a different set of "tools" than other farmers and those tools sometimes require more on-farm innovation.