Soil Health

Current Projects

We have a number of projects focused on different aspects of living systems including increasing organic matter, balancing the soil food web, building available nitrogen and sequestering carbon. Our end goal is to increase growers’ familiarity and comfort with organic soil health concepts and techniques, clarify their true ecological and financial benefits, and encourage their adoption on both organic and conventional farms across the country.

Using Roller Crimper Technology, Cover Crops, and Insectary Strips to Improve Organic Vegetable Cropping Competitiveness in Pennsylvania 

Weeds and insects are two of the biggest impediments to competitive organic vegetable production. In intensive organic vegetable production, cucurbit growers rely heavily on tillage and plastic mulch for weed control and use of organic pesticides to control striped cucumber beetles from damaging cucumber fruits and transmitting bacterial wilt disease. While plastic mulches are relatively inexpensive, repeated tillage is expensive and both have negative consequences on soil health and the environment. Organic insecticides are costly and have negative impact on the diversity and densities of beneficial and predatory insects.

The three-year project (2015-2018) is funded via grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s (PDA) Specialty Crop Block Grant (SCBG) Program, Grant Agreement Number ME44155558, and the Orange County Community Foundation, Grant Award Number NEDA1634887. The overall goal of this project is to improve organic specialty crop growers’ competitiveness by assessing the impact of integrated systems on weed management, soil health, pest management, and cucumber yield and quality compared to standard practices, and to disseminate information gained from this project to specialty crop growers and interested clientele using local, regional and national educational venues. These systems include rolled cover crop mulches and insectary strips as compared to plastic mulch and no insectary strips.

Rodale Institute Project Team:
Dr. Gladis Zinati, Associate Research Scientist  and Principal Investigator, Dr. Andrew Smith, Director of Vegetable Systems Trial, Dr. Kris Nichols, Chief Scientist, Jeff Moyer, Executive Director, Tara Caton, Senior Lab Technician, Ross Duffield, Farm Manager, Dan Kemper, Field Foreman, and Maggie Saka, Greenhouse Production Specialist.  Dr. Zinati oversees the project at Rodale Institute including directing and coordinating research activities, education events and outreach activities.

Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey Research Partner:
Dr. Joseph Ingerson-Mahar, Vegetable IPM Program Coordinator; specialist in identifying ground beetles species.

Farmer Collaborator:
Michael and Will Brownback, Owners of Spiral Path Farm, Lancaster, PA; Co-coordinators of growers’ workshop at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), PA in winter 2017 and set up an example of insectary strips for cucumber production at their fields in 2017.


Rotational No-Till & Insectary Strips for Organic Cucumber Production, February 9, 2017
Organic Matter: No-Till and Insectary Strips for Organic Cucumber Production, April 12, 2017
What do yellow sticky cards tell us about beneficial insects and pests?, April 21, 2017
Using Flowers as Natural Pest Control for Organic Vegetable Production, May 4, 2017
New Farm Magazine: Squash System Comparison, October 25, 2017

Nutrient Management in Organic No-Till Systems (CIG Nutrient Management)
Rodale Institute, the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC), and North Carolina State University (NCSU) are collaborating on a demonstration and outreach project to integrate current reduced-tillage organic corn production practices with pre-existing corn planter fertilizer delivery technology. The goals of this work are to 1) optimize the use of animal waste products as fertilizers in sustainable and organic corn no-till production, 2) improve retention of animal-based crop nutrients by reducing volatilization and run-off into waterways, and 3) reduce farmers’ labor and input costs to increase their economic returns.

Project Team:
Dr. Gladis Zinati and Mr. Jeff Moyer are Project Directors. They oversee the overall project activities, direct and coordinate all aspects of the project  including on- and off-site research activities, education events and outreach activities.


Overcoming Challenges of Reduced-Till Organic Corn, December 14, 2015
Demonstrating the Use of Roller Crimper Technology and Starter Fertilizer in No-Till Organic Corn, January 5, 2016
Utilization of Pelletized Starter Fertilizers in Cover Crop-Based, Reduced Tillage Organic Corn Production, February 17, 2016
Organic No-Till Corn Production, June 2, 2016

Reduced-Tillage Weed Management for Organic Farming Systems (SASL)
Research is being performed to develop improved agronomic approaches for terminating cover crops, establishing cash crops and suppressing weeds in organic no-till soybean production systems. The two primary focuses of these experiments are:

• Soybean Establishment: How and when to roll rye cover crops and plant organic no-till soybeans.
• Soybean Supplemental Management: How and when to manage weeds after planting in organic no-till soybeans.

Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi and their Roles in the Enhancement of Crop Growth and Soil Quality
This 20-year collaboration with USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Microbiologist Dr. Dave Douds explores the benefits of using arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi in crop production, using both indigenous fungi present in the soil as well as mycorrhiza inoculum produced using on-farm technology.  The work is divided into two types of experiments: 1) optimizing greenhouse culture regimes to produce vegetable seedlings that are well colonized by arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi and are of sufficient size and vigor for outplanting, and 2) monitoring the growth and yield of AM fungus inoculated vs. uninoculated vegetable seedlings grown to maturity under field conditions.

Project outcomes include development of organic greenhouse inoculum medium that enables farmers to easily and economically integrate mycorrhiza inoculum into their existing practices, along with management guidelines for propagation of native mycorrhiza populations.

Path to Organic Soil Sampling and Analysis to Determine Carbon Sequestration on Organic Farms in the Path to Organic Program
The purpose of this project is to conduct soil sampling to collect and analyze data to determine carbon sequestration in the soil on nine farms in the Path to Organic Program. The Path to Organic Program provides grants to farmers switching to certified organic production practices, evaluating those practices as tools to improve soil health, protect water quality, and gather atmospheric carbon on a pilot basis outside of the traditional research environment. The goal of the Path program is to: 1) provide an incentive for farmers to make the transition to certified organic production practices; and 2) evaluate organic production practices as tools in improving soil health, protecting water quality and sequestering atmospheric carbon on a pilot basis outside of the traditional research environment. Potential changes in soil carbon at the farm sites relative to their changes in management practices (from conventional to organic) will be measured and reported. Soil carbon data will be shared with the participating farmers, giving them a better understanding of their soil carbon stocks and giving them baseline data to use for potential future carbon crediting programs.

Reducing Plastic Mulch Use by Expanding Adoption of Cover crop-based no-till Systems for Vegetable Producers (SARE Veggie)
The Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NE SARE) Program provided funding in 2010 to launch a three-year vegetable trial focusing on cover crop alternatives to petroleum-derived disposable black plastic mulch. The vegetable trials compare weed-suppression, yields and soil effects of rolled or mowed vetch and rye cover crops against the commonly-used black plastic mulch. Rodale Institute works with three collaborating farmers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to trial a variety of cover crops in conjunction with four methods of cover crop termination (including plowing and covering with black plastic) to assess the comparative ability of these treatments to suppress weeds and disease and to contribute fertility in organic and non-organic vegetable crop rotations. A field experiment of the systems has also been implemented at Rodale Institute. Best management practices, based on this research, are being outreached to other farmers and the public.


Beyond Black Plastic, April 4, 2014

Farming Systems Trial
The Farming Systems Trial began in 1981 as a 5-year controlled study of what a typical American grain farmer would go through to give up chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and it has matured into a complex, interdisciplinary, collaborative project. The Farming Systems Trial (FST) has provided fundamental research data on topics ranging from drought-tolerance to yield potential to water quality to economic viability, and has inspired similar long-term trials at research institutions nationally and internationally.

The trial is a 12-acre, 72 plot trial that currently compares four replications of six farming systems. The farming systems vary in their crop rotations, inputs and tillage practices. The goal of FST is to demonstrate sustainable, consistent yields in the organic systems while building ecosystem services.

So far, FST has demonstrated that, compared to conventional farming systems, organic systems can:

• produce competitive crop yields,
• improve soil and water quality,
• reduce crop damage in drought years, and
• sequester more carbon in the soil.

 Learn More

Demonstration of Improved Compost Management to Effectively Utilize Animal Waste Nutrient Resources and Support Increased Soil Nutrient Retention (CIG Compost)
Rodale Institute, in collaboration with neighboring EQIP-eligible farmer James Burkholder and the local municipality of South Whitehall Township, has initiated a comparative composting demonstration, using uniform base materials (high-quality pelletized chicken manure, food waste, and municipal leaves) to illustrate the impacts of different compost pile management regimes on final compost quality, nutrient content, and nutrient retention, as well as on field soil quality and nutrient leaching after application. Two different compost management regimes (1: timed turning, based on National Organic Program (NOP) standards; and 2: temperature-related turning) will be demonstrated atop compost production pads fitted with drains to capture all precipitation and leachate that runs through each pile.


Fact Sheet: Improved Compost Management for Certified Organic Operations (Summer 2013)
Presentation: Aerobic Composting (Spring 2013)
Turning compost by temperature (Fall 2012)
Cutting-edge compost (Spring 2012)

Developing carbon-positive organic systems through reduced tillage and cover crop-intensive rotation schemes (Integrated Organic Program)
This project, funded by the USDA Organic Research and Education Initiative (OREI) Program through Iowa State University, includes the coordinated evaluation of four reduced tillage, organic grain crop rotation sequences through field trials implemented at Rodale Institute and an organic farm in Dauphin County, PA, as well as at research stations and on farms in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan.

Integrated Livestock-Crop Rotation Management to Maximize Carbon Sequestration and Economic Returns
This project will allow researchers to quantify the ability of integrated crop and livestock systems to increase soil health and carbon sequestration, reduce dependence on fossil-fuel-based inputs, and improve economic returns for farmers, relative to cash grain systems. This joint effort between the Rodale Institute and the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) will have significant economic and conservation implications for the forage, crop, and pasturelands of the U.S and will provide new information on carbon sequestration from these lands.

Rapid, Cost-effective Soil Measurements for Accurate Agricultural Carbon Crediting (CIG Soil Carbon)
The primary purpose of this soil carbon assessment project is to allow early monitoring and assessment of changes in soil carbon using a scalable Mobile Field Lab. Rodale Institute researchers are refining and demonstrating an inexpensive, innovative mobile field method to measure soil carbon content and changes. The goal of the work is to improve predictions for soil carbon changes on organic and conventional farms that utilize different soil management practices, providing a method of direct validation of soil carbon sequestration for crediting purposes.

Turf Management
The use of proper compost tea to enhance nutrient cycling and disease suppression without the use of inorganic fertilizer or pesticides was compared to standard inorganic fertilizer/pesticide management practices for the growth of turf grass in engineered soil. Three applications of compost tea and MAX™ Lawn Fertilizer were applied over a three month period and “walking paths” were introduced to the beds to create compaction representative of standard recreational use. The amount of observable dormant grass was much higher on the fertilized beds than in the compost tea beds and root biomass in the compost tea beds was four times higher than that the inorganic fertilizer treatment. More studies are being designed to continue to assess exactly how and why biological management works, and how to make it easy and practical for the home owner and small gardener.