Well this was the last week of the internship, which you may have deduced from the title, but either way it was a bit of a rough one. Mostly because I was borderline sick/sick for the beginning of the week. The festivities of the wedding, which were extensive, left me completely drained and exhausted.
This meant Monday and Tuesdays were very slow days for me because I could feel myself teetering on the edge of a “knock you out” illness. Monday was spent helping out were I could, that being mostly in the microscope lab. I think we planted some veggies into the Right Size Garden rows in the quarter acre in the morning.
Tuesday I did some microscope work, and some assessments of the microscope spreadsheets that were done for some folks who attended a class earlier in the month. It was a good experience to take the raw data collected and translate it into a form that is understandable by anyone. After doing that for a while I decided I needed to lay down. I ended up taking a nap at the Rodale house because I had to wait for one of my roommates, Nate or Keith, to get off work and take me home. Luckily Keith was able to leave early because he was working on the code for a computer program for Rodale and he could do it from “home.” I got home and slept the rest of the night, and I think I even woke up late. Basically I got a Lot of sleep, and felt pretty good the next day.
Wednesday Nate, Eric, Molly, Rita(a researcher at Rodale) and I all went up to Penn State to take part in their field day. I can sum up my experience on Wednesday in two words: not impressed, but let me expand on that statement. Penn State, like most other research facilities, is funded mostly by “Big Ag” companies and they look into how to improve conventional systems of food and animal feed production. I also feel that I need to clarify that my “not impressed” perspective most likely comes from being spoiled by my time at Rodale, where everything they do is pretty much geared towards organic systems. I sometimes forget that this is not the norm…yet, but I digress. First stop I made was to the predatory bug station where they spoke of their experiments of different kinds of beneficial bugs and their effects on bad bugs like slugs. Two interesting ideas that came out of this station: 1) Beneficial bugs that will eat seeds but are only big enough to eat weed seeds because they’re the only ones that sit on the soil surface. Which to me is a very promising idea on another layer of weed control that is natural. 2) The main speaker of the station told us of preliminary data they were looking at suggests that when a slug who survived being sprayed by pesticides is then attacked by predatory beetle, and survives it passes the toxins on to the beetle and continues to live. The beetle is left either severely damaged or dead. Now these are preliminary findings on one study, but the potential reality this study is pointing to means pesticides can do more damage to the beneficial bugs then the harmful bugs. What surprised me most was that this gentleman was surprised at this findings, and I was so surprised that I couldn’t help but blurt out a “really?!” Realizing I may have spoke out of turn and with little actual knowledge on the subject I referenced the fact that fish can bio-accumulate mercury and other harmful toxins that don’t kill them, but can be incredibly detrimental to the humans who eat them. The gentleman agreed with that idea but also added that there were too many variables concerning the time the pesticide stays in the slug and how far into the tissues it permeates, which both felt like compelling questions that could lead to doubt. However for me, and my outsider perspective it felt very natural that the data would point to such conclusions.
The next stop was a cover crop experiment involving corn production where they look at different cover crop combination to help fix nitrogen and deal with weeds. Again my “ignorance” of only being taught sustainable practices left me feeling like there was a better way because they were using herbicides to kill off the ground cover and were only concerned about the water soluble nitrogen in the soil. The one bright spot of this stop was I found the only, the Only person concerned about the biology in the soil. I can’t remember her name but she was the only one I meet during the entire field day who was actively looking at the biology present in the soil during her experiment. I saw one more experiment before lunch that had to do with crop rotation and ground cover to optimize yield for a dairy operation. After lunch I saw an experiment looking at “injecting” manure into the soil as opposed to spraying it on top of the soil or using an aerator. They didn’t really go into the aerator facts, but later on Nate clued me into the fact that it may be more beneficial then they initially lead on. Regardless the experiment is looking at nutrient retention, and run off in a system where you disk the manure in to the ground and a system where you spray in on the ground. Obviously when you disk the manure, liquid manure, into the ground you are putting organic matter back into the ground and saving nutrients, but what about the potential pathogens still present in the manure? What does it do to the biology in the soil? I only asked one of those questions, and the answer is “we’re not sure because we didn’t set up the tests needed to look at the biology.” Again another interesting experiment but yet again one that I feel is lacking in certain areas.
The final experiment I saw for the day was the only, the Only experiment that was “organic,” although the land itself wasn’t officially organic yet. The experiment was called the R.O.S.E experiment which is similar to the SARE Veg experiment at Rodale in that it looks at ground cover as a way to deal with weeds and provide nitrogen fixation. They used as mixture of rye, vetch, and (I think) vetch with triticale which is a wheat rye hybrid. This seemed like a good experiment, and as memory serves was doing “ok,” but my main issue with this experience was that main speaker ended up bad mouthing organic seeds and ended up saying “they need to do more genetic work with these organic seeds.” (Please note that was a para-phrase of the gentleman’s words.) Obviously there needs to be a “tweak” in genetics and not our land practices…obviously. Again, disappointed. Also in looking up the breakdown of the acronym for R.O.S.E., which I didn’t find, I was reminded that three of these experiments are labeled “Sustainable,” and not a one fully followed what I would define as sustainable practices. Most of the experiments, apart from the R.O.S.E experiment, and maybe the dairy experiment used herbicides, which in my mind is not sustainable. This experience taught me several things: 1) I know very little about the “other side of the conversation,” i.e the conventional side, and that limits how I can communicate with folks and farmers who are immersed in that language. 2) There needs to be more research farms like Rodale “speaking loudly” the data around growing food organically. 3) I heard a man on the tour say “it’s a gamble” in reference to when he plants his sweet corn. I immediately wondered “how do we remove the gamble?” Compost? Compost tea? Cover crop? Permaculture? I didn’t have an answer, and I still don’t. but I do know it needs to be affordable, easy and something farmers can eventually do for themselves. 4) Later on I was reminded about how amazing it was that Penn State, a land grant college, is doing an experiment in organic at all! True. For me though, that is not good enough, but that’s probably because I’m an idealist and a dreamer…and I don’t plan on changing anytime soon.
Thursday started with some Turf Management project, and then I went out and helped stake some tomatoes for the SARE Veg experiment. The rest of the day was spent in the microscope lab until I got the chance to help Scott swab the milking system of the neighbors farm. This is part of an experiment to see if the cleaning system they switched to, which is apparently cheaper and better for the environment is actually doing a comparable job to the old system. After that I came back and did some more microscope work.
Friday was counting soybeans, microscope work, a class with Cynthia who is running the ASC and some compost flipping…I think…I’m not certain about that part. I am however certain that fellow intern Diane made some awesome key lime pie to celebrate the last day of Molly and I. It was delicious. Later that evening we had a pool party at Lindsey’s apartment to celebrate the time Molly and I spent there. I had a great time, and I really appreciated my time at Rodale and the people I meet while I was there.
Well that is it, the end of the internship. It went by waaaay too fast. A month that has left me with plenty of questions and new ideas of how to move forward and where that direction will lead me. I am grateful for the experience and the lessons learned. Thank you.