Sunday, March 9, 2008


C.O.W.S. stands for corn, oats, wheat, sod – the traditional crop rotation practiced at Howell to preserve the productiveness of the soil and keep weeds and pests at bay.

During a rainy snack break yesterday (between coffee break and lunch break), Rob, Tom, and I talked crop and vegetable, of which they are infinitely more informed than me. I asked, "So, sod is like grass, right?"

The commonsense effectiveness of proper crop rotation is fascinating and something I hope to learn a lot more about. I wish I had a tape recorder going yesterday, or a least a notebook, because there were a lot of specific points I would like to remember better. But one of the more interesting concepts was that rotating your crops every year to different fields spaced a good distance apart helps keep the farmer ahead in the race against the bugs. Plant Crop X one season, and the X-eating bugs may find it late in the season and lay some eggs, but by the time the larvae mature, Crop X will have moved football fields away, and the baby bugs will be left with nothing but Crop Y to eat, which they find disgusting.

Similar concepts apply to weeds. Rob said that Howell got away from their rotation one year – not for farming reasons but for program reasons – and ended up with garlic in their wheat. Good for garlic bread but not for a cake.

I also heard of Bt for the first time -- Bacillus thuringiensis. It is a natural soil bacteria that is currently one of the best options organic farmers have for pest control. It is applied to crops in either spray or dust form. The bacteria is toxic to specific insect larva but believed harmless to humans and safe for the environment.

In some of my follow-up reading on Bt on the Internet (much of it from here: I also learned that many of the Genetically Modified crops I've heard ambiguous but disturbing reports about are genetically modified to produce their own Bt, meaning they are inherently resistant to certain pests. The upside is that these crops require fewer toxic pesticides, which are harmful to farm workers, eaters, and wildlife everywhere. The downside is that there is some controversy over whether GM Bt is as safe as the old-school organic Bt. I'll ask the folks around here about what they've heard.