“Animals on pasture is the best system for soil fertility”
-Dr. Joseph R. Heckman, Ph.D.
It is always a pleasure to listen to Joe Heckman discuss agriculture in New Jersey, and you know that you can never anticipate what you’ll learn because he carries so much experience and knowledge. On May 20, Dr. Heckman welcomed the NOFA NJ community for a tour of Neshanic Pastures, his farm and homestead in Ringoes, NJ. Neshanic Pastures produces organic hay & straw, grass-fed beef, eggs, firewood, and other various products on 50 acres bordering the Neshanic River. At the farm, Joe also conducts trials and experiments that inform his position as a Professor of Soil Science at Rutgers University, where he teaches courses in Soil Fertility, Organic Crop Production, and Agroecology.
Below is a summary of the tour and a number of suggested resources that were discussed by the tour host:
“Renewable Fertility from Non-Commercial Sources,” was top of Joe’s mind as he warmed up to the crowd. Using manure for soil fertility is the simplest route in NJ, particularly free horse manure from local sources. Heckman referred to a USDA Scientist, F.H. King, who wrote Farmers of Forty Centuries; or, Permanent Agriculture in China. In the book, King describes how utilization of food wastes and manures (human and animal) in China has managed to keep soils healthy and regeneratively productive for 40 centuries. Heckman also referred to the Rich Earth Institute and Nature Magazine, which have both published information about the use of human waste products as plant nutrient resources.
See the attached handout showing the findings of Dr. Heckman’s analysis of the nutrient composition of horse manure, wood chips, and shade tree leaves below. Joe discussed Carbon to Nitrogen Ratios and the nutrient benefits of horse manure while leading the group to windrows of manure that he stages in the field to which they will be next applied. Spacing the deliveries appropriately, he is able to spread the manure by pushing instead of using a manure spreader. Heckman also talked about spreading leaves and shared that the second year after spreading leaves is when the soil health benefits really become quantifiable, which speaks to the long term nature of Organic management practices (which are not immediate fixes, but long-term investments in soil health and potential output).
The tour also included a focus on pastured poultry via a mobile chicken coop, diversified tree orchards and Edible Landscaping, a nursery that Heckman recommends. His orchards includes Illinois Mulberries, apples, peaches, persimmons, Burr Oak (for acorns) and a cross between hickory and pecan. Joe operates a small scale saw mill and has a planting of locust trees for durable, rot-resistant lumber, offering a more natural option to pressure-treated lumber.
Side Note: Joe has a significant connection to planting trees and the reality that he’ll be gone before the trees are mature… he introduced guests to a lovely idea about a “Tree Legacy App”, where folks who plant a tree might enter it into the App for future generations to be able to connect with the folks who planted it decades earlier.
One unusual stop on the tour was the “Organic Lawn Food Revolution” site, where Heckman described collecting grass clippings into bags in the same manner that silage is wrapped and stored for livestock feed. Joe has experimented with vacuum storage bags that can be found at common box stores. Firmly believing that lawns suffer a bad reputation, he is passionate about shifting our perspective around what is possible from a variety of “waste streams” and “unproductive” spaces.
The final bit of the tour included a stop at the beef cattle herd. Joe purchases calves from Spring Run Dairy in Pittstown, NJ, and raises them on fresh grass and hay grown on-site. He keeps the herd concentrated on small paddocks, which encourage the cows to eat more uniformly and trample less forage than letting them have full access to several acres at once. The finished product is marketed through Bone-In Food, a local farm aggregator/distributor that sources from local, organic, and pasture-based farms.
Thank you, Dr. Heckman, for always providing thought-provoking conversation and insights and for sharing your resources with the NOFA NJ community.
Thanks to Mike Rassweiler for providing copious notes and the write-up for this event.