RANDOLPH, Ohio – Bob Hilgert plants, picks and putters in his vegetable fields from before dawn to after dusk.
But much of that time is spent on rye, a crop customers never buy, a crop not even for sale.
Each year, Hilgert counts on rye to prepare his soil for another season of vegetables.
Erosion and weeds. Cover crops are part of sustainable agriculture, and a linchpin in the Hilgert farming philosophy.
With Hilgert’s hilly fields, erosion should be a problem. But after using cover crops for at least three decades, Hilgert isn’t concerned.
Last year, even with an extra 12 inches of rain, Hilgert said he didn’t have any erosion.
Rye’s massive root system stops soil from washing away and is 90 percent of the cover crop’s benefit, he said.
But for a farmer like Hilgert, who uses chemicals as little as possible, cover crops offer another benefit: weed suppression.
Rye is a natural inhibitor, meaning it stops weeds from germinating, he said.
“Weeds just don’t compete with a good stand of rye,” Hilgert said.
Hilgert relies on another cover crop, hairy vetch, to add nitrogen to the soil. It can add up to 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre if it gets to the bloom stage, he said.
Both rye and hairy vetch are popular cover crop choices in the northern United States.
Soil-saving steps. The rye is thriving across much of Hilgert’s 150 acres of vegetable fields in Randolph, Ohio.
But it won’t be that way for long.
As it gets closer to planting time for each of the crops, Hilgert will disc and cultimulch the sandy soil, killing the rye and making way for the vegetables.
Hilgert plants the rye in September or early October, so the roots take hold before it gets too cold.
In the spring, he rips up the rye with a disc or chisel and lets it lie on the ground until he’s about to plant.
This step is key, according to his wife, Karen.
Worms come to the surface to eat the residue. Each time, they make tunnels that aerate the soil and drain rainfall, she said.
Plus, the worms leave behind waste, which is excellent organic matter, she said.
Before Bob Hilgert plants, he cultimulches to level the remaining rye. Then he plants his peppers or cabbage or a number of other vegetables.
If the rye continues to grow and is competing with the crop, he sprays RoundUp weed killer before the seed emerges.
Customers’ crops. Hilgert tends to the cover crops as if they were the cash crop.
And in some ways, they are just as important as the beans or peas or peppers. The cover crops and an integrated pest management program are easier on his wallet and the environment because they use less chemicals and stop erosion, he said.
“But growing the vegetables is just half of it. You have to know how to market them, too,” Hilgert said.
Back in the early ’80s when Bob and Karen took over the family farm, they surveyed their customers. What vegetables did they want but couldn’t get here? What varieties did they prefer?
Everything grown on this farm is a result of that survey and years of customers’ requests, Karen said.
Being close to Cleveland and Akron also means there’s a lot of ethnic customers, she said.
Asians typically like hot peppers, Hungarians want peppers for pickling and Italians prefer peppers for roasting. This means the Hilgerts plant a dozen pepper varieties.
But this isn’t anything compared to their 10 bean varieties, three tomato plantings and homegrown strawberries, red raspberries, melons, salad greens, potatoes and winter produce.
What’s to come. Looking at the Hilgerts’ fields of rye, it’s hard to imagine what it will look like in another month with the strawberry plants and peas poking through the ground, and the families walking the rows and picking their own produce.
But for now, all you can see is freshly disced ground, rye growing alongside corn stubble, and fields of thin, green leaves waving in the wind.
Bob still has a lot left to do this spring, but the rye’s been at work for months.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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* Hilgert’s Berry Farm and Market
3431 Waterloo Road
Mogadore, OH 44260
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