Gloucester County, New Jersey

Farming 118 acres in what has recently become a bedroom community of Philadelphia, Bob Muth and his wife, Leda, raise a wide range of vegetables, small fruits, flowers, and hay, which are sold to wholesalers and through a 325-member CSA (community-supported agriculture).

Muth’s operation is based on his passion for soil building. Since he took over running the family farm twenty-two years ago, Muth has spread thick layers of leaf mulch, provided for free by his local municipality, at the home farm, on rented fields, and, eventually, on additional purchased tracts of land. Mulching forms part of a rotation scheme that he devised early on and to which he has remained faithful: Only a fifth of his tillable acreage is planted in cash crops each year; the remaining area is put into pasture or cover crops. “When I started mulching and using this rotation, my [farmer] neighbors thought I was losing my marbles,” he says. “The prevalent idea at the time was that you had to farm a lot of acreage as intensively as possible.”

Muth’s rotation—a high-value crop the first year, followed by a leaf application the second year, two to three years of a hay and sudex pasture, and ending with a year of a rye-vetch cover crop—really boosts the quality of his sandy soils. “With this strategy, I get all the positive indicators such as high CEC, organic matter, and nutrient levels, including enough N to grow good-quality crops without a lot of inputs,” he says.

Muth tests the soil in his fields annually and carefully monitors changes in the data. “I like having hard numbers to back up what I’m observing in the field and to make good decisions as the years go by,” he says. Such careful attention to detail has led him to reduce the thickness of leaf applications once fields have cycled a few times through his rotation, in order to keep soil organic matter within an optimum range of 3.5–5%. “Anything higher than that, and I risk nutrient leaching,” he notes.

Muth likes to use drip irrigation to reduce plant stress and disease and improve water use efficiency. “Water shortage is my biggest issue on the home farm, where I’ve got a well that pumps only 20–22 gallons a minute,” he says. A residential development boom on the land surrounding his farm in recent years has drastically reduced the available groundwater. He says, “You have to be creative about breaking up your fields into zones in order to make water do what you need it to do.”

Muth relies on a range of IPM (integrated pest management) techniques for pest and disease control. He scouts his fields daily and takes notes of his observations throughout each cropping cycle. “It’s worth investing in a jeweler’s loop,” he advises, “because it’s the pests that are most difficult to see—like the white flies, spider mites, and thrips—that will get you.” He regularly plants trap-crop borders around his high-value crop fields, which enable him to monitor pest populations and determine when and how much to spray. For example, he suggests using red kale or mizuna as a trap crop to prevent tarnished plant bug damage on savoy cabbage.

“You have to figure out what [pests] require in their life cycles and disrupt them,” he says. After several years of observation, “you begin to recognize if you’ve got a crop for which you haven’t figured out a good control strategy.”

Muth likes to encourage beneficial insect populations by leaving flowering strips of cover crops unmowed on the borders of his crop fields. He has found that interplanting cover crops—adding buckwheat and dill to vetch, for example—significantly extends bloom time, thus fostering multiple generations of beneficial insects.

In high tunnels, where he grows berries and flowers, he controls aphids and spider mites by releasing predatory mites. He selected a special film to cover the tunnels that enhances light diffusion, reduces condensate drip from the ceiling and purlins, and helps prevent overheated conditions, ensuring an overall superior growing environment.

“There are so many things you can do to help yourself,” he says. He has learned how to prevent early-season pythium rot by waiting to plant crops until a preceding rye-vetch cover is fully broken down and the soil warms up. He keeps pythium—which also likes hot and wet conditions—in check later in the season by planting crops out on highly reflective metallic plastic mulch, under which soil temperatures are lower relative to those that occur under other colors of plastic mulch. The shiny mulch also repels aphids and thrips, Muth notes. As an added bonus, he says that by diffusing more light into the plant canopy, the mulch boosts the color intensity (and marketability) of his produce.

As an added bonus, he says that by diffusing more light into the plant canopy,the mulch boosts the color intensity (and marketability) of his produce.

Overall, instead of adhering to a strict spray schedule, which “may control one critter but make things worse if you also kill your beneficials in the process,” Muth suggests “layering together” different types of controls, such as improving soil quality, putting up bat houses, creating insectaries of flowering covers, using sprays judiciously, and letting pest and disease management strategies evolve as time goes by.

Muth’s decisions to “go with a good soil building program” and IPM methods have smoothed his gradual transition of acreage into certified organic production. “When I started getting into organics, people told me, ‘Bob, you better be careful or you’re going to end up with buggy stuff that’s full of disease that people don’t want.’ But I haven’t seen any of that,” he says. “I haven’t been overwhelmed; in general, pests and disease levels on my farm amount to no more than a minor annoyance.”

Encouraged by his success and customer demand, Muth is applying his expertise to figuring out how to grow more “difficult” crops organically. For example, when area specialists said that growing organic super sweet corn in New Jersey would be impossible, he could not resist the challenge. “We decided to start our corn plugs in the greenhouse,” he says, noting that “the people at Rutgers thought this was revolutionary.” He transplants corn plugs out after ten or eleven days (to prevent plugs from becoming pot-bound, which reduces ear length) onto plastic mulch and keeps row covers over the plants until they are 12 to 18 inches tall. Such strategies effectively foil corn earworm and corn borers, Muth says. “You can grow corn early, scout it closely, and with spot use of approved sprays for organic production, get three weeks of absolutely clean, fantastic-quality organic corn in July.” His customers are thrilled and are willing to pay him a premium price for the fruits of his discovery. Muth says he hopes to crack the mystery of how to produce high-quality organic peaches next.

With so many new techniques emerging, and consumers increasingly interested in buying locally and organically produced food, Muth says this is “an exciting time to be in agriculture.” “If you’re savvy, you can farm a small piece of land and make a good living.”

“I wish I was twenty-one again,” he says, “because I’d do it all over again. It’s a pleasure to get out there and get to work.”

—UPDATED BY AMY KREMEN