AmericanFarm.com

Heckman among advocates for better soil quality

By RICHARD SKELLY
AFP Correspondent

NEW BRUNSWICK (May 1, 2015) — Although he’s been at Rutgers University for 25 years, Dr. Joe Heckman has spent most of his time as an Extension specialist in soil fertility.
This year in a break from the past, he’s involved in teaching five different courses in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, formerly named Cook College, at Rutgers University.
Well-known in Garden State farming circles for his organic farming worldview, Heckman stressed from the beginning of his tenure at Rutgers in 1990 he has been out in the field helping all growers.
Heckman grew up in Yorkshire, Ohio, a tiny town near the Indiana border and helped his father out on the family farm. 
His father was one of the first organic farmers in the United States, and certainly in Ohio.
Sitting in a greenhouse off Ryder’s Lane in New Brunswick in an expanse of Ag Experiment Station-operated growing fields, Heckman explained his lifelong fascination with growing things organically and soil health.
“I was raised on a dairy farm, but we had a pretty diversified operation,” Heckman recalled. “The main thing was milk cows, but we had rabbits, pigs, chickens, beef, it was very diversified, not like so many farms today where there’s a focus on one or two crops.”
Heckman recently sold his two acre farm in Monroe Township in Middlesex County and moved to a more expansive 53-acre spread in Ringoes, Hunterdon County, near the Delaware River.
“Soil fertility was always the focus for my father and it’s been that way with organic farming: it’s focused on improving the soil and creating a healthy soil environment” as a baseline.
“Then, everything about crop production and animal health gets easier because you’ve got a very good foundation of health in the soil.”
With fertile soil, “there’s less need to use pesticides, there’s healthier livestock, and it all starts with the soil.”
Heckman studied agronomy at Ohio State University and the University of Maryland and then got his doctorate at North Carolina State University.
“I grew up reading organic gardening and farming magazines and always had a great deal of interest in biology, so it was a natural progression to getting the scientific background to study this,” he said.
Heckman is known as a soil fertility expert to many farmers around the Garden State and to many master gardeners and backyard growers as well.
He said his responsibilities as an Extension specialist include “developing the recommendations for crop production, what are nutrient needs and how do you manage the nutrients efficiently and how to minimize environmental impacts from nutrients which could get into drinking water or surface water and cause problems.”
“New Jersey is blessed with some of the finest farming soil in the country, he said, but its agriculture is highly diversified agriculture with between 200 and 300 different crops.”
“Whatever the crop is that we’re growing, we have soil fertility recommendations and they need to be updated as varieties and production methods and technologies change,” he said. “They all require the same nutrients in a way, but the amount and timing and placement is different for all these crops.
New Jersey is said to have about 150 different soil types.
There’s a great diversity of different soils in this relatively small state, and then there’s the history of those soils and how they were managed in the past.”
Soil fertility and soil testing can get extremely complicated. That’s where experts like Dr. Heckman and others come in.
“If you think about all the variables involved, there’s 18 different nutrients recognized as essential to plants and then there’s hundreds of different crops,” he said, so this can lead to a lot of questions about how best to manage those nutrients to produce a crop effectively, “and how to produce a crop that’s healthy and of high quality.”
“One of my areas of interest has always been producing crops and livestock products of exceptional quality,” he said, “and New Jersey being a relatively small state — as I see it, you can’t easily compete so well in commodities, we don’t have extensive acreage — but we do have lots of direct marketing opportunities.
“With  smaller farms, an area where I think we can excel is producing livestock and crops of very high quality where it can be sold fresh and local to consumers at the farmer’s market.”
Heckman freely admitted time constraints will prevent him from being out on the road helping farmers with soil fertility problems like he did in the past.
This spring, he’s involved in teaching five different courses: Soil Fertility, Organic Crop Production, Agri-Ecology, a course for freshmen in traditional farming systems and “this year I’m assisting with a graduate level seminar course.
“Because I’m doing more teaching there’s less time to do the research Extension specialist kind of role,” but still, Heckman is growing pecan trees on a small plot of land off of Ryder’s Lane in New Brunswick and having success with several varieties of pecans.
With his new focus on teaching, Heckman said he is optimistic about the future in New Jersey, particularly for smaller farms. 
“One of the nice things I’m seeing in my classrooms is a new phenomenon where young kids who don’t come from a farm background are interested in pursuing farming. I feel like my teaching is very important now, and it’s not like it was when I was in graduate school in the 80’s. I feel like I can really have some long-term beneficial impact by getting them excited and getting them a good base of knowledge to go out there and make a life out of it,” Heckman said. “It’s rewarding to hear from former students who are successful and have started up their own farms.”