Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences [Department of Plant Biology and Pathology]

Dr. Joseph Heckman

Contact Information

Mailing Address

Rutgers University
Department of Plant Biology & Pathology
Foran Hall/ Cook Campus
59 Dudley Rd.
New Brunswick, NJ 08901

Campus Location

Office: Room 167 Foran Hall, 484-932-6333
Lab: Room 171 Foran Hall, 848-932-6212
Read my C.V.

Research, Extension, and Teaching

Dr. Joseph Heckman teaches courses in Soil Fertility, Organic Crop Production, Agroecology and a seminar on Traditional Organic Food and Farming Systems.  As Soil Fertility Specialist for Rutgers Cooperative Extension, he provides soil fertility recommendations for the wide variety of agronomic and horticultural crops grown in New Jersey by both conventional and organic farmers.  The primary goal of his research extension program is to support healthy plant and animal ecosystems producing nutritious food for human health and sustainable communities. Dr. Heckman is current chair of the Organic Management Systems Community within the American Society Agronomy and past President of Northeast Branch of the Crops, Soils, and Agronomy Tri-Societies.  He previously served as Chair of the Council on History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Soil Science, and Chair of Committee on Organic and Sustainable Agriculture, and as Associate Editor of Journal of American Society of Horticulture Science.  Dr. Heckman publishes The Soil Profile, a statewide newsletter concerned with soil fertility and plant nutrition.


  1. Soil Fertility 440, an undergraduate/graduate student level course.  This course introduces students to Soils and Soil Fertility.  The function of each essential and beneficial mineral nutrient in plants, animals, and soils is described along with their cycles through ecosystems.  Students learn how to read soil and plant diagnostic tests and how to develop soil fertility and nutrient management recommendations for conventional and organic farming systems.
  2. Principles of Organic Crop Production 221, an undergraduate level course.  Course covers cultural practices (crop rotations, cover crops, and pest management) and biological processes (composting, soil food web, plant and animal health) that form the basis for organic production of plant and animal products (fruit, nuts, vegetables, grain, forage, pasture, milk, meat, and eggs) and land stewardship.  The course provides an overview of organic agriculture history, philosophy, and sociology in addition to organic production practices within the context of the USDA National Organic Program. Several course topics are addressed as Invited Guest Lectures.
  3. Agroecology 230, an undergraduate course.   Course introduces students to agriculture and sustainable production practices in the context of ecology.  Students become acquainted with selected literature relating to Agroecology such that they will be well prepared to continue independent learning.
  4. Byrne Seminar 11:090:101 section 04, a freshman seminar course.  Before supermarkets and an obesity crisis, we were closer to the source of our food. Fresh living foods from fertile soil were consumed raw or specially prepared by soaking or fermentation. Milk, meat, and eggs were obtained from animals on pasture. Soils were maintained by raising both crops and livestock.  Composting was standard practice.  Field trips and selected writings from organic pioneers are used to experience and investigate traditional organic food and farming systems.  We will also explore the challenges and rewards of producing and preparing traditional nutrient dense foods on an organic homestead or building a relationship with a local organic farmer to secure these special whole foods.


  1. Soil fertility is the main focus of my research and extension programs.  New Jersey has a diversity of soils and cropping systems.  Soil testing and plant tissue analysis methods and standards must be based on research conducted under local growing conditions.  This research is translated into soil fertility recommendations that guide appropriate use of fertilizers, composts, liming materials, and other soil amendments used by farmers, landscapers, and gardeners across the Garden State.
  2. Optimum mineral nutrition can reduce the incidence and severity of plant diseases on many crops.  Research from my lab has identified soil fertility practices that can suppress diseases such summer patch on Kentucky bluegrass, take-all patch on golf courses, stalk rot on corn, and powdery mildew on wheat and pumpkin.  Continuing these soil fertility research efforts provides a safe nutritional alternative to pesticides.
  3. Silicon (Si) is one of the most abundant elements in soils.  This abundance is probably one of the reasons why silicon has not been given, until recently, much attention as a limiting factor in soil fertility and crop production.  Research being conduct on soils in New Jersey is showing that supplying crops with plant available silicon can suppress disease, reduce insect attack, improve environmental stress tolerance and increase crop productivity.  In 2012, silicon became officially designated as a plant beneficial substance by the Association of American Plant Food Control Officials (AAPFCO).  Plant available silicon may now be listed on fertilizer labels.  Of the many benefits associated with enhanced silicon nutrition, the one that appears most outstanding is suppression of powdery mildew disease on many different crops.  Wheat, pumpkin, Kentucky bluegrass, and dogwood are examples of crops where adding soluble silicon to soil helps control powdery mildew disease.  More research is underway to study silicon needs of other soils and crops.
  4. Every culture produces an abundance of natural waste materials that can be composted or recycled for the benefit of building soil fertility and soil quality.  An important focus of my soils research program is evaluating underutilized local natural resources as soil improving amendments.  These materials include shade tree leaves, grass clippings, animal manures, newspaper, food waste, crop residues, wood chips, and wood ash.  Combinations of composting, mulching, and direct land application methods are being investigated in for beneficial use in organic and sustainable agriculture.
  5. A special focus of my research program is on organic farming and traditional food systems.  Soil fertility has always been a primary focus and defining character of the organic tradition and the organic system of agriculture.  Taking the holistic view, soil fertility is a function of the biology of the whole farm, a view that sets it apart from conventional agriculture where soil fertility is primarily seen as managing mineral nutrients field by field.  Historically these diverging views of soil fertility grew out of a reductionist science that defined concepts almost entirely in terms of chemistry.  In contrast, pioneers in organic agriculture maintained a focus on the living aspects of soils and understanding fertility in relationship to diversity of organisms on and off the farm.


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Heckman, J.R. 2006. A History of Organic Farming: Transitions from Sir Albert Howard's War in the Soil to USDA National Organic Program. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. 21:143-150.

Rutgers Affiliations

Other Affiliations


Dr. Heckman joined the department in 1990 and was promoted to Extension Specialist in Soil Fertility in 2003.