By Doug Graves
KUTZTOWN, Pa. – After 40 years of farm-level testing and analysis, Kutztown-based Rodale Institute has shared results of its Farming System Trial (FST), revealing its conclusion that organic agriculture management matches – and in some cases, outperforms – conventional outcomes that benefit farmers and lay a strong foundation for designing and refining agricultural systems that can improve the health of people and the planet.
The FST was launched in 1981 with the goal of addressing barriers to the adoption of organic farming by farmers. The trial combined real-world practices with rigorous scientific analysis to document the different impacts of organic and conventional grain cropping systems.
“The FST is one of our most significant research projects,” Rodale Institute CEO Jeff Moyer said. “In fact, with FST’s 40 years of accumulated data and findings, it is fair to say that it is the most consequential study of organic agriculture anywhere.”
The FST was started by Rob Rodale, who wanted scientific backing for recommendations being made to the newly forming National Organic Program in the 1980s.
The trial consisted of 72 experimental plots. The FST compared three core farming systems: a chemical input-based conventional system, a legume-based organic system, and a manure-based organic system. Corn and soybean production was the focus of each system because 70 percent of U.S. acreage is devoted to growing grain.
In 2008, each core system was further divided to compare standard full-tillage and emerging reduced-tillage practices. At that time, genetically modified corn and soybeans were also introduced to the conventional system to mirror common practices.
The conventional synthetic system represented a typical U.S. grain farm, relying on synthetic nitrogen for fertility, and weeds that were controlled by synthetic herbicides selected and applied at rates recommended by Penn State University Cooperative Extension.
The organic legume system represented an organic cash grain system, featuring a mid-length rotation consisting of annual grain crops and cover crops. The system’s sole source of fertility was leguminous cover crops, and crop rotation provided the primary line of defense against pests.
The organic manure system represented a diversified organic dairy or beef operation that included a long rotation of animal feed grain crops and perennial forage crops. Fertility was provided by leguminous cover crops and periodic applications of composted manure from livestock.
According to FST Research Director Dr. Yichao Rui, the takeaways from the 40-year findings gives validity to organic farming in many ways.
“After 40 years, this is demonstration that ecologically-based, organic agriculture can bring substantial agronomic, environmental and economic benefits to our society,” Rui said.
There are many positive takeaways from this 40-year trial, Rui said.
“Organic systems produce yields of cash crops equal to conventional systems,” Rui said. “In extreme weather conditions, such as drought, the organic plots sustained their yields while the conventional plots declined. The organic corn yielded 31 percent higher than conventional production in drought years.”
The organic systems, Rui said, saw more diverse carbon inputs going into the soil, resulting in microbial biomass that was significantly higher than in conventional systems. Higher biomass led to higher soil organic matter over time.
“Water infiltration was significantly faster under long-term organic management compared to conventional practices,” he added. “Soil health in the organic systems continued to increase over time, while the soil in the conventional systems remained essentially unchanged.”
Researchers found that soils benefited from organic farming practices and may hold the key to securing the global food supply as the world’s climate changes.
“Regenerative organic farming builds healthy soil through enhancing soil organic carbon,” said Reza Afshar, Rodale Institute chief scientist. “This allows the soil to absorb more rainfall during periods of flooding and retain moisture for longer periods during droughts.”
The finding of the Rodale Institute study is great news to those at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA).
“We’re happy to see the results of their research,” said Rachel Tayse, OEFFA executive director. “After World War II, we started using chemicals and fertilizers on our farmland. At first there was a lot of short-term research that showed the dangers of putting these chemicals on the land and even back then it showed the dangers of using these chemicals as it was a detriment to human health, wildlife and soil health.
“We knew these chemicals and fertilizers were bad back then and now (with the Rodale research) we’ve proven long term that organic methods of crop rotation, soil health building, composting, no-till are actually better than those chemical methods.”
Rodale Institute is a nonprofit dedicated to growing the regenerative organic agriculture movement through rigorous research, farmer training and education. Over its 75-year history, Rodale Institute has been on a mission to prove that organic farming is not only viable but essential to mankind’s survival.