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Long-term organic farming system trials were established across the U.S. to capture baseline agronomic, economic and environmental data related to organic conversion under varying climatic conditions. These sites have proven useful in providing supporting evidence for successful transition from conventional to organic practices. All experiments chosen for this review were transdisciplinary in nature; analyzed comprehensive system components (productivity, soil health, pest status, and economics); and contained all crops within each rotation and cropping system each year to ensure the most robust analysis. In addition to yield comparisons, necessary for determining the viability of organic operations, ecosystem services, such as soil carbon capture, nutrient cycling, pest suppression, and water quality enhancement, have been documented for organic systems in these trials. Outcomes from these long-term trials have been critical in elucidating factors underlying less than optimal yields in organic systems, which typically involved inadequate weed management and insufficient soil fertility at certain sites. Finally, these experiments serve as valuable demonstrations of the economic viability of organic systems for farmers and policymakers interested in viewing farm-scale organic operations and crop performance.
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Sustainable Agriculture Research; Vol. 4, No. 3; 2015
ISSN 1927-050X E-ISSN 1927-0518
Published by Canadian Center of Science and Education
A Review of Long-Term Organic Comparison Trials in the U.S.
Kathleen Delate1, Cynthia Cambardella2, Craig Chase3 & Robert Turnbull1
1 Department of Agronomy, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, USA
2 USDA-ARS, National Laboratory for Agriculture & the Environment, Ames, Iowa, USA
3 Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Ames, Iowa, USA
Correspondence: Kathleen Delate, Department of Agronomy, Iowa State University, 106 Horticulture Hall,
Ames, IA 50011, USA. Tel: 1-515-294-7069. E-mail:
Received: February 19, 2015 Accepted: March 22, 2015 Online Published: June 20, 2015
doi:10.5539/sar.v4n3p5 URL:
Long-term organic farming system trials were established across the U.S. to capture baseline agronomic,
economic and environmental data related to organic conversion under varying climatic conditions. These sites
have proven useful in providing supporting evidence for successful transition from conventional to organic
practices. All experiments chosen for this review were transdisciplinary in nature; analyzed comprehensive
system components (productivity, soil health, pest status, and economics); and contained all crops within each
rotation and cropping system each year to ensure the most robust analysis. In addition to yield comparisons,
necessary for determining the viability of organic operations, ecosystem services, such as soil carbon capture,
nutrient cycling, pest suppression, and water quality enhancement, have been documented for organic systems in
these trials. Outcomes from these long-term trials have been critical in elucidating factors underlying less than
optimal yields in organic systems, which typically involved inadequate weed management and insufficient soil
fertility at certain sites. Finally, these experiments serve as valuable demonstrations of the economic viability of
organic systems for farmers and policymakers interested in viewing farm-scale organic operations and crop
Keywords: agroecology, transdisciplinary research, organic transition
1. Introduction
As early as 1843 in Rothamsted, England, and 1876 in the Morrow Plots in Illinois, U.S.A., agricultural
researchers recognized the importance of documenting the impacts of long-term farming systems on crop
productivity, soil quality and economic performance. The link between soil quality and farm viability was well
understood, as Andrew Sloan Draper, who was President of the University of Illinois when the Morrow Plots
were established, stated prophetically that “The wealth of Illinois is in her soil, and her strength lies in its
intelligent development” (University of Illinois [UI], 2015). More recently, long-term organic farming system
trials across the U.S. have been established to capture similar information. These long-term crop rotation studies
also enable more robust economic analyses of potential profit outcomes as compared to experiments of shorter
duration (Delbridge, Coulter, King, Sheaffer, & Wyse, 2011).
This paper examines six of the oldest grain-crop-based organic comparison experiments in the U.S. (Table 1), the
goal of which is to demonstrate the unique contributions of each site and the usefulness of these sites in
communicating agronomic, as well as environmental and economic outcomes from organic agroecosystems, to both
producers and policymakers. Of particular interest to producers is the transition period at these sites: the 36 months
between the last application of prohibited synthetic inputs and certified organic status. Long-term cropping systems
trials can provide baseline data, monitor trends over time, and evaluate new technology in each system, within the
context of sustainability indices (Baldock, Hedtcke, Posner, & Hall, 2014). Each site is categorized based on
location (weather), soil type, crops, and organic/conventional management practices, to allow comparisons across
sites. Additionally, notations on whether the site is certified-organic or organic-compliant (using organic practices
without certification) are included. Recently, organic farmers have argued for organic research that is conducted on
certified organic sites to ensure a modicum of equivalency as compared to practitioners’ experiences. Thus, rotation
treatments that would not qualify for organic certification have been discouraged from future comparisons (e.g., one
site described below has changed their 2-yr to a 3-yr organic rotation). Sustainable Agriculture Research Vol. 4, No. 3; 2015
Table 1. Long-term organic comparison trials in the U.S.
Name of experiment Date
initiated Comparisons Main crops Lead entity and location
Farming Systems Trial
(FST) 1981 Conv1 C-S vs. Org 3 and
4-yr rotations Corn, soybean, wheat
Rodale Institute
Sustainable Ag Farming
Systems (SAFS) 1988 Conv C, W, S, B and T
vs. Org C, W, S, B, T, O
Corn, tomato, wheat,
bean, safflower,
University of California
Davis, California
Variable Input Crop
Management Systems
Conv C-S vs. Org 3
(dropped Org 2) and 4-yr
Corn, soybean, oat,
University of
Lamberton, Minnesota
Wisconsin Integrated
Cropping Systems Trials
1989 Conv C-S vs. Org 3 and
4-yr rotations
Corn, soybean, wheat,
oat, alfalfa
University of
Arlington, Wisconsin
Beltsville Farming Systems
Project (FSP) 1996 Conv C-S vs. Org 2, 3
and 6-yr rotations Corn, soybean, wheat USDA-ARS
Beltsville, MD
Long-Term Agroecological
Research (LTAR) 1998 Conv C-S vs. Org 3 and
4-yr rotations
Corn, soybean, oat,
Iowa State University
Greenfield, Iowa
1 Conv = following conventional practices; Org = following certified organic practices. C=corn; S=soybean;
W=wheat; O=oat; B=dry bean; S= safflower; T=tomato.
Key among organic practices is the necessity of extended crop rotations and organic-compliant soil amendments
to optimize production, with each of these practices affecting soil quality, carbon sequestration, nitrogen cycling,
and other associated functions. Soil quality is the main driver of optimal organic crop yields. Management of soil
organic matter (SOM) to enhance soil quality and supply nutrients is a key determinant of successful organic
farming, which involves balancing two ecological processes: mineralization of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) in
SOM for short-term crop uptake, and sequestering C and N in SOM pools for long-term maintenance of soil
quality. The latter has important implications for regional and global C and N budgets, including water quality
and C storage in soils. The importance of yield comparisons in long-term studies cannot be overlooked, as
Seufert, Ramankutty, and Foley (2012) in their meta-analysis of organic and conventional crop yields recognized
that optimal yields are central to sustainable food security, in addition to the range of other ecological, social and
economic benefits organic farming can deliver. For example, when reviewing the relative yield performance of
organic and conventional farming systems worldwide from studies beginning in 1988, Seufert et al. (2012)
documented a 5% to 34% lower yield under organic management, depending upon crop and soil type, along with
experience related to effective nutrient and pest management practices.
Several commonalities exist among the long-term experiments selected for this review (Table 1). All are
systems-level experiments with rotation treatments derived from organic crop rotations practiced in each specific
area. With corn (Zea mays L.) and soybean (Glycine max L.) production comprising 56% of the major crops
grown in the U.S. (USDA-NASS, 2011), and wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) the third largest crop, one to three of
these major crops are present in the trials discussed, as representative of the U.S. agricultural landscape. Because
organic systems are complex in nature, in systems-level experiments, the abiotic and biotic components
(structure) of the system can be evaluated in terms of the effects on system function (Drinkwater, 2002).
Resulting system function data is then used to elucidate factors underlying less than optimal yields (Seufert et al.,
2012) and help fine-tune best management practices to improve organic systems.
2. The Farming Systems Trial (FST) Rodale Institute, Pennsylvania
The Farming Systems Trial (FST) at Rodale Institute (RI) is the longest-running comparison of organic and
conventional agriculture systems in the U.S. Located near Kutztown, Pennsylvania, the soil type is a moderately
well-drained Comly silt loam. Established in 1981, in the year following the release of the first comprehensive Sustainable Agriculture Research Vol. 4, No. 3; 2015
study of organic agriculture by the USDA, which advocated such comparisons (USDA, 1980; Youngberg &
Demuth, 2013), the FST compares two organic systems with a conventional system, using 0.17-ha plots in eight
replications, with each crop in the rotation grown every year (Rodale Institute [RI], 2011). The farming systems
chosen were based on typical grain crops grown in Pennsylvania: in the conventional system, corn and soybean
were grown for 23 years, then wheat was added to the rotation starting in 2004. The two organic systems
consisted of corn, soybean, wheat, and red clover (Trifolium pretense L.)-alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) hay in the
rotation, and compared contrasting methods for maintaining soil fertility: 1) legume cover crops only, vs. 2)
manure-based fertility with cover crops. The conventional system followed land-grant university
recommendations for synthetic chemical nutrient and pest management inputs. The FST was one of the first
research units to report on the “transition effect” (Liebhardt et al., 1989), where organic grain yields matched
conventional yields after an initial yield decline during the transition years. In 2008, genetically modified (GM)
crops and glyphosate-based no-till treatments were added to the conventional comparison, in response to public
pressure to compare more current conventional systems. Although organic plots could not be certified organic
due to inadequate distance from GM crops, the organic systems always adhered to organic-compliant practices.
While many in the organic community were opposed to RI adding GM crops in the FST, it has been interesting
to note that, even with this advanced technology, conventional yields have not improved over non-GM
conventional crops, contrary to what proponents believed would occur (RI, 2011). In addition, organic systems
have demonstrated greater resiliency during drought, when organic corn yielded 8,411 kg ha-1 compared to 6,403
kg ha-1 in the conventional system (Lotter, Seidel, & Liebhardt, 2003).
The FST was one of the first comparison experiments that monitored water quality, through an underground
lysimeter system, and found that leachate from the conventional system more frequently exceeded the NO3-N
drinking water standard of 10 ppm than the organic systems (Pimentel, Hepperly, Hanson, Douds, & Sidel, 2005).
The RI also conducted a detailed energy analysis, which included the energy used in the manufacture,
transportation and application of fertilizers and pesticides in each FST system. Their analysis identified that FST
organic systems consumed 45% less energy than the conventional systems, with N fertilizer composing the
largest conventional system energy input at 41% of total energy consumption. Thus, production efficiency was
28% higher in the organic system, with the conventional no-till system having the lowest efficiency, based on
high-energy requirements for input manufacturing. In a concomitant analysis, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
associated with the conventional systems were 40% greater per volume of production than the organic systems
(RI, 2011).
Soil health, one of the key attributes in agriculture promoted by RI research, was shown to be greatest in the
organic system where manure fertilization was employed, followed by the organic legume system. Annual
carbon (C) increases were 981 kg C ha-1 in the organic/manure system, 574 kg C ha-1 in the organic/legume
system, and 293 kg C ha-1 in the conventional system (Pimentel et al., 2005). Based on the higher soil quality
promoting similar yields to the conventional system, the organic system has proven to be economically
competitive, with an analysis conducted by Hanson and Musser (2003) showing only a 10% organic premium
price was needed to ensure parity with the conventional system. When prevailing organic price premiums were
added, the organic system returns averaged 2.9 to 3.8 times the conventional system (Moyer, 2013). Organic
price premiums should be included in economic analyses, as they represent the reward organic farmers reap
when practicing organic farming—a premium organic consumers are willing to pay in support of farmers who
utilize less environmentally harmful methods of farming (Lin, Smith, & Huang, 2008).
3. The Sustainable Agriculture Farming Systems Project (SAFS), Davis, California
The Sustainable Agriculture Farming Systems project (SAFS) was established in 1988 at the University of
California, Davis, to study the transition from conventional to low-input and organic crop production practices
(University of California [UC], 2015). The experiment was unique in its study of Mediterranean crops, growing
on Reiff loams (coarse-loamy, mixed, non-acid thermic Mollic Xerofluvents) and Yolo silt loams (fine-silty,
mixed, non-acid, thermic Typic Xerothents). The SAFS site was located in the state with the highest number of
organic farmers in the U.S., which led to the integral role of farmers and farm advisors in the planning, execution,
and interpretation of results for greater dissemination to the organic farming community. In addition, organic
plots were certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), a critical factor in the site’s
applicability for regional farmers. Treatments included two conventional systems: a 2-yr (conv-2) and 4-yr
(conv-4) crop rotation; and two 4-yr low-input and organic crop rotations (Poudel et al., 2001). The three 4-yr
rotations included tomato, safflower, bean, and corn, while the conv-2 system was a tomato-wheat rotation. In
the low-input and organic treatments, an oat/vetch/pea mixture was also part of the rotation. Four replications of
each treatment and all crop rotation entry points were planted in 0.12 ha–plots, arranged in a randomized block, Sustainable Agriculture Research Vol. 4, No. 3; 2015
split-plot design. Furrow irrigation was used for all systems, typical of farming operations in California. Animal
manure and winter cover crops provided fertility in the organic system, while the conventional systems received
synthetic fertilizer inputs. The inclusion of a low-input system in long-term organic comparison trials can be
problematic (unless it is the sole conventional comparator), because few, if any, of the “low-input” systems
follow an equivalent pattern of input applications to allow comparisons across regions. For example, the SAFS
low-input system used cover crops and animal manure during the first 3 years, then switched to cover crops and
synthetic fertilizer, which would render it as essentially a conventional treatment.
Soils research at SAFS resulted in significant gain in our understanding of the processes involved in enhanced
soil quality resulting from organic practices, including increased storage of plant nutrients and C, a reduction in
soil-borne diseases, increased pools of P and K, higher microbial biomass and activity, an increase in mobile
humic acids and soil water-holding capacity (Clark, Horwath, Shennan, & Scow, 1998). The SAFS site was one
of the first experiments to examine soil microbial abundance and activity and determine the importance of cover
crops and fall irrigations in promoting bacterial-feeding nematode populations and N mineralization (Jaffee,
Ferris, & Scow, 1998), which led to improved organic tomato yields. Additionally, adjustments of grass/legume
cover crop mixtures according to soil fertility conditions, along with rotating cover crops, helped prevent stem
and foliar diseases. The inclusion of winter cover crops in the low-input and organic systems was a key factor in
the success of these systems by supplying soil nutrients and aiding in water infiltration, which proved
problematic under conventional management. Suppression of the root-knot nematode, Meloidogyne javanica,
was associated with high levels of microbial biomass observed in the systems using cover crops (Bossio, Scow,
Gunapala, & Graham, 1998). The conventional systems were the least efficient at storing N inputs, which are
critical for long-term fertility maintenance (Clark et al., 1998). Microbial community variables were positively
correlated with mineral N in the organic system, while the opposite was observed in the conv-4 system
(Gunapala & Scow, 1998).
Under California’s often challenging climate, organic crops with high N demands, such as tomato and corn, were
more susceptible to yield losses compared to conventional and low-input systems receiving annual applications
of synthetic N fertilizer, while organic bean and safflower crops produced comparable yields (UC, 2015). As
with the FST economic analysis, the importance of premium prices for economic viability was demonstrated,
where, among the 4-yr rotations in the SAFS study, the organic system with premium prices was the most
profitable (Clark, Klonsky, Livingston, & Temple, 1999). Interestingly, while the low-input system outperformed
the organic system agronomically, because of the conventional prices received for low-input crops, this system
fell below the two conventional systems in profitability.
In 2002–2003, SAFS began a second phase to examine the interaction of tillage effects on the three historical
systems, and explore off-farm environmental quality by joining the Long Term Research on Agricultural
Systems (LTRAS) project (UC, 2015). Many in the academic community were disappointed about the loss of
such a valuable, long-term certified organic site as SAFS. The history of the SAFS site illustrates the fragility of
long-term comparisons absent a strong and enduring institutional commitment. While important information may
be derived from the LTRAS site, the LTRAS site does not have the same history of organic farmer involvement
and oversight that the SAFS site invited, and many feel is critical for the success of long-term organic sites. As
stated on the SAFS website: “Ideas that were once considered to be impractical or even radical are now gaining
in popularity. As consumer demand for organic foods increases more growers are considering the transition to
organic farming systems and seek out the SAFS project to get information and advice” (UC, 2015).
4. The Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial (WICST), Arlington, Wisconsin
The WICST was established in 1989 but, because of a staggered start, every crop phase was not present every
year for all the crop rotations until 1992 (Posner, Casler, & Baldock, 1995). Four replications of each crop phase
were planted on 0.3–ha plots. The main soil type is a well-drained Plano silt loam (fine-silty, mixed, superactive,
mesic Typic Argiudoll). The treatments include six cropping systems (CS): 1) conventional continuous corn
(CS1: CC); 2) conventional corn–soybean (CS2: C-S); 3) organic corn–soybean–winter wheat with frost-seeded
red clover (CS3: C-S-W/RC); 4) conventional corn–alfalfa (CS4: C-A); 5) organic corn–alfalfa–oat (Aven a
sativa L.) plus field pea (Pisum sativum L.) mix, followed by a year of alfalfa hay (CS5: C-A/O/P-A); and a
rotationally grazed pasture (CS6: RC/T/BG/OG) seeded to a mixture of red clover, timothy (Phleum pratense L.),
brome grass (Bromus inermis L.) and orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata L.). Soil changes at this site have not
been as consistent as other long-term sites, primarily because of a history of a dairy–forage cropping system of
corn and alfalfa with manure returned to the land for 20 years before establishing the trial, leading to high
organic matter levels (47 kg g-1 at 0–15 cm) prior to the start of the experiment. The most salient observation
from the WICST has been the correlation between weather, weeds and organic crop yields (Posner, Baldcock, & Sustainable Agriculture Research Vol. 4, No. 3; 2015
Hedtcke, 2008). Because mechanical weed cultivation in organic systems is dependent on dry weather, in the
years when wet weather prevented timely weed management, organic corn yields ranged from 72 to 84% of
conventional corn yields, and organic soybean yields ranged from 64 to 79% of conventional soybean yields.
Gaining experience and more advanced equipment for organic operations may have also impacted yield
differences, as systems nearly equalized when better technology was introduced in the organic systems, and all
cropping systems produced positive, average corn yield trends ranging from 0.1 to 0.2 Mg ha-1 yr-1 (Baldock et al.
2014). Similar to the FST results, adding GM crops did not improve yields. This was the first long-term trial to
demonstrate that organic forage crop yields were equal or greater than conventional counterparts, with quality
sufficient to produce an equivalent volume of milk as the conventional systems (Posner, Baldock & Hedtcke,
5. The Variable Input Crop Management Systems (VICMS) Trial, Lamberton, Minnesota
The Variable Input Crop Management Systems (VICMS) trial was established in 1989 at the University of
Minnesota Southwest Research and Outreach Center near Lamberton, MN. Soil types at the site include
Normania clay loam (fine-loamy, mixed, superactive, mesic Aquic Hapludolls), Revere clay loam (fine-loamy,
mixed, superactive, mesic Typic Calciaquolls), Ves clay loam (fine-loamy, mixed, superactive, mesic Calcic
Hapludolls), and Webster clay loam (fine-loamy, mixed, superactive, mesic Typic Endoquolls) (Porter et al.
2003). Two crop rotations and four management strategies are included in the trial, resulting in eight distinct
crop management systems. The original crop rotations were a 2-yr corn-soybean rotation, and a 4-yr
corn–soybean-oat/alfalfa–alfalfa rotation. The management strategies are zero-external-input (ZEI),
low-external-input (LEI), high-external-input (HEI), and organic-inputs (OI). Liquid swine or beef manure was
the external nutrient source in the 2- and 4-yr OI systems (applied at 129-138 kg N ha-1). Treatments were
replicated three times in a split-plot arrangement, with main plots as crop rotation, and all phases of each rotation
present in each year. Split plots, constituting management systems, are 0.16–ha. As previously mentioned, the
original 2-yr organic rotation has been replaced with a 3-yr rotation of corn-soybean-wheat/red clover to align
the study more closely with predominant organic crop rotations in the region. From 1992 to 2007, corn grain
yield was not reduced in LEI and OI 4-yr rotations compared to the HEI 2-year rotation (Coulter, Delbridge,
King, Allan & Schaeffer, 2013). Highest organic corn yields, as observed in other long-term sites, were
associated with timely weed management. The benefit of the longer organic rotation was observed with soybean
yield response, as the relative soybean yield as a percentage of the HEI 2-yr rotation was greatest in the OI 4-yr
rotation from 1992 to 2003 (65%) and in the OI 2- and 4-yr rotations from 2004 to 2007 (38 and 41%,
respectively) (Coulter et al., 2013).
Soil quality increased in the organic systems in a similar pattern as other long-term sites. The OI system
contained the greatest amount of particulate organic matter and potentially mineralizable C compared to the
other systems in both rotations (Coulter et al., 2013). Total soil organic C and microbial biomass was higher in
the 4-yr OI system than the 4-yr HEI system. Some of the most important contributions from the VICMS site
included a detailed economic analysis of the organic systems, including risk analysis. Delbridge et al. (2011)
found that when organic price premiums were applied, the average net return of the organic rotation was
considerably larger than that of both conventional rotations ($1329 ha-1 vs. an average of $761 ha-1). Across
years and crops, net return was 88% greater with the OI 4-yr rotation than the HEI 2-yr rotation. Organic systems
also were found to be stochastically dominant to conventional rotations at all levels of risk aversion (Delbridge,
Fernholz, King, & Lazarus, 2013).
6. USDA-ARS (Agricultural Research Service)-Farming Systems Project (FSP)
The FSP was established in 1996 at the USDA-ARS Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center
(BARC) in Beltsville, Maryland. In contrast to other sites, the FSP was designed to evaluate the sustainability of
organic rotations, using typical tillage regimes, compared to conventional cropping systems using both tilled and
no-till operations (Cavigelli, Teasdale & Spargo, 2013). Farmers, extension agents, agribusiness professionals,
and agricultural researchers were involved in system design. The FSP is comprised of five cropping systems: 1)
conventional no-till (NT) corn–soybean–wheat/double-crop soybean rotation: NT: C–S–W/S; 2) a conventional
chisel-till (CT) corn–soybean–wheat/soybean rotation: CT: C–S–W/S; 3) a 2-year organic corn–soybean rotation
(Org2: C–S); 4) a 3-yr organic corn–soybean–wheat rotation (Org3: C–S–W); and 5) a 6-yr organic
corn–soybean–wheat– alfalfa (3 years) rotation (Org6: C–S–W–A–A–A). All plots are 0.1 ha in size and all are
managed using full-sized farming equipment. Soils at the site range from poorly-drained to well-drained Ultisols.
Results observed at the FSP support the association between system stability and diversity, with lengthening
rotations improving agronomic, economic and environmental performance. Specifically, N availability was
greater in the 6-yr organic rotation and yields were greater than the 3-yr organic rotation and 2-yr conventional Sustainable Agriculture Research Vol. 4, No. 3; 2015
C-S yields.
Regarding other aspects of soil quality, POMN and SOC in all organic systems were greater than in the
conventional NT, which signaled the first report of this phenomenon. Conventional no-till farming, which relies
on petroleum-based glyphosate herbicide, is advocated throughout the U.S. for its soil quality enhancement, but
the N mineralization potential of the organic system at the FSP was, on average, 34% greater than conventional
NT after 14 years. Total potentially mineralizable N in organic systems (average 315 kg N ha-1) was significantly
greater than the conventional systems (average 235 kg N ha-1) (Spargo, Cavigelli, Mirsky, Maul & Meisinger,
2011). The SOC was greater in the 6-yr organic rotation compared to NT at all depths except 0 to 2 inches.
Despite the use of tillage in organic systems, soil combustible C and N were higher after 9 years in an organic
system that included cover crops compared with the three conventional no-till systems, two of which included
cover crops, suggesting that organic practices can potentially provide greater long-term soil benefits than
conventional no-till (Teasdale, Coffman & Mangum, 2007). Weed pressure decreased with longer rotations
(Teasdale & Cavigelli, 2010), suggesting an allelopathic or competitive effect from multiple years of alfalfa–a
solid-seeded crop that was cut regularly, which inhibited weed growth. Economic risk also decreased as rotation
length increased, and organic returns averaged $706 ha-1 compared to $193 ha-1 (Cavigelli, Hima, Hanson,
Teasdale, Conklin, & Lu, 2009). Throughout the mid-Atlantic states, rising concerns regarding nitrate and
phosphate fertilization pollution into fragile waterways, like the Chesapeake Bay, has led to increasing
restrictions and research on pollution-mitigation methods. A beneficial outcome of the 6-yr organic rotation in
this regard was that less poultry manure was needed for optimal yields compared to shorter rotations, thus
decreasing nitrate and phosphate pollution potential.
7. The Long-Term Agroecological Research (LTAR) Experiment, Iowa
The LTAR experiment was established in 1998 at the Iowa State University Neely-Kinyon Farm in Greenfield,
Iowa, with funding from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. This support allowed focus groups of
conventional and organic farmers to help determine the appropriate design and purpose of the LTAR experiment
(Delate & DeWitt, 2004). Farmers requested a long-term comparison of the ecological and economic outcomes
of conventional and organic cropping systems. The research was then constructed to evaluate alternatives to the
traditional corn–soybean rotation in Iowa, and investigate production processes based on agroecological
principles, designed to reduce off-farm energy demand and to increase the internal resilience of agroecosystems,
which consequently increases their adaptability to potential climate change. Unlike purely research-based
experiments, the goal of the LTAR site is to encourage transition to organic production, by documenting the
environmental services in organic systems that contribute to climate change mitigation and enhancement of soil
quality, crop health, productivity, and food quality. Objectives include identifying cropping systems within the
LTAR experiment that maximize yields and soil quality, by fostering carbon sequestration and minimizing
nutrient loss; promoting supporting and provisioning ecosystem services of biodiversity, pest suppression, water
quality, and soil health through the integration of C-stabilizing components; increasing economic returns by
reducing costs of production in field operations and labor, decreasing dependence on external sources of applied
fertility, lowering energy costs, and gaining carbon credits. Finally, educational objectives include field days,
workshops and pasture walks for farmers, students, and agricultural professionals to increase understanding and
facilitation of the transition to organic production.
The LTAR experiment is located on a 7-ha ridge top with a uniform slope of 0 to 2% with the predominant soil
type a moderately well-drained Macksburg silty clay loam (fine, smectitic, mesic Aquic Argiudolls). The
cropping system treatments at the LTAR site were designed based on local farmer input with the goal of organic
certification 36 months after establishment. Each crop in each rotation is replicated four times in 0.1–ha plots.
Rotations include: 1) conventional corn-soybean (C–S); 2) organic corn-soybean-oats/alfalfa (C–S–O/A); and 3)
organic corn-soybean-oats/alfalfa-alfalfa (C–S–O/A–A). Conventional crops are maintained with synthetic
fertilization and pesticides, while certified organic fertilization and pest management methods are used in
organic plots, using typical farming equipment for the area. Effects of system and rotation treatments are
determined for crop productivity and yields; weed, insect, disease, and nematode pest management; soil quality
and fertility; nutrient retention and balance; and grain quality. Economic analyses, determined for each treatment,
include costs of inputs, subsequent yields, and selling price of organic and conventional crops.
Over 13 years, LTAR organic corn and soybean yields were equivalent or greater than conventional counterparts.
Unlike many studies where organic yields suffer during the transition phase, the first LTAR
transitioning-to-organic phase demonstrated corn yields in the organic system that were 92% of conventional
corn yields while organic soybean yields were 99.6% of conventional soybean yield (Delate & Cambardella,
2004). The advantage of the longer, 4-year organic rotation, which included two years of a perennial legume Sustainable Agriculture Research Vol. 4, No. 3; 2015
crop, was exhibited by organic corn yields that averaged 99% of the average conventional corn yield in the
post-transitioning phase (Delate, Cambardella, Chase, Johanns, & Turnbull, 2013). Organic soybean yields were
5% greater in the organic rotations than conventional soybean yields. Soil quality results from the LTAR showed
that overall soil quality, and especially soil N mineralization potential, was highest in the 4-year organic crop
rotation. The organic soils had more soil organic carbon, total N, microbial biomass C, labile organic N, higher P,
K, Mg and Ca concentrations, and lower soil acidity than conventional soils. A particularly interesting soils
result was obtained in 2012, when an extended drought period was experienced, with 22 cm below normal
rainfall during the growing season, and an average of 3 °C above normal temperatures in July. At the end of the
2012-growing season, particulate organic matter C (POM-C) was higher in the organic soils than the
conventional, likely because of altered rates of decomposition of new residue C inputs during this especially dry
year (Table 2). Soil quality enhancement was particularly evident for labile soil C and N pools, which are critical
for maintenance of N fertility in organic systems, and for basic cation concentrations, which control nutrient
availability through the relationship with cation exchange capacity (CEC). Despite the serious drought
conditions during the growing season in 2012, organic management enhanced agroecosystem resilience and
maintained a critical soil function, the capacity to supply nutrients to the crops. Carbon budgets developed after
10 years of organic production showed that the 4-yr organic cropping system can potentially sequester as much
soil organic carbon (SOC) in the top 15 cm as obtained when converting from plowing to no-tillage, which is
considered the best management practice in conventional farming.
Table 2. Neely-Kinyon Long-Term Agroecological Research (LTAR) experiment soil quality–Fall 2012
mgkg-1 pH Aggs % BD
ConvC-S1 23.1 2.4 3.0 0.31 275 40.1 21.4 21.2 185 366 3487 6.09 34.9 1.27
OrgC-S-O/A 25.7 2.6 4.5 0.33 270 51.9 20.5 57.5 283 413 3870 6.51 35.0 1.22
OrgC-S-O/A-A 24.8 2.5 3.8 0.23 296 52.1 19.7 34.0 251 407 3831 6.41 41.2 1.21
OrgC-S-C-O/A 24.7 2.5 4.3 0.28 362 52.2 16.7 27.4 203 479 3866 6.34 45.4 1.13
LSD 0.05 1.4 0.1 1.1 NS 42 7.1 NS 12.7 50.9 50.1 161 0.19 7.4 0.08
1Results from five randomly-located soil cores (0-15 cm), composited, and removed from each plot after fall
harvest, prior to any tillage. Conv = conventional; Org = certified organic; C = corn; S = soybean; O = oats; and
A = alfalfa. SOC = soil organic carbon; TN = total nitrogen; POM-C = particulate organic matter-carbon;
POM-N = particulate organic matter-nitrogen; MBC = microbial biomass carbon; NO3-N = nitrate-nitrogen; P =
phosphorus; K = potassium; Mg = magnesium; Ca = calcium; Aggs = aggregate stability; BD = bulk density;
LSD = Least Significant Difference at p<0.05; NS = not significant.
Economic returns mirrored those previously reported at other sites, with the organic rotations garnering, on
average, twice the returns of the conventional rotation (Delate et al., 2013), and lower costs than conventional
crops during transition (Delate, Duffy, Chase, Holste, Friedrich, & Wantate, 2003; Delate, Chase, Duffy, &
Turnbull, 2006). Results from the LTAR experiment have been similar to other long-term trials, although LTAR
organic yields have often exceeded those reported in the literature. Higher than usual yields during the transition
phase could be attributed to the overall fertility of the Mollisols at the site and the high level of weed
management experience, which has been a key aspect of success. Despite the equivalence in net C input, the soil
under organic management holds significantly more C than the soil under conventional management, and over
the coming decade, we will continue to monitor resulting changes in soil edaphic and biotic characteristics
including soil microbial community structure and function under the various cropping systems.
8. Conclusions
The six long-term organic comparison sites examined in this review have contributed to an invaluable
understanding of the mechanisms underpinning higher soil quality in organic systems, particularly enhanced C
and N storage, leading to competitive economic returns. All experiments were transdisciplinary in nature;
analyzed comprehensive system components (productivity, soil health, pest status, and economics); and
contained all crops within each rotation and cropping system each year, a critical factor for analysis across years.
Plot size ranged from 0.1 to 0.3 ha–an area of sufficient size to utilize farm-scale machinery and provide an Sustainable Agriculture Research Vol. 4, No. 3; 2015
accurate portrayal of typical farmer experience–often lacking in research station plot research. While, ideally,
on-farm sites with larger fields should be employed as comparators to field station experiments to allow a
minimum comparison of 5 to 10 years since conversion from conventional farming, as promulgated by Sir Albert
Howard (1946), oftentimes, long-term on-farm sites are difficult to obtain and manage. Comparisons with
organic grain yields reported from organic farmer surveys in Iowa showed a reduction of 17-20% in organic corn
and soybean yields, but returns comparable to the 2X results demonstrated in the long-term trials (Chase, Delate,
Liebman, & Leibold, 2008). Organic yield performance was improved in four of the six sites with increased
experience and timely weed management, while two sites (FSP and LTAR) with experienced farm managers
reported adequate weed control and concomitant equivalent organic and conventional yields early in the
long-term site’s history. The addition of manure, along with legume forages/cover crops, in the organic fertility
scheme has proven essential for sufficient soil quality to support optimal yields across all sites. The scientific
rigor under which these sites were operated has provided strong evidence supporting the viability of organic
cropping systems for farmers and policymakers alike. Wherever organic farmer involvement in experimental
design and feedback was explicit, and organic certification was obtained, organic comparison sites appeared to
be more successful in terms of engagement and dissemination of results.
With organic product supply lagging behind the expanding market demand, partially owing to the perceived
obstacles to successful transition to organic production (Dimitri & Oberholtzer, 2009), these sites provided
sufficient evidence of the potential for successful organic transition. Adoption of land management strategies that
foster C sequestration in agricultural soils will be important over the next several decades as we develop new
mitigation strategies and technologies to reduce C emissions (Smith, 2004). Agricultural land management
options currently recommended to foster C sequestration nearly always include some reduction in tillage
intensity, which has been the on-going, or second-phase research, of four of the long-term sites (FST, SAFS, FSP;
now VICMS), and implementation of integrated, multifunctional cropping rotations that include cover
crops/forage legumes, small grains, and animal manure/compost soil amendments, as demonstrated by all
long-term sites. Water quality enhancement, by reducing NO3-N loss through the adoption of organically
managed extended rotations that include small grains, forage legumes and pasture (see Cambardella & Delate,
this issue), is considered an integral part of the next phase of many of the long-term trials. These results suggest
that organic farming practices have the potential to reduce nitrate leaching, foster carbon sequestration, and
allow farmers to remain competitive in the marketplace. Institutional support for these long-term comparisons is
critical for successful organic farming demonstrations for area farmers and policymakers.
Funding in support of the oral presentation and publication of this paper was provided by OECD and
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Sustainable Agriculture is gratefully acknowledged.
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... On the other hand, the accumulation of SOC in organic farming practices is also explained by more transformation of plant carbon into soil microbial biomass (Kallenbach et al., 2015). In a 6-year long trial in the USA, a higher soil quality was determined in organic agricultural soils with more C and N accumulation than conventional soils (Delate et al., 2017). According to the data in the Table 1, organically managed farmland in Chine for 2013 supplied significant contributions to C-equestrian (Meng et al., 2017). ...
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Despite increasing interest in organic grain crop production, there is inadequate information regarding agronomic, economic and environmental performance of organically produced grain crops in the US, especially in the Coastal Plain soils of the mid-Atlantic region. The Beltsville Farming Systems Project (FSP), a long-term cropping systems experiment, was established in Maryland in 1996 to address these needs. The project includes three organic and two conventional cropping systems (Table 1). It is the only long-term project in the US that includes three organic cropping systems that differ in crop rotation length and complexity. Research results from this project show that increasing cropping system diversity improves agronomic, economic, and environmental performance of organic grain cropping systems. Crop Yield Corn grain yield in a six-year rotation (Org6), which includes summer annual (corn, soybean), winter annual (winter wheat), and herbaceous perennial (alfalfa for three years) cash crops was, on average, 10% greater than in a three-year rotation (Org3) that includes only summer and winter annual cash crops, and 30% greater than in a two-year rotation (Org2) that includes only summer annual cash crops (Table 1). These differences, which represent results for the first 10 years of the project, were the result of both increases in N availability and decreases in weed competition as crop rotation length and complexity increased (4,9,10). As a point of reference, mean corn yield for the two conventional systems during this same time period, which included substantial drought years, was 126 bu/acre, which is 29% greater than for Org6.
The Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial (WICST) at Arlington, WI, compared five production philosophies in place of fixed treatments, which can be problematic, during 1990 to 2012. Corn (Zea mays L.) was the test crop common to the five cropping systems. All five cropping systems produced positive, average corn yield trends ranging from 0.1 to 0.2 Mg ha(-1) yr(-1). The overall rates in three conventional systems exceeded those in two organic systems; but the systems nearly equalized when better technology was introduced in the organic systems. Genetic engineering did not accelerate yield improvements. Hence the difference between conventional and organic systems has been largely due to the available technology, not agroecological factors. The yield advantage for corn following alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) vs. continuous corn (the rotation effect) was 1.47 +/- 0.38 Mg ha(-1) with no linear or quadratic trends and with the largest values occurring in years with stresses that hindered corn development. Although all five cropping systems produced positive yield trends across two decades, that did not prove they were sustainable over the longer term. There was no clear advantage for either organic or conventional systems in regard to sustainability so the selection process should tailor the cropping system to the individual farm. The resulting picture is a dynamic agriculture with each cropping system encountering and solving challenges. Furthermore, it shows the benefits of long-term, cropping systems trials in providing base line data, monitoring time-trends, evaluating new technology, and examining sustainability issues.
Long-term crop rotation studies enable economic analyses that include a more complete representation of possible profit outcomes than do experiments of shorter duration. The objective of this study was to compare the profitability and risk of organic input (OI) and chemical input (CI) 4-yr corn (Zea mays L.)-soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.]-oat (Avena sativa L.)/alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.)-alfalfa crop rotations with a CI 2-yr corn-soybean rotation using yield and management data from an 18-yr experiment in southwestern Minnesota. Estimated production costs were matched with trial yields and commodity prices to calculate a distribution of net returns for each crop rotation. Cumulative distribution functions (CDFs) were constructed and compared using stochastic dominance. Average production costs for the CI 2-yr rotation were higher than those for the CI and OI 4-yr rotations ($488 ha(-1), $405 ha(-1), and $409 ha(-1), respectively) though the OI rotation had higher machinery costs. The average net return for the CI 2-yr rotation was the highest of the three rotations analyzed when no organic price premiums were considered. However, when organic price premiums were applied, the average net return of the OI rotation was considerably larger than that of the CI 4-yr and 2-yr rotations ($1329 ha-1, $675 ha(-1), and $846 ha(-1), respectively), and the OI rotation was stochastically dominant to both CI rotations at all levels of risk aversion.
Previous studies have found that organic crop production in the midwestern United States can be more profitable than conventional crop production. However, these studies have failed to consider potential differences in farm size between the two systems. If an organic crop rotation cannot be managed on as large an area as a conventional rotation given the same resources, a per-hectare profitability advantage for the organic system would not necessarily translate into a whole-farm profitability advantage.
Biospheric carbon sinks and sources can be included in attempts to meet emission reduction targets during the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. Forest management, cropland management, grazing land management and re-vegetation are allowable activities under Article 3.4 of the Kyoto Protocol. Soil carbon sinks (and sources) can, therefore, be included under these activities. In this paper, the role of croplands in the European carbon budget and the potential for carbon sequestration in European croplands are reviewed. The global context is then considered.
A 5-yr cropping system experiment was initiated in 1981 to study transition from a conventional agricultural system using pesticides and fertilizers to a low-input system. The site was primarily Comly silt loam (fine-loamy, mixed, mesic, Typic Fragiudalf) with 12% Berks shaly silt loam (loamy-skeletal, mixed, mesic, Typic Dystrochrept), and a small area of Duffield silt loam (fine-loamy, mixed, mesic, Ultic Hapludalf), in Berks County, eastern Pennsylvania. Three 5-yr rotations were compared. A conventional corn (Zea mays L.)-soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.] rotation (designated “conventional”) was compared to two low-input rotations which utilized oat (Avena saliva L.), red clover (Trifolium pratense L.) and winter wheat (Triticum aestivum L.), in addition to corn and soybean. One low-input rotation used cattle manure as a nutrient source and produced forage crops in addition to cash crops (designated “low-input/livestock”), while the other used legume crops as a nutrient source, and produced a cash crop every year (designated “low-input/cash grain”). Corn grain yields in the low-input systems were 75% of conventional in 1981 to 1984, but yields were not significantly different in 1985. Weed competition and insufficient N limited low-input corn yields during the first 4 yr. Soybean yields in the low-input systems were equal to or greater than conventional all 5 yr. It is concluded that a favorable transition from input-intensive cropping to low-input systems is feasible, but only if crop rotations are used which include crops that demand less N and are competitive with weeds, such as small grain, soybean, or legume hay. Corn should be avoided for the first 3 to 4 yr. Joint contribution of the Rodale Research Center, a division of Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA and the USDA-ARS. Please view the pdf by using the Full Text (PDF) link under 'View' to the left. Copyright © . .