(Beyond Pesticides, November 18, 2011) Organic crop systems can provide similar yields and much higher economic returns than a conventional corn-soybean rotation, according to thirteen years of data from a side-by-side comparison at Iowa State University’s Neely-Kinyon Research and Demonstration Farm. The University’s Long-Term Agroecological Research Experiment (LTAR) began in 1998 with support from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. LTAR is one of the longest running replicated comparisons in the country. Kathleen Delate, PhD., professor in ISU Agronomy and Horticulture, leads the project.
“The transitioning years are the hardest years,” Dr. Delate said, explaining that the project was originally designed to help farmers make the shift into an organic system. To sell a product as organic, the crop must be raised for three years prior to harvest in accordance with organic systems plans on land that has not been treated with synthetic fertilizers and has only been exposed to substances placed on the “NationL List, ” which is established by the Organic Foods Production Act.
The LTAR experiment shows that organic crops can remain competitive with conventional crops even during the three-year transition. Averaged over 13 years, yields of organic corn, soybean, and oats have been equivalent to or slightly greater than their conventional counterparts. Likewise, a 12-year average for alfalfa and an 8-year average for winter wheat also show no significant difference between organic yields and the Adair County average.
Organic crops fetch a premium price on the market and eliminate the need for expensive inputs like herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. As a result, they are far more profitable than conventional crops. Craig Chase, PhD., interim leader of the Leopold Center’s Marketing and Food Systems Initiative and extension farm management specialist, calculates the returns to management””that is, the money left over for family living after deducting labor, land, and production costs””for both systems. He bases his calculations on actual LTAR data from 1998 to 2004, as well as scenarios modeled with enterprise budgets.
Both methods gave the same result: On average, organic systems return roughly $200 per acre more than conventional crops.
In addition to its profitability, organic agriculture helps build healthy soils. While conventional LTAR plots receive synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, organic plots receive only local, manure-based amendments. Total nitrogen increased by 33 percent in the organic plots, and researchers measured higher concentrations of carbon, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, and calcium. The results suggest that organic farming can foster greater efficiency in nutrient use and higher potential for sequestrating carbon.
Dr. Delate said they use “a whole suite of practices to manage weeds” in the organic plots, including timely tillage and longer crop rotations. Allelopathic chemicals from rye and alfalfa help keep weed populations under control, as does growing an alfalfa cover crop in winter, which provided cover for beneficial insects and animals.
“I think there’s a strong future for organic agriculture,” Dr. Delate said. “My phone is ringing off the hook. The interest hasn’t waned.”
LTAR’s findings concur with recently published results from the Rodale Institute’s 30-year Farming Systems Trial in Pennsylvania. The Rodale Institute also concludes that organic systems can provide similar yields and greater profits. In addition, Rodale calculates that organic crops require 45 percent less energy, and contributes significantly less to greenhouse gas emissions. Organic corn proves especially profitable during drought years, when its yields jump up to 31 percent higher than conventional.
Download a brochure about the LTAR project here.
For more information on organic food and farming, visit our Organic program page.
Take Action: Organic agriculture has been proven time again to be equally viable for both farmers and consumers while having none of the ill effects of conventional industrial agriculture. However, organic systems receive very little federal support, especially compared to the billions of dollars in subsidies that are paid to conventional producers every year. A bill currently being considered in Congress seeks to work toward correcting this imbalance.
Tell your Congressional representatives to support the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act (LFFJA), S. 1773 and H.R. 3286, which is a comprehensive bill intended for inclusion in the 2012 Farm Bill. The legislation helps farmers and ranchers by addressing production, aggregation, processing, marketing, and distribution needs to access growing local and regional food markets. The bill would provide critical support for a number of programs that benefit organic farmers and the organic industry, as well. It also assists consumers by improving access to healthy food. The measure provides secure farm bill funding for critically important programs that support organic and family farms, expand new farming opportunities, create rural jobs, and invest in the local food and agriculture economy.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.