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by Hugh Maynard
It will probably go down in history as one of the more twisted roads of fate that the Rodale Institute Research Centre, one of the United States pre-eminent agricultural research organizations, should trace its origins to a playwright from Brooklyn, N.Y.
J. I. Rodale, having purchased an 80 acre farm in Pennsylvania, became intrigued with the process of composting food waste. Consequently, he published the first edition of "Organic Gardening" magazine in 1942, later using the proceeds from an electrical supply business to build an institute committed to all facets of a healthy lifestyle.
At a time when few had concerns about what they ate, how it was produced and the consequences of an indifferent attitude towards the daily habits of life, Rodale published books on gardening, health and fitness. His son Robert became president of the Rodale Institute in 1972, soon after forming the Research Centre which today comprises 333 acres of farmland in Kutztown, Pa.
The centre conducts long-term cropping systems trials that provide data on changes in soil properties - biological, physical and chemical. This information allows the centre to make more realistic estimates of the profitability of these systems for farmers, both in terms of net return and risk. The results are disseminated through the Institute's magazine, New Farm, which dedicates its mission "to putting people, profit and biological permanence back into farming by giving farmers the information they need to take charge of their farms and their futures."
An interesting aspect of the Centre's farm work is that the research has been conducted on the same land since 1978, fields that had become depleted of organic matter and nutrient reserves from years of continuous monocropping in carrots. Since then, organic matter levels have been restored through use of manures (animal and green), rotation and crop residue management.
The only nutrient amendment added to the soil has been potassium sulphate, which Rhonda Janke, Director of Research at the Centre, estimates only need be done once every ten years. "Lime and seeds are our only purchased crop inputs. We're pretty well self-sufficient," she says.
The farm has operated on an organic basis since 1972, with the exception of comparison plots, where fertilizers and pesticides are used along with conventional cropping practices. Yields for the three principle crops - corn, soya and cereals - have been generally above county averages, "but not breaking any records," according to Janke. These results come from plot level data with extrapolation for overall yields.
The principal means of determining the feasibility of regenerative agricultural practices at the Centre is the "Farming Systems Trial", the second longest running project in the U.S. since its inception in 1981. The Centre is collaborating with Michigan, Cornell, Ohio State and Penn State universities in the study.
The trial compares low input practices (with animals), low input practices (with cash grain crops) and conventional cash grain crops. To date, the trial has recorded 25 percent yield reductions in corn during the first four years of transition from conventional to organic farming methods. These yield losses have been recuperated, however, in later years. Economic data shows return to land and management in the first five years averaged $185 per acre per year for low input with animals, $133 for the low input cash grain system and $156 for the conventional cash grain system.
"Using animal manure makes organic farming easier but biologically it is possible to farm without livestock manure if you are careful with cover crops and rotation," commented Janke.
The Centre is also conducting parallel initiatives to confirm the results obtained at the research level. One of these is on-farm research through a network of co-operators, now established in three regions of the U.S. One farm co-operator in Iowa recorded corn yields of 204 bushels per acre in the state's 1991 Master Yield Contest, using only 60 lbs of spring applied nitrogen fertilizer and band spraying $8.00 of herbicide per acre.
Another project, now in its second year, is a farm management study conducted on 31 acres of a neighbouring farm. Farming practices developed at the Rodale Institute are being utilized with the aim of collecting information relating to the economic, labour and energy use effects of sustainable farming methods.
While much of the Centre's research efforts are now being emulated by institutions and organizations across North America, the Rodale Institute Research Centre has taken on a number of new projects in the world of regenerative agriculture.
The low input-reduced tillage experiment is an attempt to take both concepts one step further. Many no-till or reduced till cropping practices often end up requiring more herbicides to control weeds because of the elimination of mouldboard plowing. This trial is aimed at developing a cropping system with reduced tillage, herbicide and fertilizer using cover crops to control weeds and provide nitrogen to following grain crops.
"Every institute has a niche and our niche is to push no-till as far as we can with no herbicides," says Janke. She notes that reduced tillage is of greater benefit to some geographic regions than others. In the South, for example, organic matter residues decompose so quickly that they can't even be replaced with green manures. Reduced tillage allows for organic matter levels to be rebuilt and maintained.
After four years of trials, grain yields have been higher where good crop stands were established and weeds were controlled. This occurred mostly under tillage, both mouldboard and chisel plowing, and in both conventional and low input systems. While yields from ridge and no-till systems were mixed, establishing a good ground cover and good seed-to-soil contact were consistent indicators of success. Large seeded crops such as corn and soybeans have been easier to manage in reduced tillage sites, whereas finer seeded varieties, such as hairy vetch (as a ground cover) fared better when seeded to a fine seed bed established as a result of plowing. The trials will continue for another ten to twenty years.
Another step into the future has been the examination of perennial cropping systems, with the initial investigation into perennial grain production using intermediate wheatgrass. The benefit is the capability to produce grain crops while maintaining year round ground cover and reducing inputs.
Wheatgrass, a perennial relative of wheat, produces a grain that can be mechanically harvested with conventional equipment. It is nutritionally similar to wheat, has a higher protein content but no functional gluten. Trials have demonstrated that it can be ground into flour and used in muffins and bread. The species has the potential of supplying grain for both human and animal requirements while providing a year round ground cover for the cereal component of a farm's rotation plan.
Copyright © 1992 REAP Canada.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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