By Roger Blobaum
Setting up some alternative crop management plots at an agricultural field laboratory hardly qualifies as a major research event. But to Midwest organic farmers, accustomed to getting the cold shoulder from agricultural college researchers, it ranks as a significant breakthrough.
A report on these new plots by Dr. Warren W. Sahs was warmly received at a recent meeting at Boys Town, Neb. This might seem routine except that Sahs is assistant director of the Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station, most of the producers in the audience were organic farmers, and the occasion was a day-long workshop on biological agriculture.
At a time when policymakers in the Department of Agriculture and at most colleges of agriculture still refuse to work with organic farmers in developing betters ways to farm without chemicals, the experiments set up by Sahs and other University of Nebraska scientists stand out.
Sahs reported that more than 50 plots, each with 13 different treatments repeated four times, are now in their second year. The series is tilled like an organic farm with manure applications, no chemicals, and a 4-year rotation of oats and clover, corn, soybeans, and corn.
The soil was limed and sampled when the series of plots was set up, he said, and will be sampled again at the end of the 4-year cycle for such things as organic matter content, phosphorus availability, zinc and potassium levels, and soil compaction. The land is a silty clay loam a good uniform soil, and was in alfalfa for four years before the experiments were started.
Sahs began his workshop report by introducing several staff members from the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the new name adopted by the college of agriculture at the University of Nebraska. He emphasized that the three long-term alternative management experiments now underway are the work of a committee involving scientists from several disciplines.
“This work began about two years ago,” he said, “when we had renewed interest at the experiment station–and you people helped us on this–in taking a look at where we had been and we we might need to be going in agriculture in the future.”
These are believed to be the first genuine organic farming experiments initiated by a land grant university since long before farmers started using nitrogen fertilizer and other chemicals. Many of the early field experiments were discontinued in the 1950s. At least two, those at Sanborn Field at Missouri and the Morrow Plots at Illinois, are still maintained.
Nebraska has conducted rotational experiments since 1912 at its Panhandle Station, with corn grown continuously until 1942 with no fertilizer or manure added. From then on, half the plots were manured at the rate of 12 tons per acre.
Panhandle Station reports show that hybrid corn yields on the manured plots increased steadily for more than 10 years, leveling off at about 99 bushels per acre. It said adding nitrogen fertilizer on part of the manured plots over a 20-year period did not significantly increase corn yields. In addition to increasing and maintaining yields, the reports show, manuring each year built the soil’s nitrogen content back to 90 percent of its original virgin priairie level and increased its ability to take up and hold moisture.
At least one other Midwest university set up plots for organic experiments but the reported results set off a lively controversy. This was a series at experiment stations at Morris and Lamberton in Minnesota that showed corn grown with conventional fertilizer yielded more than corn grown with organic fertilizer. A number of organic farmers questioned the published results, however, when they discovered in checking out this work that the organic plots had not been cultivated to control weeds.
“It became clear that since the weed control practices were not the same on all plots that what the university really tested was whether or not the presence of weeds affected crop yields,” one farmer suggested in a biting letter to the editor. “The Morris and Lamberton Experiment Stations should be complimented in their findings that ‘the more weeds, the less yield’.”
Sahs, however, seems to have won the support of organic farmers in Nebraska, who made suggestions for the project in the beginning, can visit the Mead station to see how the plots are turning out, and are given regular reports. Questions asked at the end of his report were searching, but friendly, suggesting mutual trust had been established.
Along with the 4-year organic rotation started in 1975, which uses feedlot manure and no insecticides or herbicides, the plots include continuous corn with synthetic fertilizer, herbicide, and insecticide. They also include two sequences using the crop rotation with and without insecticide, no manure, and with chemical nitrogen and herbicide.
Two additional experiments are underway with irrigated corn, one to see how much feedlot manure the land can handle without damaging effects and another to test different levels of actual nitrogen applied in the form of composted paunch manure, semi-composted feelot manure, and commercial nitrogen fertilizer. Grain produced under these various systems also is being analyzed for nutritional content and quality.
Although funding is thin for the organic-type research at the Mead station, Sahs reported, it also plans to begin work on land application of sewage sludge. He said he detects a growing interest among the various disciplines in finding ways to use recyclable resources in agriculture.
Reports of lack of interest at USDA and most land grant universities in organic farming research was explored recently by two subcommittees of the House Science and Technology Committee. Assistant Secretary Robert Long was questioned at length by Rep. Ray Thornton of Arkansas, who wanted to know whether USDA had been exploring the possibilities of using more rotations and organic materials and cutting back on chemicals.
“It’s only been relatively recently that there’s been a serious challenge to the crop systems and cultural practices that have been generally applied in this country,” Long responded. “The challenges have not reached a level of acceptance, I might add, among economists, agronomists, and others.”
Thornton and others, dissatisfied with the testimony, asked long to submit a written report for the record. It is not surprising that the report Long filed later failed to mention research like the Sahs project at Nebraska because that is not the kind of research USDA has been funding.
It also is not surprising that his report sounded very much like what Secretary Earl Butz has been sahying for years about organic farming. Any drastic reduction in chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, Long wrote, would lead to less food produced, higher food prices, few exports, and “the spectre of hunger” in the rest of the world.
What the subcommittee heard from several other witnesses, however, was more along the line of what the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Washington University concluded after one year of studying Midwest organic farms. It found that organic farming methods have received much less research attention than methods based on chemical fertilizers and pesticides and that agronomic research on organic methods could result in farming alternatives that will become increasingly attractive as energy costs go up.
“It is important to recognize that the performance level achieved by the organic farmers in our sample has been accomplished without some of the aids used by conventional farmers, including a strong research effort to discover and test new production methods within the conventional system, and a network of extension specialists to help individual farmers apply these developments to their own farms,” the report said.
“It seems plausible that a comparable effort for organic farming methods could result in an even higher level of performance than we have observed in our sample.”
It may be that help is on the way and that Congress will insist on some basic changes in agricultural research. The preliminary report of the two subcommittees concluded that the agricultural research systems has failed to prove it is responding fully to problems of future energy shortages and the need to maintain a quality environment.
“A thorough integration of energy and environmental concerns into the agricultural research systems seems vital for the assurance of long-term agricultural productivity,” the report concluded.
“Alternatives to current agricultural practices need to be developed either for use in conjunction with existent methods, or in anticipation of future developments which assure the balance among agriculture, energy, and the environment.”