Research Article in “The American Journal of Agricultural Economics” – Economic Performance and Energy Intensiveness on Organic and Conventional Farms | 1977

Economic Performance and Energy Intensiveness on Organic and Conventional Farms in the Corn Belt: A Preliminary Comparison Printed in American Journal of Agricultural Economics Vol. 59, No 1, February 1977

Robert Klepper, William Lockeretz, Barry Commoner, Michael Gertler, Sarah Fast, Daniel O’Leary, and Roger Blobaum

Recent energy and environmental problems in U.S. agriculture have stimulated interest in alternative technologies or systems of agricultural production. Large-scale, mechanized organic farms that use little or no inorganic fertilizers or chemical pesticides may be one such alternative. The crop production on fourteen matched pairs of organic and conventional Corn Belt farms was studied to determine the relative value of crop output, net returns, energy intensiveness, and labor requirements. The results of this preliminary study suggest that organic farming warrants more intensive research.

Key words: Corn Belt, crop production technology, energy intensiveness, organic farming.

Editor’s note: This article was invited by the editor to stimulate thought, discussion, and research on the economics of organic farming.

Robert Klepper and William Lockeretz are research associates, Barry Commoner is director, and Michael Gertler, Sarah Fast, and Daniel O’Leary are research assistants at the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Washington University, and Roger Blobaum is an agricultural consultant in Creston, Iowa.

This research was supported by the Research Applied to National Needs Program of the National Science Foundation, Grant No. AER-74-18438. Any opinions,findings,conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The authors benefited from the comments and suggestions of an overview committee on an earlier report on which this paper is based as well as comments from anonymous reviewers. Any remaining errors or deficiencies are the authors’ responsibility. The cooperation of the personnel of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service and the Soil Conservation Service in helping locate conventional farmers is gratefully acknowledged.

Circumstances of the past few years have generated concern, at least in some circles, over the heavy reliance of modern agriculture on inorganic fertilizers and chemical pesticides. This concern centers on energy and environmental questions. The events of 1973 and 1974 suggest that farm income and food production are vulnerable to energy price fluctuations and shortages under circumstances previously dismissed as highly unlikely.1 On the environmental side, in the last few years five agricultural pesticides have been removed from the market by the Environ- mental Protection Agency or limited to use under proscribed circumstances to forestall potential environmental damage. There is also continuing concern over the movement of fertilizer nutrients to ground and surface waters with possible eutrophication and public health consequences.

These problems have given rise to a growing interest in technologies or systems of agriculture that are less energy intensive and less vulnerable to energy price fluctuations and shortages and that have smaller adverse environmental impact. The proportion of total energy consumption accounted for by farm output is small—about 2.5% in the United States (Federal Energy Administration). Large energy savings could not be accomplished by adopting less energy-intensive technologies, but individual farmers could be made less vulnerable to fluctuations in energy prices and supply. At the same time the uncertain world food situation requires that these alternative technologies be highly productive so that world food supplies are not diminished.

One alternative agricultural system that does not rely on chemical fertilizers or pesticides is “organic farming,” also known as “natural farming” or “biological farming.” In this system plant nutrients are supplied through organic wastes (particularly livestock manures), leguminous green manures, purchased organic materials, and inorganic minerals such as rock phosphate that have not been chemically treated. Crop rotations also serve to reduce weed and insect problems. In some instances biological control methods are used in which beneficial insects or neutered insects are introduced into fields.

Although the term organic farming is frequently associated with small-scale, labor- intensive, subsistence farms, there are organ- ic farmers who use essentially the same mechanized methods of crop production as their conventional counterparts but who use little or no inorganic fertilizers or chemical pesticides. We have studied the economic performance and energy consumption in the 1974 and 1975 crop years of fourteen commercial-size organic farms in the Corn Belt. Their farming methods lie near one end of a continuum of agricultural techniques of varying reliance on chemical inputs.

The purpose of the study was to determine whether organic farming warrants more intensive research. We started from the widely held premise that there is an overwhelming advantage in conventional over organic farming. The methods of analysis were matched to the problem, that is, the methods were intended to detect large differences in the performance of the two systems. If this preliminary study shows little or no difference in the two systems, further and more intensive research using more refined methods is called for. Specifically, we sought to answer the following questions in a preliminary way: Is organic farming competitive with conventional methods of crop production at the relative prices of the past few years? Is it less energy intensive? What reduction in agricultural output, if any, would result if the system was adopted to a greater degree?

The organic farming methods examined could not be adopted by all Corn Belt farmers at current prices if for no other reason than the sum of all organic wastes from farm and municipal sources falls short of the quantity necessary to meet the nutrient requirements of the present crop mix. However, the availability of livestock manures on many farms in the Corn Belt makes organic techniques or technologies that lie between organic and conventional practice an alternative for a significant portion of Corn Belt farms. 2

In this paper the performance of fourteen organic farms is compared with the performance of an equal number of conventional farms, each of which was matched to one of the organic farms in the study. All of the organic farms raise both field crops and livestock, and each relies on livestock manure as a source of plant nutrients. As one of the criteria for matching, which are explained more fully below, the conventional farms also must have both field crops and live- stock.3 However, their performance is com- pared for crop production only because it is mainly in crop production that the technologies diverge. This clearly is a limitation of the study. More extensive research into organic farming should consider the farm enterprise as a whole.


No census or other comprehensive listing of organic farms exists in the Corn Belt. Consequently, it was not possible to select a random sample that represents the organic farm population. An ad hoc procedure was used to locate organic farms, primarily word of mouth. On the basis of information on location, size, length of time the farm had been operated using organic methods, a preliminary judgment of each organic farmer’s competence as a farm manager, and the resources available, we chose a sample of fourteen organic farms. The organic farms chosen in this manner are a series of case studies (a judgment sample). Of course, the inability to statistically sample limits the extent to which inferences from the results can be made to a larger population of Corn Belt farms. Under the circumstances, this was unavoidable.

The organic farms are operated as family enterprises by full-time farmers. The total acreage of each farm lies within a range of 175 to 800 acres. They are widely distributed over the central and western portions of the Corn Belt. Four are located in Iowa, four in Illinois, and two each in southern Minnesota, northern Missouri, and eastern Nebraska. Each had been farmed organically for four or more years prior to 1974. All the farms have one or more of the following forms of live- stock: beef cow herd, cattle on feed, hogs, dairy cattle, or sheep.

On the organically farmed land in the study, none of the farmers used inorganic nitrogen fertilizer or urea, acidulated phosphates (e.g., triple superphosphate), or, with one exception, conventional potassium fertilizer (muriate of potash). Some used commercial organic fertilizers, phosphate rock, or powdered rock containing trace minerals.4 No insecticides are used on any of these farms, and in all but one case no herbicides are used. In all cases but one, the farms had previously been operated using at least some inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, generally with an intensiveness comparable to the majority of similar farms in the area.5 The average length of time over which the farms were managed organically was six years prior to the start of the study.

A nearby conventional farm was selected as a match for each organic farm. This farm was required to raise both crops and live- stock and to be as similar to the organic farm as the matching procedure allowed in soil type, size, and livestock inventories. Conventional farms that met or came close to meeting these criteria were located with the assistance of the staff members of county offices of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), who in most cases consulted with the local Soil Conservation Service (SCS) office before making recommendations. In addition we asked that all recommended farmers be “top management” operators as judged by local ASCS personnel. We did not have a measure of the managerial ability of the organic sample, but we had no reason to believe they are superior managers when taken as a group. The management criterion was applied to the conventional group to avoid biasing the results toward the organic farmers. Since the management criterion was applied together with other criteria on size, soils, and mix of operations, the extent to which the management criterion was met is not clear. Indirect evidence is presented below in the form of data on yields and fertilizer use by the conventional farmers in the sample. The lack of detailed soil maps in most of the counties in which the sample farms lie, the highly qualitative requirement for managerial ability, and the multiple criteria on which the matching took place made the matching procedure largely qualitative. The limitations of the matching procedure leave considerable room for within-pair differences in organic and conventional farms. Some indications of the success of the matching are given below.

Data were collected for each farm for the 1974 and 1975 crop years. Data for the 1974 crop year were collected in personal inter- views of both groups of farmers in late winter and early spring of 1975. The data for the 1975 crop year were collected by means of questionnaires mailed to the farmers and returned by mail. For both crop years the following data were collected for each field: (a) crop(s) and yield(s); (b) application rates and costs of all fertilizers, pesticides, lime, and other materials; (c) application rates of manure; {d) tillage, planting, cultivation, and harvesting operations; and (e) seed variety, price, and seeding rate. Cropland for the crop year in question is all land that was ever in crops in the preceding five years; that is, it includes land in row crops and small grains, land in rotation pasture or hay in rotation with row crops or small grains, and land unharvested in that crop year. Land in permanent pasture or continuous hay is not cropland by this definition, nor, of course, is land in feedlots or woodlots or land associated with farm buildings.

Three measures were computed for comparing the relative performance of the farms in the study: the value of crop output per acre of cropland, a net return to cropping activity measure that accounts for most variable costs (fixed costs are discussed below), and the energy intensiveness of crop production measured in British thermal units (BTU’s) per dollar of crop output and BTU’s per acre. We relied on farmer’s reported yields, verified where possible by elevator receipts and consistency with storage facilities filled and sales. Because a large proportion of crops are fed to livestock on many farms, reported yields frequently could not be corroborated. Therefore, the yield data are subject to inaccuracies and possible bias. Crops were valued at statewide season average prices received by farmers (USDA June 1975-Jan. 1976).6 These values in turn were aggregated over all crops and divided by cropland acres to obtain the value of crop output per acre of cropland.7 Although some organic farmers sell their crops in specialty markets as organ- ic grain and receive a premium, they were not credited with the premium. Season average prices were used to value the crops of both groups of farmers regardless of whether the crops were sold or consumed by livestock on the farm.

The net returns per cropland acre measure is the value of crop output per acre of cropland minus most variable costs per acre. Fixed costs are assumed not to differ between the two groups. There is evidence that this assumption is reasonable. The largest fixed costs associated with crop production for Corn Belt farms of the kind in this study are the value of land for its use in crop production; depreciation on machinery, equipment, and storage facilities used in crop production; and property taxes and interest on debt. Data on the estimated cash rental value of the cropland in each group, which are presented in the next section, suggest that no substantial error is introduced by assuming that the cost of land is the same for the two groups, although there is considerable variation within pairs. If this is so, then there would be no large difference in the property taxes on land imposed on each group for a uniform tax rate and assessment procedure. The data collected showed that the organic and conventional groups differed little in the type and size of machinery and equipment they owned and used for field operations 8 although the number of pieces of equipment varied with the size of the farming operation, as one would expect. This suggests that depreciation on machinery and equipment did not vary greatly between the two groups. The conventional farmers had more high moisture grain storage facilities, but these differences were too small to be the source of significant differences in fixed costs. The roughly equal values for land, machinery and equipment, and grain storage facilities be- tween the two groups suggest that little difference in interest expenses would exist if both groups have access to capital markets on the same terms.

The variable costs included in this study are the reported or imputed values for seed; fertilizers; pesticides; soil amendments; crop drying; and the fuel, lubrication, labor, and repairs associated with all tillage, planting, cultivation, material application (including manure spreading), harvesting, and on-farm crop hauling operations in the crop year.9 Those excluded are rent (all farmers were treated as if they owned all the land they farmed), crop insurance, and the share attributable to crop production of each of the following: sales and social security taxes, workman’s compensation and disability insurance, bookkeeping and office supplies, electricity, telephone, vehicle licenses and all expenses for vehicles used for general pur- poses, and subscriptions and memberships.

For the purposes of computing the costs of crop production, we assumed that there are no differences between farmers and between the two groups in certain aspects of raising crops. The price per unit of standard inputs such as pesticides, propane for drying, diesel fuel, and gasoline were assumed to be equal for all farmers in the study for a given crop year. Fertilizer prices were assumed equal for all farmers in a state. (These data were taken from the USDA’s Agricultural Prices, April, July, August, and October issues, 1974-75.) Each farmer’s reports of the quantity of particular fertilizers and pesticides applied were valued at the standard prices. Other inputs such as organic fertilizers purchased by organic farmers and hybrid seed were valued at the prices reported by the farmers in the study.

Because the characteristics of the machinery and equipment owned and used for field operations differed little between the two groups, for any given field operation the same tractor and implement were assumed to be used on all farms and labor requirements and cost per acre for that operation, including the imputed cost of labor, were assumed to be the same for all farmers in the study in a crop year.10 All farmers were assumed to harvest a particular crop with the same equipment and to have the same cost schedule where costs per acre vary with yield. The sole exception is that the distinction between harvesting corn on the ear with a corn picker or as grain with a combine was preserved.11 Again, allowance was made for differences between years in the prices used to build up the cost estimates. The costs of on-farm hauling of crops were also standardized with respect to the truck or equipment used and the distance hauled in taking a particular crop out of the field to on-farm storage or to the farm gate.

The energy calculations were made using coefficients previously derived for specific operations, such as chisel plowing or grain drying, and for agricultural chemicals that are manufactured by energy-consuming processes. 12 Details of the derivations of these coefficients can be found in Commoner et al.; what follows is a brief summary.

Fuel requirements for drying, tilling, planting, cultivating, and harvesting operations were obtained by combining many different estimates from a wide variety of experiment station and extension service publications and personal communications, taking ac- count of differences in the conditions under which individual values were measured. As in the estimates of the cost of field operations described above, each individual operation was assumed done with the same tractor and equipment complement on each farm, and the same energy coefficient was applied in the calculations for each farm using a particular operation. No adjustment was made for differences in soil type or soil moisture at the time of the operation. Fuel requirements for harvesting operations and hauling do vary by crop and yield in this study. Fuel used for drying was assumed to be liquid petroleum gas on all farms. A constant value was used for the liquid petroleum gas required to re- duce the moisture content of a bushel of grain by 1%. This value was applied to the farmers’ reported yield and moisture content at harvest. To calculate the fuel and energy requirements for drying, 85% of the corn was assumed dried to a final moisture content of 15.5%. As in the cost of drying, farmers who harvested and stored ear corn were charged the energy requirements for shelling and drying.

The indirect consumption of energy by farmers through fertilizers was calculated from reported application rates and energy coefficients derived for both the extraction and benefication of minerals and the process energy used in production of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium fertilizers. Compendium of chemical engineering and mining processes. standard references on specific fertilizer industries, reports on individual processes, and unpublished data from the Sulfur Institute were the sources of data from which these coefficients were derived. The energy required to transport the fertilizer from factory to farm is small relative to the energy required in processing and manufacture and was ignored. Estimates were also made of the energy requirements for mining and processing lime and gypsum. A standard energy coefficient per hundredweight was used for all commercial organic fertilizers. This was based on personal communications with several organic fertilizer producers and the assumption that other organic fertilizers have similarly small energy requirements.

The great variety of pesticides used precluded careful estimates of the energy coefficients for each. An estimate of the energy input per pound of DDT was used with application rates to determine energy consumption. Although DDT is no longer used in U.S. agriculture, it is representative of an important class (chlorinated hydrocarbons) of both insecticides and herbicides. Indirect energy consumption in the form of pesticides is small relative to that in fertilizers and fuel, so that errors arising from this simplifying assumption are likely to be small when compared with total energy use on a conventional farm.

Effectiveness of the Matching Procedure

Some indications of the success of the matching procedure follow. The mean total farm size of the fourteen organic farms was 429 acres (ranging from 175 to 844 acres) and 479 acres for the fourteen conventional farms (range 171 to 849 acres). Acreage in cropland differs more between the two groups; the mean was 250 acres for the organic farms (range 113 to 420) and 348 acres for the conventional farms (range 124 to 769).13 The mean livestock inventory in animal units was 101 and 63, respectively, for the organic and conventional groups in the 1975 crop year, and machinery and equipment do not differ greatly between the two groups (see note 8).

In addition, we asked two and sometimes three persons who are knowledgeable about local agricultural conditions in each county where the sample farms lie and who know the sample farms in that county to estimate the cash rental value of the cropland in the sample farms. These persons were usually the head of the local ASCS office, the extension agent, a Federal Land Bank official, or the head of the local SCS office. For each pair of farms the estimates of both farms were provided by the same person, except in three cases where the farms in a pair were in neighboring counties. The average estimated cash rental value of cropland was $68 for the organic group and $66 for the conventional group. The interquartile range was $51 to $74 and $53 to $83 for the two groups, respective- ly.

There is no reason to believe that overall the matched conventional and organic farms systematically differ in the productivity of their cropland or the characteristics of their machinery and equipment complements. Furthermore, the conventional farms in the sample appear to be typical of conventional farms in general in that they differ little from average statewide fertilization rates for major crops, and they apply herbicides and insecticides at rates that appear to be within the range of typical practices in the Corn Belt. Average fertilization rates for corn, soybeans, and wheat for the conventional sample in 1974 are presented in table 1. A weighted average statewide fertilization rate for each crop is given in the same table. These data show the conventional farmers to be close to the statewide average for each crop. The fact that they all have livestock and may apply some manure to these crops should be taken into consideration in interpreting the table.

* All rates are pounds N, P,Os, and K,0 per acre receiving fertilizer. Weighted average of statewide average fertilization rates. The weighting factor for each state is the number of farms in the conventional sample in that state on which fertilizer is used on the particular crop.


Although the two groups of farmers raise the same major crops, they do so in different rotations, so that they differ in the proportion of their cropland in each crop in a given year. As seen from table 2, corn (grain and silage) is the leading crop on both groups of farms; however, because of the importance of hay and pasture in organic rotations, row crops (corn and soybeans) average only 52% of cropland in the organic sample compared to an average of 73% on the conventional farms. Small grains are more prevalent on the organic farms because these crops are generally raised as nurse crops for new stands of hay or pasture.

 *Established stands only.
*Includes milo. rye, barley, buckwheat, and new meadow seedings other than with nurse crop. (New seedings with nurse crop included under particular small grain.) *Total greater than 100% because of double cropping.

Table 3 shows the yields obtained by the two groups of farms in 1974 and 1975. Because this table is intended to indicate how the two groups compared in yields, it is restricted to farms in which both members of a particular pair raised a particular crop. The clearest difference between the two groups is in corn grain, for which the conventional group had higher yields. Differences in wheat (1975) and hay (1974 and 1975) may be less meaningful because there were so few farms growing these crops.

*Only for farms in which both members of matched pair raised the crop. Yields are bushel per harvested acre, except hay in tons per
*Established stands only, used only for hay. (Stands that were partially cut and partially grazed are excluded)

Table 3 shows that, in general, yields improved in 1975 and that the advantage of the conventional group over the organic group was stronger in 1975. These are understandable consequences of the different weather patterns. In 1974, virtually every farm in our study was adversely affected by weather. In 1975, a few of the farms were affected by drought, but conditions were good for a large portion of the sample. Consequently, yields were appreciably better. The better relative performance of the conventional farms under these conditions might reflect the greater response in yields to nutrient availability at the margin when weather conditions are favorable.

The yields obtained by all farms in this study, regardless of whether the matched farm in a pair raised the crop, are shown in table 4. In this case, the average yields of the two samples should not be compared to each other, since they reflect different portions of our study area. Rather, each group’s yields were compared with the average yields obtained by all farmers in the same counties as the farmers in the sample who raise the crop. The conventional group did about as well as the population in general in 1974 and considerably better in 1975. The organic farmers did better than farmers in general in soybeans in both years and poorer in wheat and corn in 1975. In other cases, they did about the same or better than farmers in general.

* Average of county wide average yields for the counties for which a farm in the particular sample raised the particular crop (US DA).

* “All Farms” data for com differ slightly for the two samples because of three pairs in which farms were in adjacent counties.

Table 5 shows the average and median value of all crops produced on each type of farm expressed as the value per acre of cropland. The higher value of production on the conventional farms reflects two factors: the somewhat higher yields, especially for corn,14 and the higher proportion of crop land in high value crops, especially corn and soybeans. The average and median value of crop output was higher on the conventional farms than on the organic farms in both years. The ratio of the value of crop output of the conventional to the organic group rose less between 1974 and 1975 than relative crop yields because corn and soybean prices declined somewhat in 1975, whereas the prices of roughages increased. This change favored the organic group because of their crop mix. In the past few years, both crop prices and weather conditions have been extremely variable in the Corn Belt, and future fluctuations in both will have important implication for the economic performance of the two kinds of farms we are studying.

Data on the variable costs included in the study for both groups, averaged over all cropland, are shown in table 5. Apart from general inflation in input prices, there were no significant changes from 1974 to 1975 in the overall average level or range of operating costs in the two samples. The difference in mean production costs ($19 per acre aver- aged over the two years) results primarily from the fertilizers and pesticides purchased by the conventional farmers (Lockeretz et al. 1975).

The difference between the value of crop output and variable costs, denoted here as crop production returns, is also shown in table 5. This measure was almost equal for the two groups in both years. As with the value of crop output, there is considerable variation within each sample, particularly the organic group. Because of this variation, and because of the sampling procedure mentioned earlier, table 5 should not be regarded as implying more than a qualitative relation between crop production returns on the en- tire populations of the two kinds of farms in the Midwest. It indicates only that this quantity on average is probably not very different between the two populations and could, of course, be very different between an individual farm of each type.

Various measures of the energy intensiveness of the two groups of farmers are shown in table 6. Whether energy intensiveness is measured in thousands of BTU’s per dollar of crop output or thousands of BTU’s per acre of cropland, in both years the conventional group was more than two times as energy intensive as the organic group. The main source of the difference between the two groups is the use of inorganic fertilizers, particularly nitrogen, by the conventional group. A contributory factor is the greater proportion of cropland in corn on conventional farms, which is more energy intensive than hay crops or small grains even apart from its fertilizer requirements, since it also requires propane for drying and a relatively large amount of fuel for field operations (Lockeretz et al. 1976).

Table 6 also presents measures of energy intensiveness for two crops, corn and soybeans, in thousands of BTU’s per bushel of crop output. In the two years the conventional group was 2.7 to 2.8 times as energy intensive in raising corn. For soybeans the difference between the two groups was less pronounced; the conventional group was more energy intensive than the organic group in 1974, and the reverse was true in 1975. This change reflects the increase in soybean yields for the conventional relative to the organic group between 1974 and 1975 and a shift from slightly less to slightly more energy use per acre of soybeans for the organic group relative to the conventional group.

Table 7 shows the distribution of manure applications over various crops and the aver- age application rates to those crops in the 1975 crop year. Manure spreading was a common practice on both groups of farms. The two groups were fairly similar in the prevalence of manure spreading, application rates, and the fraction of land receiving manure. However, from the information in this table and information above on acreage in cropland and animal units, one can see that the conventional group applied more manure to cropland although they had fewer animal units. This reflects the higher proportion of confined livestock on the conventional farms and the greater tendency of the organic group to keep livestock on temporary pasture or keep them in lots with access to pasture land. No data were collected on the nutrient content of the manure spread.

Finally, a calculation of the labor requirements for crop production in 1975 shows slightly higher labor requirements for the organic group: 3.3 hours per acre for the organic farmers versus 3.2 hours for the conventional farmers or 19.8 hours per $1,000 of crop output for the organic farmers versus 15 17.8    hours    for    the    conventional group.    The difference is more pronounced when expressed as labor input per dollar of crop output because the value of crop output per acre is lower for the organic group. A similar comparison of labor requirements for major crops shows equal average labor requirements for both groups for corn (3.8 hours per acre) and small grains (1.9 hours per acre). The organic group had a somewhat greater labor input for soybeans: 3.8 hours per acre versus 2.6 for the conventional group.


The results of this study are preliminary and largely qualitative. The organic farms produced somewhat less crop output per acre of cropland than their conventional counter- parts; however, the variable costs of crop production per acre were higher for the conventional group. If fixed costs per acre did not differ between the two groups as assumed, then the net returns to crop production were about the same for the two groups. The organic group used considerably less energy per dollar of crop output and per acre of cropland and had slightly greater labor input per acre. By these measures the organic group appears to be doing reasonably well despite the fact that they do not use many of the chemical inputs that are generally regarded as key elements in the productivity and prosperity of modern agriculture.

Throughout this paper returns to cropping activity have been expressed in dollars per acre of cropland. A more relevant measure is returns to the whole farm enterprise, but this question cannot be addressed with these data. For crop production alone, the two groups had the same average gross returns minus variable costs per acre of cropland and, since the conventional group had an average of 39% more cropland per farm, their returns minus variable costs from crop production were also an average of 39% higher or 25% when adjusted for the difference in the average total size of the two samples. This calculation does not include income from grazing on permanent pasture. Because of the different ratio of cropland to total land in the two samples, as well as differences in livestock inventories, one cannot infer from these results that organic farming lowers the returns to crop production as a whole or to the whole farm enterprise, including livestock production. A determination of whether land is being put to its highest and best use in both groups of farms and a study of the joint crop- livestock enterprise would be required to answer these questions.

In the absence of a complete characterization of the land on each farm, one cannot assume a priori that the two groups are working with the same proportions of various kinds of land and are merely using that land differently. On the other hand, crop rotations that include hay are an integral part of the technology of organic farming, and this may limit organic farms to certain kinds of live- stock operations and certain combinations of cropland and permanent pasture. Over time farmers have some control over the quantity of various kinds of land farmed within the constraints imposed by the availability of land and capital. Given this flexibility, the multiple uses to which land of a given quality may be put, and the unknown combinations of cropland and permanent pasture that are economic under the constraints of the technology of an organic farm, we presently have insufficient information to choose between three plausible explanations for the differing ratio of cropland to total size between the conventional and organic groups: (a) the two groups actually are similar in the characteristics of their land, but the organic farmers have to use some cropland as permanent pasture; (b) the two groups actually are similar in the characteristics of their land, but the conventional farmers are cropping land that the organic farmers consider more suitable as permanent pasture because it is subject to considerable erosion when cropped; or (c) the two groups differ in the characteristics of their land, and the different cropland to total size ratios reflect appropriate land use in each case; e.g., the organic farmers need more permanent pasture and have acquired land that is best used as pasture.

Clearly, further analysis of land use on the two kinds of farms is necessary in comparing the two farming systems. Given this limitation of the present study, no basis exists for expressing crop returns data in terms of the entire farm. We have reported results on the basis of an acre of cropland, with cropland defined in terms of how the land is actually used. Additional data are needed on the land in each farm and the interaction of crop and livestock activities on organic farms before the two systems can be compared on a whole farm basis.

Other limitations should also be emphasized. We only compare farms that are mixed crop-livestock enterprises, and these are limited to the Corn Belt; the study has no implications for cash grain farming in the Corn Belt or farming of any kind in other regions. The number of farms studied was quite small, and the data are from only two crop years. Weather in 1975 was fairly typical of Corn Belt conditions, except for drought in the western portion of the study area, but the weather in 1974 was unfavorable for nearly every farm in the study. The organic farms studied had used organic methods for at least five years. Farms in transition from conventional to organic methods may encounter short-term fertility problems, since nutrients supplied in organic form are not as readily available as those in inorganic fertilizers. The extent to which the farms in this study import nutrients in the form of purchased feed was not calculated. In addition, organic farmers may be the recipients of positive or negative externalities associated with the insect and weed control practices of their conventional neighbors.

Even within the limits of the data collected for this study, there may be errors. The samples may not accurately represent the larger populations of farms from which they are drawn as a result of the manner in which they were selected. Errors may arise from reliance on farmers’ reports of yields, field operations, purchased inputs, and other data used in the calculations. Also, the matching of conventional to organic farms was fairly crude. Therefore, the data cannot be used to infer the consequences of a significant portion of Corn Belt farms switching to organic methods, nor can they be used to predict the consequences of a switch to organic methods for an individual farm.

In addition, there are questions that relate to the long-run viability of both systems of farming such as nutrient balance, soil loss through erosion, and the organic matter con- tent of the soil. We have begun research on some of these long-run questions but do not address those issues here.

These results, limited and qualitative as they are, suggest that further research is warranted into organic methods of crop production as well as methods that lie between the conventional and organic alternatives. Increased research effort on such alternatives, including controlled experiments, may ultimately yield high returns by increasing the range of acceptable and competitive methods for modern crop production and by facilitating the substitution of appropriate alternative methods in response to changing environmental regulations and energy prices.

[Received June 1976; revision accepted September 1976]


1 These unforeseen events, attributable in part to the energy crisis, include a shortage of propane for drying grain in the fall of 1973, shortages of fertilizer in the spring of 1974, and substantial increases in the prices of many agricultural inputs including increases in the prices of fertilizers relative to crop prices.

2 In all the Corn Belt states, with the exception of Illinois, more than half of all the farms surveyed in the 1969 Census of Agriculture had as their principal source of income the raising of livestock or the production of dairy products.

3 We deliberately chose matched conventional farms that have livestock rather than cash grain farms. The supply of manure on these farms and their need for roughages in cattle- feeding programs makes the adoption of organic methods easier on purely technical grounds than would be the case for a cash grain farm. At the same time, their relatively heavy reliance on inorganic fertilizers and pesticides clearly differentiates their technology from that of the organic farms in this study.

4 There are many commercial organic fertilizers on the market. Most of these are proprietary products for which little or no information is available on the process by which they are produced or on their content aside from the required statement on nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium content. We have not verified their authenticity as organic products, nor have we attempted to determine their content.

5 Four of the organic farmers in this study rent additional cropland and use inorganic fertilizers and chemical pesticides on it under the terms of a rental agreement. In addition, in 1975 three of the organic farmers used a chemical of one sort or another on small portions of their own land. These fields were excluded from the analyses.

6 For 1975 we first developed an average of monthly prices through January 1976, from which were estimated the averages for the entire crop year using historical patterns of seasonal variation.

7 Where two crops were obtained from a single field in a crop year, e.g., soybeans after winter wheat or hay after a small grain nurse crop, the value of both crops was included. Yields for rotation pasture and hay crops grazed by livestock were computed in animal units from farmer’s reports of the number and kind of animals grazing and the duration of grazing; one animal unit month of grazing was valued at one-fourth the season average price for one ton of hay.

8 For example, the median horse power of the largest tractor owned was 89 and 94, respectively, for the organic and conventional groups. All farmers in each group had a row crop planter of at least four rows. Twenty-one percent of the organic farmers and 18% of the conventional farmers had row crop planters of more than four rows. About one-third of each group owns a combine with a corn head of more than two rows. However, the two groups do vary with respect to their preference for moldboard or chisel plows. One hundred percent of the organic group versus 50% of the conventional group use a chisel plow. A moldboard plow is used by 86% of the conventional group and by only 29% of the organic group.

9 In addition, prorated costs of lime and other soil amendments that were applied less frequently than annually were included, as were the prorated costs of establishing rotation pastures and hay stands for stands lasting more than one year. Costs for the establishment of green manure crops that were plowed down prior to planting in a crop year were also included.

10 While no difference in costs and labor requirements for a particular field operation is assumed between farmers in the study, the costs and labor requirements of all field operations for a crop do differ between farmers according to the combinations of field operations each farmer reported used. If a farmer made more trips over his fields in preparing the ground for seeding, in cultivating to control weeds, or in manure spreading, he would show higher costs and labor requirements for field operations in the calculations.

11 All corn, whether harvested as ear corn or corn grain, was assumed to be shelled and dried to 15.5% moisture, the standard for No. 2 corn grain. The cost of drying was computed as the product of a standardized cost for a percentage point of moisture and the difference between the reported moisture at harvest and 15.5%.

12 Energy coefficients were developed in a number of studies of energy use for particular crops or for agricultural production as a whole (Hirst, Pimentel et al., Steinhart and Steinhart). But we chose to develop our own coefficients in 1974 because the coefficients existing at that time were either dated or based on processes that were not always representative of conditions in this country.

13 On average the organic group has a smaller proportion of farm land in crops. There are several reasons for this. First, some members of the organic group farm additional cropland with chemicals, as explained above in note S, and this land is not part of their “farm” for the purposes of this study. Second, the organic farms have more permanent pasture; they also have more grazing livestock.

14 The value of crop output per acre is not particularly sensitive to the yields reported by farmers for any one crop.

15 The calculation is based on a uniform equipment and machinery complement representative of the kinds prevalent in both samples. As mentioned above, the two groups are very similar in the equipment they use. Since these groups were matched at least roughly by type of soil, a given operation, when performed by the hypothesized standard equipment, is assumed to take the same length of time on both groups of farms. In other words, results are intended to show the relative labor requirements of the two cropping systems under given soil conditions and with equipment of a given size and are not necessarily accurate in an absolute sense. Furthermore, the calculations deal only with labor required directly in crop production. No allowance is made for trips to town, general farm business, marketing, etc.



Commoner, B., M. Gertler, R. Klepper, and W. Lockeretz. The Effect of Recent Energy Price Increases on Field Crop Production Costs. Center for the Biology of Natural Systems Rep. No. CBNS-AE-1, Washington Uni- versity, 1974.

Federal Energy Administration. Energy Use in the Food System. Washington, D.C.: Office of Industrial Pro- grams, May 1976.

Hirst, E. Energy Use for Food in the United States. Oak Ridge, Tenn.: Oak Ridge National Laboratory ORNL- NSF-EP-57, 1973.

Lockeretz, W., R. Klepper, B. Commoner, M. Gertler, S. Fast, and D. O’Leary. Organic and Conventional Farm in the Corn Belt: A Comparison of Economic Perfo mance and Energy Use for Selected Farms. Center fo the Biology of Natural Systems Rep. No. CBNS-AE-7, Washington University, 1976.

Lockeretz, W., R. Klepper, B. Commoner, M. Gertler, S. Fast, D. O’Leary, and R. Blobaum. A Comparison of the Production, Economic Returns, and Energy Inten ness of Corn Belt Farms That Do and Do Not Use Inorganic Fertilizers and Pesticides. Center for the Bio ogy of Natural Systems Rep. No. CBNS-AE-4, Washington University, 1975.

Pimentei, D., L. E. Hurd, A. C. Bellotti, M. J. Forster, I. N. Oka, O. D. Sholes, and R. J. Whitman. “Food Produc- tion and the Energy Crisis.” Science 182 (1973):443-49.

Steinhart, J. S., and C. E. Steinhart. “Energy Use in the Food System.” Science 184 (1974):307-16.
Amer. J. Agr. Econ.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Prices. SRS, monthly.

U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. 1969 Census of Agriculture, vol. II, General Report, Type of
Farm. Washington, 1971.



R. Klepper, W. Lockeretz, B. Commoner, M. Gertler, S. Fast, D. O’Leary, and R. Blobaum Economic Performance and Energy Intensiveness on Organic and Conventional Farms in the Corn Belt: A Preliminary Comparison Printed in American Journal of Agricultural Economics Vol. 59, No 1, February 1977

The crop production on fourteen matched pairs of organic and conventional Corn Belt farms was studied to determine the relative value of crop output, net returns, energy intensiveness, and labor requirements.