Posted October 24, 2003: One of the
questions I hear a lot from consumers out in the market
place goes something like this: “Is organic really
better?”, or “I’m paying more; is
it really worth it?” Being an organization based
on research and education, we have taken the bull by
the horns, so to speak, and set out to gather some facts.
Many skeptics now are saying: “OK you’ve
proven that you can grow crops and produce livestock
organically, and you’ve shown that you can do
it on a scale that is commercially viable, and you’ve
proven that the methods used are environmentally better
than chemical intensive systems … but is it really
better for our health?”
Here’s a brief preview of what we plan to do:
We’ll be starting with a great resource, our
Farming Systems Trial® (FST for short). This is
an in-field laboratory that was started way back in
1981 as a conversion experiment to look at the risks
and possibilities involved with transitioning conventional
grain production land to organic production. The trial
takes a systems approach to looking at the gross differences
between drastically different scenarios.
We first started by renting a 12 acre field that had
been in continuous corn for at least 25 years (obviously
conventional). We then divided the field up into 3 farm
scenarios each replicated 8 times with 3 points of entry.
Wow! I know that sounds confusing. If you really want
to understand it all write to me and I’ll send
you tons of information on this experiment, or check
out our brief overview of the FST.
Put simply, here’s how we organized our trials:
One of the farming systems remained as a conventional
treatment, one transitioned into an organic system with
an animal component, and the third system transitioned
into an organic cash grain system (meaning organic without
access to animal manures).
As you can see from the date (1981) we’ve been
working on the project for a very long time. Once we
went through the transition process we began to look
past the general agronomic data deeper into the biology,
microbiology, and ecology of the soil. The knowledge
we discovered and the insight we uncovered into the
interactions within the soil would fill volumes.
have much higher levels of essential nutrients
As the chart below shows,
preliminary nutritional analysis of oat
plants from The Rodale Institute's Farming
Systems Trial found that the organic plants
had increases of up to 74 percent in nutrient
content over conventionally grown plants,
suggesting an answer to the perennial question,
"Is organic better?"
That’s the history. Now, here’s the future.
We plan on changing directions and focusing our attention
to the nutritional value and the health benefits of
the crops we are growing. This experiment gives us a
unique laboratory in which to conduct this type of experiment
since we have a highly documented site with a long history
of 3 distinct farming systems. To start this new phase
of our research, we planted the entire field (all plots,
all treatments) to oats in 2003. That gave us an opportunity
to start everything off at an even state, at the same
point in the rotation. The next step is to begin diverting
the rotations to include wheat, corn, and soybeans.
We’ll be looking at the nutritional quality of
all the grains as well as the quality factors of the
water that percolates through the soil. (We do this
with intact soil core lysimeters; I can send you information
on that, too, if you’d like.) We’ll also
be using the grain to carry out feeding studies to address
the mutigenerational effects on the health of animals
fed diets of organic or conventionally raised foods.
This type of work is expensive and time consuming but
will go a long way to moving organic farming practices
Just as a preliminary point of reference we took flag
leaf samples from the oat plants in all the plots and
treatments in 2003. If the results of this snapshot
are a precursor of the results we’ll see in the
full study, we’ll have a great story to tell.
There was a substantial increase for every macro and
micro nutrient in the organic oats compared to the conventional
oats except for aluminum, which is generally considered
a contaminant. By the way, the yield for the organic
oats was the same as for the conventional – close
to 100 bushels to the acre.
I hope you’ll follow this work over the next
3 years as we continue to explore this interesting topic.
I’m sure our researchers will be reporting on
their results along the way.
This just one of the many exciting projects we’re
working on. I’m in the process of getting our
wheat and rye fields ready for planting. It sure has
been a tough year, with all the rain and the limited
sunshine. I have standing water in most of my lower
fields and the areas of the farm usually only wet early
in spring are wet already. It will make for muddy conditions
for harvesting corn and soybeans. Give me a dry year
any time – not too dry, of course.
I think I mentioned in one of past articles that we
put a walking/running trail around the perimeter of
the farm and that the trail is about 3.2 miles long.
Just right for a 5K run (so I’m told; it takes
a lot to make me run). One of my interns this year,
Marie King, loves to run and asked if she could organize
a fun run, (a contradiction in terms in my book). Well
sure, why not. So, on November 15th folks will be running
the inaugural race on our trail … maybe something
to consider for your own farm. I’ll be here to
support the runners, so if you happen to be running
by say Hi.
Speaking of running, I need to get going myself; apples
are being harvested.
From one farm to another.
Jeff Moyer is the farm manager at the 333-acre
Rodale Institute research farm, and has been here for
over 26 years, refining the farm's cover cropping and
crop rotation systems. The farm has over 1,000 organic
apple trees, a 3-acre CSA, 270 acres in a rotation of
corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a
Japanese market, and 25 acres of experimental research
plots that have been used to test and compare the yield,
soil health and environmental impact of organic and
conventional systems for the last 22 years.
How to contact Jeff: email:
Phone: 610-683-1420 Mailing
611 Siegfriedale Rd. Kutztown, PA 19530