ONE FARM TO ANOTHER
On to STEP 2: Proving that organic produce is nutritionally superior
It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that organic is better, hands down, for the soil and the environment. But is it GOOD for you?

By Jeff Moyer, Rodale Institute Farm Manager

 

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.

Organic oats have much higher levels of essential nutrients than conventional

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 forward.

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

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: jeff.moyer@rodaleinst.org Phone: 610-683-1420 Mailing address:
611 Siegfriedale Rd. Kutztown, PA 19530