Authored by Paul Reed Hepperly1*, David Douds Jr.2, and Rita Seidel1
The high cost of farmers transitioning to organic agriculture, the low nitrogen availability, and high weed competition associated with organic production systems are viewed as the chief obstacles of organic competing with conventional agriculture. The Rodale Institute, in collaboration with USDA Agriculture Research Service, designed a well-replicated and randomized field trial to respond to theses performance gaps. This trial, known as the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST), is the longest-running comparison of organic and conventional maize and soybean cropping systems in the world and is presently in its 25th season. Over the years, this experiment has demonstrated: 1) increased soil carbon and nitrogen levels in the organic vs conventionally farmed plots, 2) crop yields are similar for organic vs conventional in years of average precipitation, and greater in organic in drought years due to higher moisture availability, 3) fossil energy inputs for organic crop production were over 30% lower than for conventionally produced maize and soybeans, 4) labor inputs averaged about 15% higher in organic farming systems than in conventional, 5) the net economic return per hectare for organic is often equal or higher than conventionally produced crops because organic foods frequently bring higher prices in the marketplace. In addition to yield and economic benefits, environmental benefits of organic agriculture potentially include enhanced sequestration of carbon in the soil, in addition to less nutrient leaching into groundwater than in conventional agriculture.