The Farming Systems Trial was launched in 1981 with a clear goal: Address the barriers to the adoption of organic farming by farmers.

For more than 40 years, the Farming Systems Trial (FST) at Rodale Institute has applied real-world practices and rigorous scientific analysis to document the different impacts of organic and conventional grain cropping systems.

The scientific data gathered from this research has established that organic management matches or outperforms conventional agriculture in ways that benefit farmers and lays a strong foundation for designing and refining agricultural systems that can improve the health of people and the planet.

This material is based upon work supported by the William Penn Foundation under Grant Award Number 188-17. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the William Penn Foundation.

Our decades-long research shows:

  • Organic practices increase soil organic matter microbial biomass, diversity, and activity while reducing soil compaction.

  • 30% Higher Yields during times of extreme weather.

  • Organic yields match conventional yields for cash crops, such as corn and soybean.

  • Organic management increases water infiltration and does not contribute to the accumulation of toxins in waterways.

  • Even without the premiums paid for organic crops, the organic manure system is the most profitable system

  • Organic system operation cost is significantly lower than conventional management.

The Systems

The FST compares three core farming systems: a chemical input-based conventional system, a legume-based organic system, and a manure-based organic system. Corn and soybean production is the focus of each system because 70 percent of U.S. acreage is devoted to growing grain.

In 2008, each core system was further divided to compare standard full-tillage (FT) and emerging reduced-tillage (RT) practices. At that time, genetically modified corn and soybeans were also introduced to the conventional system to mirror common practices.

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Conventional Synthetic

This system represents a typical U.S. grain farm. It relies on synthetic nitrogen for fertility, and weeds are controlled by synthetic herbicides selected and applied at rates recommended by Penn State University Cooperative Extension.

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Organic Legume

This system represents an organic cash grain system. It features a mid-length rotation consisting of annual grain crops and cover crops. The system’s sole source of fertility is leguminous cover crops, and crop rotation provides the primary line of defense against pests.

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Organic Manure

This system represents a diversified organic dairy or beef operation that includes a long rotation of annual feed grain crops and perennial forage crops. Fertility is provided by leguminous cover crops and periodic applications of composted manure from livestock. A diverse crop rotation is the primary line of defense against pests.

FST Findings

The FST team has been gathering a wide variety of data from the research plots for more than 40 years and thoroughly analyzing it using widely accepted scientific standards. The results indicate that organic farming systems match or outperform conventional production in yield, while providing a range of agronomic, economic, and environmental benefits for farmers, consumers, and society.

The Value of Healthy Soil

Why is healthy soil so important?

Peak Nutrition

Soil is the foundation to food production and growing healthy, nutrient-rich food to sustain a growing population.

Drought Protection

Healthy soil holds moisture until plants need it and creates symbiosis with fungi to extend the root network deeper into the soil.

Erosion Prevention

The “aggregates” in healthy soil stick together and don’t wash or blow away.

Disease Defense

Active soil microbes ward off plant diseases.

Flood Resistance

Healthy soil absorbs more water at a faster rate, reducing flooding and runoff.

Carbon Capture

Healthy soil holds carbon and keeps it out of the atmosphere.

The Farming Systems Trial was started by Bob Rodale, who wanted scientific backing for the recommendations being made to the newly forming National Organic Program in the 1980s. Today, the trial is divided into a total of 72 experimental plots.

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