Farming Systems Trial
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
FST data has established that soil health in the organic systems has continued to increase over time while the soil in the conventional systems has remained essentially unchanged.
Cornell comprehensive assessment of soil health (CASH) score of each of the systems in the Farming Systems Trial in 2019 and 2020.
Healthy soil holds carbon and keeps it out of the atmosphere. Organic systems usually have much more diverse carbon inputs going into the soil so microbial biomass is significantly higher than in the conventional system, leading to higher soil organic matter over time.
Soil microbial biomass carbon (average of 0–10, 10–20, and 20–30 cm depths) of each of the systems in the Farming Systems Trial in 2018. (Adapted from Littrell et al., 2021.)
Water infiltration is significantly faster under long-term organic management compared to conventional practices.
Average water infiltration rates in each of the systems in the FST from 2019–2021.
Organic systems produce yields of cash crops equal to conventional systems, except in extreme weather conditions, such as drought, when the organic plots sustained their yields while the conventional plots declined. Overall, organic corn yields have been 31 percent higher than conventional production in drought years.
Average corn yield of each of the systems in the Farming Systems Trial from 2008–2020 (Figure A) and corn yield in 2016 (Figure B) which was an especially dry season.
An analysis of the cumulative labor, costs, returns, and risk for the three systems shows that the organic manure system is the most profitable for farmers, even without the price premiums paid for organic crops. With current organic price premiums, both organic systems are much more profitable than the conventional system.
Net returns (Figure A, without organic price premiums; Figure B, with organic price premiums) of each of the systems in the Farming Systems Trial from 2008–2020. Budgets are for representative farms 54 hectares in size.
The Value of Healthy Soil
Why is healthy soil so important?
Soil is the foundation to food production and growing healthy, nutrient-rich food to sustain a growing population.
Healthy soil holds moisture until plants need it and creates symbiosis with fungi to extend the root network deeper into the soil.
The “aggregates” in healthy soil stick together and don’t wash or blow away.
Active soil microbes ward off plant diseases.
Healthy soil absorbs more water at a faster rate, reducing flooding and runoff.
Healthy soil holds carbon and keeps it out of the atmosphere.