Advancing the Frontier of Systems Research
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Naturalist John Muir's quote holds especially true on the farm, where daily practices are closely linked to soil, water and, ultimately, the economic health of the farm. That's why SARE has continually invested in what is called "systems" research, which explores not only the ecological but also the financial and social interactions that make a farm productive and healthy and a force for strong communities.
Consider one of SARE's core values: "... SARE invests in holistic approaches where crops and livestock are pursued as part of a larger system that includes natural landscapes and resources, communities, livelihoods and human well-being." SARE is committed to placing systems thinking at the heart of its initiatives, from large-scale research projects that simulate real farms to an expectation that all grantees consider impacts on farms, landscapes and communities.
SARE provided funding for one of the first and longest running trialscomparing whole systems: the Sustainable Agriculture Farming Systems (SAFS) project at the University of California, Davis. The experiment compared four systems, researching the effects of different management techniques on weeds, disease, soil quality, economic viability and more. The project showed concrete benefits of organic farming and best practices for area farmers.
In the long-term Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial, small grains were added to a traditional corn-soybean rotation. This significantly reduced disease pressure and bumped up soybean yields. Based on 2004 prices, the expanded rotation returned $43 more per acre than the original rotation.
West Virginia researchers found that sheep and chickens could be integrated successfully into crop rotations of four and seven years. They also found that crop yields benefited from compost applications. Insects, such as the Mexican bean beetle, and seed and root rot diseases were successfully managed using organic techniques.
SARE-funded research at Texas Tech University showed that farmers could successfully integrate pastures into existing cotton monocultures to reduce demand for water and energy. Compared to continuous cotton, the integrated crop/livestock system requires 23 percent less irrigation, 40 percent less purchased nitrogen fertilizer and fewer pesticides.
Getting the Word Out
SARE will publish a book providing how-to advice for scientists interested in systems research. From bulletins to books, almost all SARE materials contain information on applied systems research.
|Above, Paul Mueller, director of CEFS Farming Systems Research Unit. Below CEFS Pastured-based Dairy Unit. |
Photo by Jerry DeWitt
Experimental Farm Helps North Carolina Farmers
Specialty crop farmer Alex Hitt hesitated when a team of scientists asked him to help launch a research project. Designed to test sustainable practices under the same skies and soil conditions as North Carolina's working farms, the 2,100-acre experimental farm would truly be a long-term commitment. Major results couldn't be expected for about seven years. The project would bring together myriad partners - from researchers to farmers to government officials and community leaders - and juggle as many viewpoints. "Its scope in terms of time and size was scary, but our determination to go ahead brought into focus just how important we believe long-term, field-scale systems research is," recalls Hitt.
Today, 14 years after its dedication, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) has produced a wealth of field- and time-tested data. Scientists from CEFS partnering organizations - North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T State University and the state department of agriculture - monitor everything from weeds to disease to soil health across six different farming research units: dairy, pastured beef, organic cropping, small farm, alternative swine and farming systems. CEFS also offers training and market research in sustainably raised swine, organic grains and community supported agriculture.
The birth of this large-scale project wasn't easy. Before operations could begin, the partners spent four years hashing out details and mapping the site's widely varied farming conditions. SARE supported the project from the get-go. Says Paul Mueller, director of CEFS Farming Systems Research Unit, "SARE got us off the ground. It bought into the systems approach early on, and it continues to be a platform for systems thinking." SARE has funded the farming systems unit as well as a number of graduate and faculty projects.
The research has been steadily yielding information nuggets. For example, the CEFS organic transition experiment has showed that careful weed management can generate organic soybean yields equal to conventional beans during the first year of a transition.
CEFS researchers also found that conservation tillage can be a way to cut back on soil erosion. And rye, with its allelopathic properties, can help reduce the need for herbicides. Mueller expects that in the next 3-4 years, the research will illuminate ways to significantly reduce tillage in organic systems.
"Nested" experiments - shorter-term projects within the ongoing longer-term efforts - are used to test specific questions arising from the main research trials. For example, one study compared heritage turkeys with conventional broadbreasted turkeys raised on pasture. CEFS' results helped several area farmers, including Hitt, introduce turkeys onto their farms.
Hitt credits his working relationship with CEFS for exposing him to many new ideas, such as grafted tomatoes and changes in irrigation to help reduce soil borne disease.
"Who knows what new idea we may glean next from the cefs research," says Hitt. "These things slowly build in your head and then we take them into the field. That's what long-term systems research accomplishes." [For more information, go to www.sare.org/projects and use the search term CEFS.]