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 SARE's database of projects and use the search term "CEFS".