Sustainable Organic No-Till Systems: A Training Program for CES and NRCS Field Professionals

Final Report for ES06-085

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2006: $104,623.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
Ronald Morse
Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
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Project Information

Abstract:

Conservation agriculture (CA) seeks to mimic nature using permanent plant cover, reduced tillage and crop rotation practices. Combining organic and CA strategies can result in increased sustainability and synergistic production capabilities. This PDP trained forty CES and NRCS professionals to better understand and implement best organic-CA management practices for producing vegetables and agronomic crops. These training activities focused mainly on instruction and demonstration of controlled-traffic techniques and production, management and appropriate uses of high-biomass grass-legume cover crops to build soil health, suppress weed growth, and facilitate crop establishment and sustainable production systems.

Project Objectives:

This project sought to inform and train Cooperative Extension Service (CES) and National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) field agents in 1) cover crop-based organic conservation agriculture (CA) production systems, and 2) beneficial habitat plantings (farmscapes) for biological insect pest management for vegetables and agronomic crops. The training utilized and complimented the project director’s on-going research and outreach program in organic-CA vegetable production and farmscaping. SARE-PDP funds were used to develop broad-scale demonstration and teaching plots at Virginia Tech and similar satellite plots at North Carolina A&T State University and two organic farms in Virginia. Training-the-trainees sessions for CES and NRCS professionals took place at each site during 2006 (phase I), and trainees trained farmers in these techniques in 2007/2008 (phase II), with support and guidance from project staff. A training manual on cover crop-based organic-CA systems and farmscaping was written and utilized in the phase I sessions and updated based on user feedback.

Introduction:

Weeds and insect pests often limit organic crop yield and profits, especially in warm humid areas such as the southern United States. Several producer surveys have found that weeds are the most costly pest category in organic production of vegetable and row crops (Walz, 2004). Because organic growers cannot use synthetic herbicides, they often rely on tillage and cultivation for weed control, which can disrupt soil life and soil structure, thereby compromising the soil health upon which successful organic production depends. However, cover crops and crop rotation are important weed management tools, and reduced-tillage systems using high-biomass cover crop (3 tons dry weight/acres or more) can provide enhanced weed control with minimal soil disturbance. Over the past three years, we have researched and developed systems in which mature, high-biomass cover crops are mowed, rolled or frost killed to form an in-situ mulch through which vegetable starts, seed potatoes or large seeds can be planted no-till. The mulch suppresses weeds during the crop’s critical establishment period, improves soil quality and provides habitat for some natural enemies of major insect pests (Morse and Creamer, 2006).

Many organic growers seek to provide habitat for natural enemies of major crop pests by maintaining borders or patches of flowering plants around or within their fields. Researchers have refined this practice through the use of diverse mixtures of herbs, cultivated and wild flowers and cover crops to provide season-long nectar, pollen and habitat for beneficials–practice known as farmscaping. Current SARE/CSREES-funded research projects at Virginia Tech have shown that farmscaping based on these principles has yielded excellent pest management and crop yields for potato, sweet, pepper, summer squash and brassica crops without applying synthetic pesticides (Morse, Benson and McDonald, unpublished data). Successful demonstrations of no-till vegetable production equipment and methods, pest management through farmscaping, and evidence for the potential of good economic returns with these systems, have attracted interest from across the southern region and elsewhere (Morse, 1999; Morse and Creamer, 2006). Agronomic crops have been grown by no-till methods for over 40 years and the organic no-till crop management strategy should be transferable to these crops as well.

The federal Conservation Security Program (CSP), which supports farmers to improve resource conservation and stewardship on working farmland, has set high soil quality standards for both program eligibility and enhancement payments. Under current CSP rule, soil quality estimates are based primarily on tillage (the less the better), soil organic matter, and biomass inputs. Adoption of no-till or reduced-till practices combined with high biomass cover crops would enhance organic growers’ access to this program (www.rcs.usda.gov/programs/csp/).

Certification under the national organic standards (NOP) requires a plan for improving soil quality. Adopting high-biomass no-till systems would meet this requirement for certification and result in increased productivity and profits for many farms (Schomberg et al., 1994; Morse, 2000).

With demand for organic food increasing at 20% annually in the United States (Greene & Kremen, 2002), organic producers have emerged as a major and growing sector of the nation’s agricultural economy, and they need ready access to cost-effective production techniques such as organic no-till and farmscaping. CES and NRCS professionals capable of educating and training producers in these techniques are essential to widespread adoption of sustainable organic crop production systems.

Literature Cited:

Carrera, L.M., R.D. Morse, A.A. Abdul-Baki, K.G. Haynes, and J.R. Teasdae. 2005. A conservation-tillage cover cropping system and economic analysis for creamer potato production. Amer. Journ. of Potato Res. 82:55-64.

Greene, C. and A. Kremen. 2002. U.S. organic farming: A decade of expansion. USDA/Economic Research Service/USDA. Agricultural Outlook/November, 4pp.

Morse, RD. and N.G. Creamer. 2006. Developing no-tillage without chemicals: the best of both worlds, p. 83-91. In A. Taji and P. Kristiansen (eds.) Organic Agriculture: A Global Perpective. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia (in press).

Morse, R.D. 2000. High-residue systems for production of organic broccoli, p. 48-56. In P. Bollich (ed.). Proc. Southern Conservation Tillage for Sustainable Agriculture. Monroe, LA.

Morse, R.D. 1999. No-till vegetable production—its time is now. HortTechnology 9:373-379.

Schomberg, H.H., P.B. Wood and W.L. Hargrove. 1994. Influence of crop residues on nutrient cycling and soil chemical properties. P. 99-121. In P.A. Unger (ed.) Managing agricultural residues. Lewis Publ. Boca Raton, FL.

Walz, E. 2004. Final results of the fourth national organic farmers’ survey: sustaining organic farms in a changing organic marketplace. Organic Farming Research Foundation, Santa Cruz, CA–106 pages.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

The central approach was to provide trainee participants (CES and NRCS field agents) with comprehensive practical instruction in cover crop establishment and management, organic-CA production techniques, and farmscaping for pest management, based on our research findings and grower experiences with these systems. Our primary teaching tools were detailed field demonstration plots of organic-CA production of vegetable crops, and a comprehensive training manual highlighting both organic-CA and farmscaping. The project director, co-project leader and outreach team consultants prepared the 248-page training manual. Field demonstration plots included: 1) several different winter cover crops grown for no-till potatoes, spring broccoli and/or summer squash, plus several summer cover crops for fall broccoli; 2) residue-management equipment (roller-crimpers and flail mowers); 3) plant-establishment equipment for small (1-5 acres) and medium-scale (6-20 acres) vegetable farms; 4) pest-management systems based on different farmscape plantings; 5) raised-bed zone-establishment systems that consisted of permanent controlled-traffic soil building zones (grow zones on bed tops) to improve soil drainage, tilth and health–and alternating alleyways (pathways) between grow zones; and 6) soil fertility and weed management for growers transitioning into organic-CA systems: grow-zone loading with organic soil amendments/fertilizers and legume cover crops, and growing dense grass cover crops in the alleyways between grow zones to suppress weed growth.

In addition to the large field demonstration plots at Virginia Tech, smaller demonstration plots were maintained at 1) the NC A&T SU research farm, near Greenboro, NC, and at organic farms in Middleburg, VA (Sally Bolton, Vineyard Nursery) and in Cologne, VA (Charlie Maloney, Dayspring Farm).

Outreach and Publications

Six publications were written in support of the training sessions and presentations given on organic-CA: 1) Training Manual—compilation of 26 published articles by the PIs, team consultants and invited instructors—totaling 248 pages; 2) Farmscaping Techniques for Managing Insect Pests, 9 pages (Brinkley Benson, Richard McDonald and Ronald Morse); Using Manually-Operated Seeders for Precision Cover Crop Planting on the Small Farm, 4 pages (Mark Schonbeck and Ronald Morse); Cover Crop-Based Conservation Farming for Organic Vegetables, 4 pages (Ronald Morse); Improving Organic Weed Management and Soil Fertility, 4 pages (Ronald Morse); Growing High-Biomass Cover Crops—Best Strategies for Small Farms, 4 pages (Ronald Morse); 6) Small-Scale Equipment for Organic Conservation Agriculture Growers, 12 pages (Ronald Morse).

Outreach activities focused mainly on hands-on visual demonstrations (525 attendees at 10 field days) and educational workshops and seminars given by the two PIs, three team consultants and 40 trainees, who throughout the two-year project (4/1/06-3/31/08) and one-year extension (4/1/08-3/31/09) made approximately 75 presentations that highlighted or included organic-CA information contained in the 248-page Training Manual and other publications listed above. Two of the eight PDP working groups—established at the initial training sessions at Virginia Tech in 2006—applied and were awarded SARE projects in 2007 (Producer Grant—FS07-217; and On-Farm Research—OS07-037). Both projects have been very successful in researching organic producers who are interested in adopting CA techniques.

Outcomes and impacts:

In spite of drought conditions throughout much of the PDP area (VA and NC) in 2007 and to some extent in 2008, attendance and interest were high in the ten field-day activities conducted by the CES/NRCS trainees and invited speakers. Two highly visible impacts (realities) were evident in these activities. First, many current and potential organic growers would like to explore and implement various aspects of cover crop-based organic-CA systems. Second, unavailability of low-cost small-scale equipment has minimized the capacity of most small-scale farmers to adopt cover crop-based organic-CA systems. Over time, as availability and familiarity with low-cost small-scale equipment increase, many growers will adopt legume-based reduced -till systems to enhance production efficiency (reduce N and water loss) and profitability.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This SARE-PDP consisted of two distinct phases. In 2006/2007, the PDP principal investigators (Ronald Morse, Virginia; and Keith Baldwin, North Carolina) and team consultants (Mark Schonbeck, Richard McDonald and Patryk Battle) were responsible for recruitment and training of CES and NRCS field agents. In essence, the objective in Phase I was to inform and train the participant trainees in the principles and implementation of organic-CA systems and farmscaping. In turn in phase II (2007/2008), these trainees enlisted, trained and supported farmers and fellow CES and NRCS professionals who had showed interest in exploring cover crop-based organic-CA systems and farmscaping. In the activities below, famscaping was normally included in the organic-CT systems, although not specifically mentioned.

Phase I (2006/2007). The original SARE-PDP budget called for training a maximum of 30 CES/NRCS field agents. However, the response to our recruiting efforts far exceeded this number; and eventually 40 trainees were enrolled. Although the proposed budget was cut by 10%, we proceeded with the original training objectives and conserved travel and supplies expenses whenever possible to include the extra trainees (total of 40).

In the summer of 2006, two sessions—totaling three full days of intensive training—were held at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Agricultural Research Farm, near Blacksburg. Training was provided by the PIs, team consultants and five additional instructors from Virginia and North Carolina, who combined had a wealth of experience in cover crop-based organic-CA systems and farmscaping with vegetable and agronomic crops. Exit surveys revealed that the sessions had been well received and valued. A training manual compiled by the instructors was provided for all participants. This manual-binder contained a wide array of materials, written by the instructors and other knowledgeable authors, and covered all subjects taught in the training sessions. Numerous field plots, farmscape plantings, and specialized CA equipment were made available on site that served as demonstrations and visual aids for practically all principles and lessons taught during the 3-day training sessions.

One-day regional workshops in Virginia and North Carolina were held at four sites (two each in VA and NC) in late summer of 2006 for the 40 trainees. These workshops were conducted on certified organic or transitioning organic farms that were just beginning to explore cover crop-based organic-CA systems. Exposure to these organic farmers and their triumphs and failures provided valuable insight and will help the 40 trainees to assist interested farmers in their counties or regions who want to adopt organic-CA systems.
The 40 trainees involved in the 2006 (phase I) training sessions were divided into eight regional working groups and given the implicit mandate to carry out phase-II objectives—i.e., recruit and assist local certified or transitioning organic farmers who want to explore using cover crop-based reduced-till systems for production of vegetable and/or other crops. Each working group elected a chairperson who was responsible for holding meetings to plan local activities, secure necessary funding, and support interested organic farmers in 2007/2008. The PDP PIs and team consultants worked closely with these eight working groups to provide encouragement and support their planned activities.

Phase II (2007/2008). Trainees in the eight working groups held a total of ten field days, consisting of classroom instruction and/or hands-on field demonstrations. Approximately 525 farmers and agricultural professionals attended these field days. Best management practices taught and demonstrated were 1) establishment and production of over-wintering and summer cover crops; 2) timing and management techniques (rolling and flail mowing) to mechanical kill cover crops; 3) establishment of cash crops (mainly vegetables) in killed cover crop mulch; and 4) selection, establishment and maintenance of farmscape plantings to attract and house beneficial insects. Overall, field-day activities conducted by the trainees were successful in introducing and defining organic-CA systems. Several scheduled field-day activities were canceled in 2007 because extreme spring-summer drought reduced plant stand and growth of cover crops in most regions of Virginia and North Carolina.

Most current and potential organic farms in Virginia and North Carolina are small in size, producing crops on less than 10 acres and many less than 2 acres. Unavailability of and inexperience with low-cost effective small-scale equipment is the major factor limiting adoption of cover crop-based organic-CA systems by organic growers. Over the past six years, the project director in Virginia has developed and tested low-cost prototype small-scale equipment (called no-till planting aids, NTPA) needed to establish and manage cover crops and establish cash crops in high-biomass cover crop residues. Funds will be sought in future years to manufacture and test these NTPAs, using the established trainee working groups as facilitators to maximize exposure to interested organic and sustainable growers.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

Approximately 525 agricultural professionals and organic or transitioning-organic growers attended the 10 field days. Many farmers have attempted to establish cover crops on their farms. Although establishment of cover crops has been successful among these organic growers, lack of available and affordable equipment—especially for small-scale farms, less than five acres—has been the major factor limiting adoption of organic-CA systems.

Future Recommendations

The major obstacle to successful implementation of organic-CA systems is development, evaluation and refinement of effective and affordable small-scale equipment to mechanically kill high-biomass cover crops, retain thick residue mulch uniformly over the soil surface, and establish seeds and transplants through surface mulch.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.