Integrating research and practice in systems management of organic vegetable farms

Final Report for SW13-017

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2013: $277,430.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Western
State: Oregon
Principal Investigator:
Oregon State University
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Project Information

Long-term organic farms are successful because they have developed effective whole-farm systems management strategies over time. On the successful organic farms in our project, pest and soil management approaches are based on the farm's climate, location, marketing, and philosophy. To understand what is and is not working on these farms, the farm system and its components must be described and analyzed. The approach of this project was to develop a detailed Farm System Description (FSD) for each farm that integrates the farmer’s perceptions about the long and short term  trends on the farm with analyses of the long-term farm records and available on-farm data sets/experimental results. Farm System Analyses (FSAs) were then developed to further describe and analyze management practices that were or were not working well on the individual farms and across farms in the project.
The outputs of the project were:
1) farm-specific Farm System Descriptions (data-rich case studies), which include:
  • descriptions of the farm's soil, disease, and insect management practices
  • aggregation and analysis of farm data (e.g. soil analyses, pest scouting and management records, rotation histories, yield records)
  • identification of the farm's soil and pest management successes and challenges

2) Farm System Analyses that focus on a specific topic (e.g. nutrient management, management of a specific pest), using data from one farm or multiple farms.

The FSDs and FSAs will be used by farmers, extension and other agricultural professionals, educators, students and researchers to: 

  • better understand how organic farmers manage soils, diseases, and insect pests
  • identify which pests are successfully managed (and how), and which pests remain problematic and should be research priorities
  • describe successes and challenges in organic soil and nutrient management

3) Engagement. The project engaged farmers, agricultural professionals, students, and researchers through presentations, field days, workshops, and courses throughout the course of the project.

Project Objectives:
An objective of this project was to publish Farm System Descriptions and Farm System Analyses based on the experiences, practices, and data collected from 5 experienced organic farms: 
    1. Persephone (OR)
    2. Wintergreen (OR)
    3. BioDesign (MT)
    4. Woodleaf (CA)
    5. Phil Foster Ranch (CA)

Another objective was to engage farmers, agricultural professionals and researchers with the information in the FSDs and FSAs so as to increase our collective understanding of what is working and what is not on experienced organic farms, and to identify critical research questions.


A fundamental goal of organic farming systems is to rely primarily on cultural and biological strategies for pest and soil management. Expert organic farmers manage soils and pests using a farm-specific toolbox of interrelated biological and cultural strategies and they avoid using pesticides (especially those with adverse effects on natural enemies) until all other options fail. However, there is little information available on farm-developed soil and pest management toolboxes and their efficacy. Therefore, it is difficult to determine if that fundamental goal of organic farming is being met on organic farms, and if so, how?  The primary goal of this project was to address this question.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Helen Atthowe
  • Jeff Falen
  • Alice Formiga
  • Phil Foster
  • Lewis Grant
  • Louise Jackson
  • Doug O'Brien
  • Ed Peachey
  • Carl Rosato
  • Bill Snyder
  • Bryan Tilt
  • Wali Via


Materials and methods:

Farm System Descriptions and Analyses:  

Project staff met with project farmers to collect  farmer philosophy, experiences, and data sets:

• Data set 1: Farmer description of farm history, philosophy, markets, crops, systems management, record keeping 
• Data set 2: Farmer-collected data (soils, crops, pests)
• Data set 3: On-farm research data sets (past research projects conducted on case farm, if any)
• Data set 4: Case study farmer’s knowledge and practices about systems soil/pest management strategies

Project staff then developed:

1)FARM SYSTEM DESCRIPTIONS (model structure below) 

Farm System Overview

  • About the farm
  • Farm Philosophy
  • Key Farm Design and Soil- and Habitat-Building Strategies
  • Soil Management System Overview
  • Disease Management System Overview
  • Insect Management System Overview

Soil, Insect, and Disease System Descriptions

  • Introduction
  • Outcomes
  • Key Practices
  • Integrating Practice and Research
  • Figures and Tables
  • References and Citations
  • Additional Resources

Farm system analyses are in-depth analyses of the experiences and data of one or more farms related to specific topics, i.e. cabbage worms and  nutrient management. Project staff aggregated and analyzed data from one or more farms and developed that information into an article including a discussion integrating research and practice.

Project staff and farmers engaged farmers, ag professionals, students and researchers through presentations, field days, workshops and courses.


Research results and discussion:

This project was very ambitious and farm system description development has taken much longer than anticipated.. Early versions of the farm system description were long and project farmers and agricultural professionals could not learn from them. As the result, mid-way through the project, a more accessible system description structure was developed and all materials were revised to this new structure. The structure is intended to allow readers to access the information through multiple entry points. Readers wanting only an overview of a farm and its practices can read the farm system overview. Readers interested in management strategy details can read the farm soil, insect and/or disease system descriptions, and if very interested they can access the farm's data in the figures and tables.

Research conclusions:
Impact of Project on Project Farmers
Phil Foster Ranches:
The farmer and scout at PFR now realize how useful it is to aggregate and analyze their accumulated data. They had never done so before as they did not have anyone to support them in that effort, nor did they understand how useful it would be. As an example of its utility, the aggregation and analysis of soilborne disease and cabbage worm data has changed their understanding of these pests, their economic importance, and their management. As the result of learning from the practices/experiences/data of other farmers in the project, they have added two new cover cropping strategies (single row sudan grass and single row vetch) to  get closer to the ‘root year round’ cover cropping approaches of some of the other project farms. They are also working on increasing undisturbed, natural habitat in an effort to further suppress cabbage worms (and other insects). In addition, they see how useful it is to soil test frequently so the variability in the data doesn't hide the longer terms trends.  Doug O'Brien, the crop scout, learned to use more quantitative strategies when scouting so his scouting data can be more easily aggregated and analyzed. 
Woodleaf Farm:
The farmer found the project useful as the farm data collection and analysis helped him better understand the science supporting his working theory that a high carbon/low nitrogen, mineral-balanced soil management system resulted in good yields and quality. Analysis of long-term pest management records and monitoring of pest and beneficial insect populations by project staff during the study (2013-2015) gave him data-based confirmation of the efficacy of the farm's pest suppression strategies. Analysis of the farm's data and records demonstrated the importance of no-till and carefully timed mowing of living mulches; these practices supported ground-dwelling beneficial insect populations and their contributions to pest suppression.
Biodesign Farm:
Helen Atthowe, the farmer at Biodesign and the project coordinator, had conducted several on-farm soil and pest management research studies from 1996 – 2007. However, this project’s aggregation of all on-farm research data combined with analysis of long-term soil test and pest management records greatly increased her understanding of  how her farming system performed. She was better able to understand how reduced tillage in combination with habitat enhancement using living mulches generated the observed pest suppression. The farmer also gained a much clearer understanding of the impact of organic residues of different C:N rations on nitrogen and carbon dynamics on her farm.  Helen is using her increased understanding of farm system pest and nutrient management to to design a soil and pest management system for her recently acquired 211 acre farm in Eastern Oregon.  
Persephone Farm:
Like Phil Foster Ranches, the Persephone farmers see the value in aggregating and analyzing their very complete long term data sets (e.g. soils and yields) to see long term trends. One of the most significant learnings at Persephone Farm was that the soilborne disease affecting cucumbers was also affecting all of the winter squash species and has reduced winter squash yields by as much as 50%. That disease was the reason they no longer could profitably grow kabocha squash. They also have learned from the aggregation and analysis of the soils data, especially P/K/N, and are considering how to use that information to further reduce fertilizer inputs.
Feedback from reviewers of Farm System Descriptions

Extension agent: “This is the kind of real-world observation and lesson-drawing from that observation that should be at the heart of all organic production, presented in a way that will be accessible and comfortable for farmers. There are plenty of references for folks who want to explore further. The information itself is of great interest but the underlying philosophy and method used to move the farm forward are probably the greatest lesson here. I would definitely recommend this to our growers.  The emphasis on reduced tillage and living mulches, and the ability of a living mulch to sequester and recycle N, certainly is of highest relevance and interest to organic producers, and the correlations between changes in soil fertility and other aspects of farm management will be of great interest. The sections on excessive buildup of NPK are particularly intriguing both for new producers who would give their right arm for that problem, and long-term producers who may be experiencing the same phenomenon. The possibility of weeds as habitat for beneficials is something that many producers have been working with and will be interested to see these results.”

Farmer: “This article describes in extensive detail a farm which I visited several times while it was in production.  The vegetables produced were uniformly beautiful- particularly the peppers.  What was most remarkable was the near complete absence of weeds.  It was as though weeds were just not part of the biome.  The surrounding land was basic range land, and in my experience, under different management, the field would have been full of annual or perennial weeds. It is certainly clear from the farm records that keeping the land covered is best for soil health and increasing organic matter”

Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

Participation Summary:

Education and outreach methods and analyses:

Published as of September 2016

Organic Farm System Description: Woodleaf Farm. Authors: Carl Rosato, Helen Atthowe, and Alex Stone. Available at 

Organic Farm System Description: Biodesign Farm. Authors: Helen Atthowe and Alex Stone. 2016. Available at 

Trends in soilborne disease on two long-term organic farms in the west. Authors: Doug O'Brien, Alex Stone, Helen Atthowe, Phil Foster, Jeff Falen, Jake Asplund, and Nat McKinney.  Organic Agriculture Research Symposium proceedings. Available at

In press as of September 2016

Organic Farm System Description: Phil Foster Ranch. Authors: Doug O'Brien, Phil Foster, Helen Atthowe, and Alex Stone. Will be available at

Soil phosphorus and potassium trends on a long term organic farm: case study of Persephone Farm. Authors: Aaron Heinrich, Jeff Falen, Helen Atthowe, and Alex Stone. Will be available at

Systems management for suppression of imported cabbageworm: on-farm research from Biodesign Farm. Authors: Helen Atthowe, Chris Philips, and Alex Stone. Will be available at

Suppression of cabbage worms on four organic vegetable farms in the west. Authors:  Alex Stone, Doug O'Brien, and Helen Atthowe.  Will be available at

In press by December 2016

Organic Farm System Description: Persephone Farm. Will be available at Authors: Alex Stone, Helen Atthowe, Jeff Falen, and Elanor O'Brien.


For outreach activities in 2013-2015, see interim reports.
Outreach activities 2015-16:

Ecological Soil Management. Online course offered through University of Illinois (graduate course) and eXtension (agricultural professionals). Fall 2015. Instructor: Michelle Wander, U of IL. 20 students. Farm System Descriptions used as course materials.

Soil Management for Organic Production, Oregon State University. Campus undergraduate course. Instructors: Alex Stone and James Cassidy, OSU. 25 students.  Farm System Descriptions used as foundational course materials.  

Trends in soilborne disease on two long-term organic farms in the west. Presentation. Organic Agriculture Research Symposium. Ecofarm Conference, January 2016. Authors: Doug O'Brien, Alex Stone, Helen Atthowe, Phil Foster, Jeff Falen, Jake Asplund, and Nat McKinney.  Proceedings paper available at

Building Healthy Soil Ecology: Investing in Your Farm's Bottom Line.  Practical, How-to, Take-home Information for Farmers Cultivating a Sense of Humus! Panelists included Helen Atthowe and Carl Rosato, who presented information from the Woodleaf and Biodesign Farm System Descriptions.  Ecofarm Per-Conference Workshop: January 20, 2016, Monterey, California.

Investing in Soils for Climate Change. Presenters: Carl Rosato and Helen Atthowe, presenting information from the Woodleaf and Biodesign Farm System Descriptions.  29th California Small Farm Conference. Sacramento, CA. March 2016 

Persephone Farm System Description and Analyses.  Authors: Alex Stone, Jeff Falen, and Helen Atthowe. Poster. Sustainable Agriculture Education Association. Santa Cruz, CA. August 2016.

Utilizing Data-Rich Farm System Descriptions (case studies).  Workshop. Presenters: Alex Stone and Sierra Laverty. Sustainable Agriculture Education Association. Santa Cruz, CA. August 2016.

Tour of Phil Foster Ranches for Stanford University graduate students (course on agricultural sustainability) using information and data from the Phil Foster Ranches System Description. Doug O'Brien. September 2016. 

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

Areas needing additional study

This project focused on soil, disease, and insect management. It would be useful to further develop the FSDs by adding additional sections addressing topics such as  weed management and social, environmental, and economic sustainability.

Information Products

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.