The Transition from Conventional to Low-input or Organic Farming Systems: Soil Biology, Soil Chemistry, Soil Physics, Energy Utilization, Economics and Risk

Final Report for SW94-017

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1994: $186,666.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1996
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $513,844.00
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Steven Temple
University of California
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Project Information


[Note to online version: the original report contained tables and appendices which it was not possible to include in full here. The regional SARE office will be happy to send a hard copy of the complete report. Just contact Western SARE at (435) 797-2257 or]

The Sustainable Agriculture Farming Systems (SAFS) project was established to evaluate the biological, agronomic, and economic performance of conventional and alternative farming systems in California’s Sacramento Valley. The study consists of 4 treatment systems which differ primarily in crop rotation and dependence on non-renewable resources. These include a conventional 2-year rotation (conv-2) and three different 4-year rotations: conventional (conv-4), low-input, and organic. The main crops are tomato, corn, wheat, beans, and safflower. All systems have used “best farmer management practices,” determined with the assistance of growers who cooperate on the project. Nitrogen in the organic system is derived from winter legume cover crops and animal manure while that in the low-input system comes from cover crops and supplemental inorganic fertilizer.

Crop yields in the organic system have been comparable to somewhat less than those of the conventional systems. Nitrogen has commonly been the limiting factor in the organic corn and tomato crops due to unpredictible mineralization from cover crops and animal manure. Nitrogen availability in the low-input system has been less problematic because of the limited use of mineral fertilizer. Developing cover crop management strategies to optimize nitrogen availability is an ongoing focus of the project but has been complicated by the influence that cover crops have on insect pest and weed abundance, soil water maintenance, and ultimately, farm operating expenses and profits. Disease, insect, and pathogen pressures have usually not been a significant limitation in any of the systems although there are differences in pest abundance across the treatments. Among these pest classes, weeds have been the most difficult to manage in the organic system because of the absence of herbicides.

Current research efforts are underway in the companion area of the SAFS project to improve the cover crop management practices of the low-input and organic systems for improved nitrogen availability for the following cash crop and more effective weed control. An additional experiment is being used to test the effect of late-summer/fall cultural and cropping practices on levels of bacterial-feeding nematodes in the spring, and to determine the effect of those practices on nitrogen availability to transplanted tomatoes. Research findings from the project are being disseminated through a quarterly newsletter, workshops, and a video, as well as through scientific meetings and publications.

Project Objectives:

A. Compare four farming systems, with differing levels of dependence on external resources over a twelve year period, with respect to:
1. Abundance and diversity of weed, pathogen, arthropod and nematode populations.
2. Changes in soil biology, physics, chemistry, and water relations.
3. Crop growth, yield and quality as influenced by different pest management, agronomic and rotational schemes.
4. Economic viability.

B. Evaluate existing and/or novel sustainable and organic farming tactics.

C. Distribute and facilitate adoption of information generated by this project to all interested parties as it becomes available.


Materials and methods:

The research plots are located on 28 acres of the Agronomy Farm at UC Davis, Yolo County section 17 township 8 north and range 2 east. Prior to the initiation of the experiment, the acreage had been managed with conventional practices including the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Because different sections were cropped to alfalfa, vetch and beans, replicates were blocked. The experiment is conducted on Yolo silt loam, a medium to heavy soil. The climate is Mediterranean, with average summer day temperatures of 90 degrees. The majority of the rainfall is received between December and March, with a yearly average of 18 inches. All plots are furrow irrigated with water from Lake Berryessa, about 30 miles east. The water is of above-average quality and low in nitrates and minerals. The soils are fairly representative of the Sacramento Valley, as are the crops grown in the rotation. The plots are 60 by 220 feet (1/3 of an acre) in order to allow for use of large scale farm machinery for all operations, including planting, disking and harvesting.

Research results and discussion:

System Descriptions

The Sustainable Agriculture Farming Systems (SAFS) Project was established in 1988 to study agronomic, economic and biological aspects of conventional and alternative farming systems in California’s Sacramento Valley. The study consists of 4 treatment systems which differ primarily in crop rotation and use of external inputs. These include 4-year rotations under conventional (conv-4), low-input, and organic management and a conventionally managed, 2-year rotation (conv-2). The 3, 4-year rotations include tomato, safflower, bean, and corn. In the conv-4 treatment, beans are double-cropped with a winter wheat crop, while in the low-input and organic treatments, beans typically follow a cover crop of oats and vetch. The conv-2 treatment is a tomato and wheat rotation. All systems use “best farmer management practices” which are determined through consultation with growers cooperating on the project. The conv-4 and conv-2 treatments are managed with practices typical of the surrounding area, which include the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. In the low-input system, fertilizer and pesticide inputs are reduced primarily by using legume cover crops to improve soil fertility and mechanical cultivation and cover cropping for weed management. The organic treatment is managed according to the regulations of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Thus, no synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilizers have been used. Instead, management includes the use of cover crops, composted animal manure, mechanical cultivation, and limited use of CCOF-approved products.

Crop Productivity

Crop Yields. Yields have varied more with year than with management system. Tomato yields from 1989 to 1996 at the SAFS site have ranged from less than 25 tons/acre to over 45 tons/acre; while county averages have typically been 28-34 tons/acre. In general, the organic system has had the lowest yields while the conv-4 system has had the greatest. In 1995 the conv-4 and low-input treatments had significantly higher yields than the organic and conv-2 systems. However, in 1996 the organic system had the highest yields among the four systems for the first time in the 8-year history of the project; though differences were not statistically signficant (Table 1).

Corn yields in the low-input system have been the highest among the 3 management treatments since 1992. In 1995, the corn yield in the low-input system remained relatively stable while those of the conv-4 system increased slightly from the previous year, resulting in no significant differences between those systems. However, organic yields dropped dramatically to 4 tons/acre, apparently due to nitrogen deficiency. In 1996, corn yields in the organic system were improved with higher quality composted manure, and yields among the 3 systems were statistically similar; all at approximately 5 tons/acre (Table 1).

Bean yields in the organic and low-input systems were equal or superior to those of the conv-4 system from 1990, the first year of bean planting, until 1994. However in 1995 and 1996 bean yields have suffered in the organic system due to heavy weed infestations. In 1995, volunteer oats from the previous oats/vetch crop were a problem. Due to a late harvest because of wet conditions, we had a problem with oats shattering during combining. While we were able to spray for weeds in the low input plots, mechanical cultivations in the organic plots were ineffective at reducing weed populations. Weed biomass in the organic system at harvest was almost three times higher than in the low-input system. Nevertheless, the herbicide application was not effective in raising low-input bean yields significantly over the organic yields (Table 1).

Safflower yields in all treatments have steadily increased over the 8 years of the project. While conv-4 safflower yields have generally been slightly higher than those of the alternative systems no statistically significant differences have been observed (Table 1).

Wheat yields in 1995 were quite low due to standing water on the fields over most of the winter. In 1996, yields in the conv-4 system increased by over 1,000 lbs/acre while those of the conv-2 declined slightly. The reason for the poor yields in the conv-2 system may be related to deteriorating soil structure in that system (discussed below). In contrast to wheat, the oats/vetch crop of the low-input and organic systems appeared to thrive from the excess moisture in 1995. Seed yields were 4,500-5,000 lbs/acre in those systems. Seed was not harvested from the oats/vetch crop in 1996. Instead, it was incorporated in the organic system and sold as hay from the low-input system.

Yield Stability. An important aspect of yield is stability over time. Stability is of particular interest in comparing alternative to conventional systems because of the potential implications for farm income when adopting non-conventional practices. We assessed yield stability by calculating the coefficient of variation (CV) for each cropping system under conventional and alternative management for the first four years (1989-1992), second four years (1993-1996), and the entire eight-year period (1989-1996) (Table 2). In general crop yields were more variable during the second rotation compared to the first rotation for all systems. Only yields of low-input corn and bean and conv-4 bean were less variable during the second rotation. Corn showed the only statistically significant difference across farming systems. Organic management, and to a somewhat lesser extent, low-input management, resulted in greater corn yield variability than the conv-4 system over the 8 years of production (Table 2). However, low-input corn yields over the last 4 years have been just as stable as those of the conv-4 system.

Soil Characteristics
Soil Fertility. Nitrogen deficiency has been largely responsible for reduced tomato and corn yields in the organic treatment (Scow et al. 1994; Friedman et al. submitted; Cavero et al. submitted). However, there has not been a clear relationship between soil and plant mineral nitrogen levels and yield. Nitrate levels measured in tomato petioles have typically been greater in the conventional compared to the alternative systems throughout the experiment and patterns observed in 1995 and 1996 were no exception (Table 3). Petiole nitrate levels in the organic system were considered deficient, according to conventional standards (Geraldson & Tyler 1990), at the first bloom, one-inch fruit, and first color stages in both years. By contrast, the low-input and two conventional systems were found to be deficient only at the first color stage.

In 1995, other measurements of tomato plant growth showed that by mid-June, leaf area index, total biomass and whole plant N were also the lowest in the organic system. At harvest, total N uptake in the organic tomatoes were considerably less than the other three systems (Table 5) strongly supporting the observation that organic tomatoes were N deficient. While these data seem to indicate nitrogen deficiency early in the growing season as a primary cause of lower yields in the alternative systems, there has not been a consistent, significant correlation between yield and petiole nitrate at any of these stages. In 1996, total plant nitrogen at harvest was similar across treatments (Table 5). However, petiole nitrate and blade percent nitrogen patterns (Tables 3 & 4) indicate that the early season nitrogen deficiency was compensated for by greater nitrogen uptake later in the season.

Because N deficiency appears to be a common problem in the organic system and conventional fertility indicators have not proven useful, we are studying the effects of management of the soil fauna on nitrogen release to better understand nitrogen processes in organically-managed systems. In laboratory experiments, additions of bacterial-feeding nematodes enhanced nitrogen mineralization by 50%. However, bacterial-feeding nematodes are at low levels in field soils in the spring when plants sometimes exhibit nitrogen stress. Bacterial-feeding nematodes were abundant and diverse across and within farming systems with greater abundance in the organic and low input systems. We have established an experiment in the companion plot area to test the effect of late-summer/fall cultural and cropping practices on levels of bacterial-feeding nematodes in the spring, and to determine the effect of those practices on nitrogen availability to transplanted tomatoes.

An additional experiment in the companion area, designed to evaluate the effects of varying nitrogen inputs and C:N ratios on immobilization and mineralization patterns, plant uptake, and yield, has been run for 3 years. In this experiment, published “sufficiency” and “deficiency” values for petiole nitrate did not reflect yield response in any year and therefore do not appear to be an appropriate tool for managing organic and low input tomato systems. For example, in 1994 petiole nitrate levels in the straw treatment and the straw plus cover crop treatment were close throughout the season, yet the straw treatment was the lowest yielding while the straw plus cover crop treatment was the highest yielding (Table 6).

Identifying petiole nitrate sufficiency and deficiency levels as yield predictors for organic and low input systems is problematic. This is shown by the small difference in petiole nitrate levels between the highest yielding and lowest yielding treatments in 1994, and also by the large spread in petiole nitrate levels with no corresponding yield differences in 1995. Soil nitrate levels were directly related to the C:N ratio of the inputs. High C:N ratio correlated with low soil nitrate, low C:N with higher nitrate levels. Higher nitrate levels in the soil did not correspond to higher yields. High C:N ratios did not necessarily correspond to lower yields, though in 1994 we observed that a C:N ratio of 93:1 did result in reduced yields.

Nitrogen deficiency has also been a problem in the organic corn system. Although large differences in soil nitrate levels across systems have not been detected, organic corn yields were low in 1993 and 1995. In those years total nitrogen uptake in the organic system was only 55-65% of that in the low-input and conv-4 systems (Table 7). However, in 1994 and 1996 total nitrogen uptake and yield in the organic system equaled or exceeded the other treatments. The lower yields in 1993 and 1995 were apparently due to inadequate nitrogen mineralization from the applied manure. Predicting available nitrogen in the organic system is difficult because it is dependent upon the amount, quality, and type of manure applied as well as the activity and structure of the soil food web. This unpredictability is overcome in the low-input system by using a combination of legume cover crops and supplemental synthetic fertilizer. The use of cover crops contributes nitrogen and enhances soil microbial activity while the mineral fertilizer eliminates nitrogen deficiency at critical periods of crop growth.

Soil Biology. For the past 6 years, levels of the soil microbial biomass have been higher in the organic and low input than conventional tomato farming systems (see previous Progress Reports). Levels of microbial activity have also been correspondingly higher in organic and low-input systems. To provide an indication of the structure and diversity of the microbial community in the soils from these 3 farming systems, phospholipid fatty acids (PLFA) (primarily associated with microbial membranes) were extracted from tomato soil samples collected over the growing season in 1995 and then analyzed by gas chromatography. The PLFA profile consists of various peaks representing different fatty acids, some of which correspond to particular microbial groups but, together which can be used as a “fingerprint” of the entire community. Patterns in the fingerprints, across farming systems and over time through the growing season, were determined using multivariate statistics (principal component analysis, constrained ordination analysis).

PLFA profiles from organic and conventional systems differed substantially from one another throughout the season from April to July. PLFA profiles from the low-input system were intermediate between organic and conventional on most sample dates. Low-input converged with the organic system following incorporation of the cover crop and converged with the conventional system following side dressing with mineral fertilizer. Field level spatial variation, represented by field blocks, was not significant in this study. Seasonal change was found to have a larger impact on PLFA profiles than management except over short time periods of two to four weeks following major farming operations.

Diversity indices, using several approaches, were calculated for the microbial communities in each of the farming systems based on the assumption that one PLFA peak corresponds to a species. There was little difference in the PLFA diversity among the conventional, low-input and organic farming systems using any of the approaches. This indicated that the differences in the PLFA profiles among the farming systems were due more to differences in the relative abundances of the same group of species rather than to differences in the species composition in the farming systems.

When the SAFS soil samples were compared to clay soils under rice management at a different location, PLFA profiles from two different soil types were completely separated by principal component analysis despite significant variation due to management and seasonal variation within each soil type. Thus we believe that PLFA analysis is a very promising method for discriminating microbial communities in different soil types, as well as responses of the communities to management and seasonal variation within a soil type.

Soil Structure. Soil aggregate stability was compared across treatments in 1994 and 1995 using a modified wet sieving technique. Results from 1994 showed that soil aggregation was more stable in the organic compared to the conventional systems. Microbial biomass carbon appeared to be responsible for this difference. However, the results of 1995 suggest that the 4-year rotation produces more stable aggregation than the 2-year rotation in this soil, and that the presence of a growing crop in the summer months has a greater effect on aggregate stability than the amount of organic matter applied to the soil or the type or amount of fertilizer used. Presence or absence of cover crops did not appear to greatly affect the stability. Future research will attempt to determine how seasonal trends in aggregate stability relate to shifts in microbial activity in response to the presence of a growing crop and whether organic matter present in the soil shows structural variation across treatments and over time.


Weeds. Among the major pest classes, weeds have been the most costly to manage throughout the experiment, typically accounting for 25% of total operating costs. Hand hoeing contributes the greatest to weed management costs and, while it has been utilized in all systems, it has been most important in the alternative systems, where synthetic herbicides are not used. During the first 5 years of the experiment (1989-1993) weed pressure was similar across the treatments (Lanini et al. 1994). Similarly, in 1994 and 1995 there were no statistical differences in weed biomass at harvest. Summer weed cover in 1996 was generally higher than was observed in 1994 (Table 8). Abnormal weather in 1995 allowed many weeds to escape control, and set seed (Table 9). The weed seeds of 1995 increased the weed pressure, and in spite of good weather for weed control operations, weed cover was higher than in 1994. The exception to this trend was the tomato plots which were hand weeded, in addition to herbicides and/or machine cultivation. In 1996, corn was not treated with an herbicide in any plots and weed pressure was close to what was observed in 1995.

Weed seedbank data indicated major differences between systems in terms of total weed populations and in species composition (Table 9). Redroot pigweed was a major problem in the corn in 1995 and was the dominant summer weed in the seedbank. The conv-2 plots, which do not have corn in the rotation, had much less pigweed seed than what was observed in other plots. Lambsquarters was the principal weed in safflower and again was much less common in the conv-2 plots which do not have safflower in the rotation. Black nightshade seed was more common in the conv-4 and conv-2 tomato plots where herbicides were used in place of cultivation. Cultivation, used in the low-input and organic tomato plots was more effective at removing black nightshade plants (and seed). Barnyardgrass was 4 to 10 times higher in the organic and low input plots compared to the conventional plots. Cultivation has not been effective in stopping late season germination and seed set of this species which remains an unsolved problem in these systems.

Although winter weeds have infested the cover crops to various degrees throughout the study period, they have generally not resulted in yield reductions in the subsequent crops. The only weed to show a large change among treatments is the chickweed, which has produced a large number of seed (Table 2). The low growth habit and non-competitive nature of this species has not resulted in this plant causing any problems in spite of its abundance.

Pathogens. For the second time since the start of the SAFS project (1989), root disease severity was assessed for all tomato plots. Twenty plants per plot were uprooted one week before harvest. Visual disease assessments were made for corky root (Pyrenochaeta lycopersici), root rots caused by Pythium, Phytophthora, Rhizoctonia, or Fusarium spp., root knot nematode galls (Meloidogyne sp.), and knobby root tips (cause unknown). The scoring scales are indicated under Table 10. Disease severities were generally low. Symptoms of corky root were significantly more severe in the conv-2 treatment relative to the others in 1995 and 1996. Pythium root rot was significantly less severe in the conv-4 than other treatments, while knobby root was significantly more severe in both conventional treatments. Phytophthora root rot was significantly more severe in the organic than other treatments. Symptoms of Verticillium wilt were not observed since the tomato cultivar was resistant to this disease.

Fungi were isolated from 20 roots per plot, 6 sections per root, on selective agar media for Pythium and Phytophthora sp. (PARP), Pyrenochaeta lycopersici (CRM), and Verticillium dahliae (sodium polypectate medium), and on non-selective media (WA and APDA) for Rhizoctonia, Fusarium and other fungi. The numbers of Rhizoctonia and Fusarium isolates were higher in the 2-year rotation plots than in all other plots (Table 2). This trend was reversed for Macrophomina. Pythium was more frequently isolated from the low-input and organic plots than from the conventional plots, while there were no differences in Phytophthora among the treatments. There were no significant differences among treatments for the percentages of roots from which Verticillium dahliae was isolated.

Root knot nematodes were identified as Meloidogyne javanica in 1995 (samples were not submitted for identification in 1996). Rhizosphere samples from plants with knobby roots were examined for Xiphinema but this nematode was not observed. However, these soil samples contained low to moderate numbers of root lesion nematodes (about 415 per liter of soil in 1996).
In conclusion, tomato root disease severity was much lower in 1996 than in 1995. The differences among treatments were consistent from year to year for corky root and knobby root but not for the other diseases.

Insects. Plot size limits the study of farming system effects on mobile, above-ground insects, however, economically important arthropod pests have been monitored throughout the experiment to identify the need for pest control intervention and determine the effects of pests on crop quality and yield. Insecticides have been used in the conventional tomatoes 5 out of the 8 years of the project, while conventional corn has required insecticides in only 2 of the 8 years. Tomato quality has been acceptable for paste for all systems during the entire 8 years. However, stink bug damage in 1992 and 1995 would have rendered the low-input and organic tomatoes, which received no insecticide treatment, unacceptable for dicing and whole pack. Seedcorn maggot and wireworms have been occasional pests in the low-input and organic safflower and corn due to inadequate waiting periods between cover crop incorporation and cash crop planting. Replanting has been needed in some years. Future work will be focused on the relationship between cover crop management methods and timing and the effects of pests on seedlings.

Research conclusions:

Cover Crop Management

Specific data has been collected for production of cover crops for green manure, green chop, and seed harvest. Two winter, companion-area experiments have shown a number of species, grown individually or in mixtures, to be successful in the Sacramento Valley. Oat/vetch, barley/vetch and faba/pea were all economically viable and showed only slight yield reductions under reduced tillage. If implemented, reduced tillage management could increase energy savings and increase profit. Various vetch species alone and in mixtures were also tested for biomass, N production potential and weed suppression. In both 1993 and 1994 lana vetch had higher N production and suppressed more weeds than purple vetch and faba/vetch and lana/cowpea mixtures. Because the 1993 and 1994 winters were so climatically different, these results suggest that lana vetch is well adapted to a wide range of conditions. For example, the faba/vetch had high biomass and N production in 1993, a dry year, but biomass production and weed competition were greatly reduced in the wet year of 1994-1995. Results from these cover crop studies could be very useful and practical for growers needing information about specific cover crops under a various climatic and management conditions. Current research in the companion area is being conducted to evaluate other cover crops for use in this area.

Low Input Management

The low input system is emerging as a very strong alternative to conventionally managed systems. Yields are consistently competitive in the corn and tomatoes. The success of this management system clearly shows that a combination of cover crop and mineral supplement not only provides sufficient N, but that the cover crop has tangible values beyond fertilizer N. The economic success of the low input corn makes it a strong contender for widespread application. Four years of results indicate that mineral fertilizer in corn can be reduced by 50% when adequate nitrogen is supplied from a cover crop. Furthermore pesticide use (herbicides and insecticides) in the low-input corn system over the 8 years of this study has been only 25% of that in the conventional system.

Benefits of Tissue Tests in Corn

Tissue tests at key growth stages in corn have been very useful in identifying N deficiency in the organic corn system and alerting us to a production and N efficiency problem in the conventional system. These tests are very easy to do and could be used in growers’ fields to more effectively monitor N status of corn crops. The stalk nitrate test at maturity is currently being introduced in the midwest as a “postmortem” test to help growers determine how well their corn crop used fertilizer, and as a means for improving the efficiency of fertilizer applications in future years.

Disease Suppression

Corky root and knobby root have been more severe under conventional management, particularly in the 2-year rotation. This indicates that the 4-year rotation has contributes to disease suppression and that the organic amendments added to the organic and low-input systems through cover cropping and manure applications may suppress soil-borne pathogens.

Soil Physical Characteristics

Although most traditional agronomic experiments are much shorter than the SAFS project, we believe that even 8 years is a very short time for certain differences to emerge. It has taken seven years to see negative impacts of the two year rotation as well as the positive effects on soil tilth in the low-input and organic system. Long-term positive benefits such as substantial increases in organic matter contributing to improved soil aggregation or water infiltration are becoming clearer with each season and warrant further exploration. We expect that new benefits will be continually identified as time passes.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Ferris, H., R. C. Venette, S. A. Lau, K. M. Scow, and N. Gunapala. 1994. Bacterial feeding nematodes in organic and conventional farming systems. Journal of Nematology 26:544 (abstr.).

Ferris, H., S. Lau, and R. Venette. 1995. Population energetics of bacterial-feeding nematodes: respiration and metabolic rates based on carbon dioxide production. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 27:319-330.

Ferris, H., M. Eyre, R. C. Venette, and S. S. Lau. 1996. Population energetics of bacterial-feeding nematodes: stage-specific development and fecundity rates. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 28: 271-280.

Ferris, H., R. C. Venette and S. S. Lau. 1996. Dynamics of nematode communities in tomatoes grown in conventional and organic farming systems, and their impact on soil fertility. Applied Soil Ecology 3. 161-175.

Gristina, L., D. Friedman and S. Temple. 1994. Yield stability analysis during the transition from conventional to organic farming systems in the Sacramento Valley – California. Proceedings from the 3d ESA Conference, Abano-Padova, Italy. Pp. 702-703.

Klonsky, K. and P. Livingston. 1994. Alternative systems aim to reduce inputs, maintain profits. California Agriculture. 48(5): 34-42.

Lanini, W.T., F. Zalom, J.J. Marois, and H. Ferris. 1994. Researchers find short-term insect problems, long-term weed problems. California Agriculture 48(5):27-33.

Scow, K.M., O. Somasco, N. Gunapala, S. Lau, R. Venette, H. Ferris, R. Miller, and C. Shennan. 1994. Transition from conventional to low-input agriculture changes soil fertility and biology. California Agriculture 48(5):20-26.

Temple S.R., O.A. Somasco, M. Kirk and D. Friedman. 1994. Conventional, low-input, and organic farming systems compared. California Agriculture. 48(5): 14-19.

Temple, S.R., D.B. Friedman, O. Somasco, H. Ferris, K. Scow, and K. Klonsky. 1994. An interdisciplinary, experiment station-based participatory comparison of alternative crop management systems for California’s Sacramento Valley. Amer. J. Altern. Agric. 9 (1 & 2): 64-71.

In Press and Preparation:

Amezketa, E., M.J. Singer, N. Gunapala, K. Scow, D. Friedman and E. Lundquist. Soil aggregate stability in conventional, low-input and organic farming systems. (Submitted).

Cavero, J., R.E. Plant, C. Shennan, J.R. Williams, J.R. Kiniry and V.W. Benson. Application of EPIC model to nitrogen cycling in irrigated processing tomatoes under different management systems (Submitted).

Cavero, J., R.E. Plant, C. Shennan and D.B. Friedman. Nitrogen dynamics in processing tomatoes under conventional, low input and organic management systems. (Submitted).

Ferris, H., R.C. Venette, and S.S. Lau.. 1996. Population energetics of bacterial feeding nematodes: carbon and nitrogen budgets. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. (In press).

Friedman, D.B., L. Gristina, M. Volat, S.R. Temple, C. Shennan, and D. Stewart. Evaluation of five cover crop mixtures for nitrogen contribution and weed suppression in low input and organic farming systems of the Sacramento Valley (in preparation).

Friedman, D.B., R.O. Miller, S.R. Temple and T. Kearney. Agronomic performance of field corn in conventional, low input and organic farming systems. (Submitted)

Gunapala, N. and Scow, K. M., 1995. Dynamics of soil microbial biomass and activity in conventional and organic farming systems. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. (Submitted).

Gunapala, N., R. C. Venette, H. Ferris and K.M. Scow. Effects of soil management history on the rate of decomposition of alfalfa and vetch. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. (In final preparation).
Scow, K.M., and M.R. Werner. The soil ecology of cover cropped farming systems (in press, for UC SAREP Publication on Use of Cover Crops in Vineyards).

Scow, K.M. 1996. Interrelationships between microbial dynamics and carbon flow in agroecosystems. In: Jackson, L.E. (ed.) Agricultural Ecology (in press).

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Whole Farm
In 1996 total costs for the four farming systems ranged from $694 to $903 per acre (Table 12). The low-input system was the lowest cost system at $694 per acre. It was followed by conv-4 at $726, conv-2 at $807, and organic at $903 per acre. Surprisingly, the low-input system was also the most profitable among the systems this year returning $196 per acre. It’s profits were closely followed by the organic receiving premium prices at $193, conv-4 with $186, and $171 for conv-2 per acre. The organic receiving conventional prices had a net loss of $109 per acre. Replanting conventional tomatoes led to higher costs in both of those systems. The other major sources of cost differences were weed control practices, use of cover crops in the organic and low-input systems, and the addition of manure in the organic tomatoes and corn.


Tomato. The tomato crop in all farming systems were profitable in 1996. For the first time, organic tomato yields were higher than any of the other systems. Because of its higher yield, organic tomato production was profitable even receiving conventional prices, even though the costs for producing them remained greater than the other three systems. Profit per acre (Table 12) were; Conv-4 – $539; organic with premium prices – $475; conv-2 – $402; low-input – $259; and organic with conventional prices – $144. Operating costs ranged from $853 to $1387 per acre (Table 12). Transplanting costs remained between $356 to $360 per acre for the low-input and organic tomatoes. However, planting costs were up in the conventional systems due to replanting all of the tomato acreage. Hand hoeing in the low-input and organic systems required twice the hours to perform than the conventional tomatoes. Manure costs for the organic system were almost five times the conventional systems’ fertilizer costs.

Corn. Low-input and conv-4 systems made profits growing corn while organic system lost $283 per acre when it received a conventional price and $65 per acre even with a price premium (Table 12). Low-input corn returned $175 per acre and conv4 corn made $34 per acre. Low-input corn also had the highest yield and lowest operating cost relative to the other two systems. Organic corn had the highest operating costs because the entire acreage had to be replanted and the high cost of manure.

Beans. Beans in low-input system and organic system receiving premium prices had positive net returns of $147 nad $310 per acre, respectively. Conv-4 and organic systems receiving conventional prices lost $11 and $65 per acre, respectively (Table 12). A loss of 25% of the organic crop due to weed pressure contributed to the low yield and low returns. Conv-4 beans had the highest total operating cost due to greater weed and fertility management costs. Both Conv-4 and low-input beans were treated for lygus while the organic were not.

Safflower. Safflower performed very well economically with profits in all systems except for the organic receiving conventional prices which lost $4 per acre (Table 13). The conv-4 system returned $155 per acre, low-input made $111, and organic system receiving a price premium had a profit of $242 per acre. Differences in operating costs were primarily from cover crops and fertility management.

Wheat. Conv-2 wheat yielded nearly a half a ton less than Conv-4 wheat, but lost $60 per acre with the addition of higher overhead costs (Table 12). Conv-4 profited $65 per acre. Operating costs were identical for the two systems at $226 per acre.

Oats/Vetch. Oat and vetch were harvested only in the Low-input system. Instead of being harvested for seed, this year the crop was baled and sold as hay. The organic oat and vetch crop was disked under as a green manure and generated no returns. Low oat/vetch hay made a profit of $92 per acre (Table 12).

Farmer Adoption

Changes observed and reported through verbal communication include greater interest in cover crops, legumes and crop rotations; increased organic acreage in field crops; increased monitoring by growers of water use/efficiency, pest thresholds and soil and crop nitrogen requirements; and heightened interest in a more holistic view of soil health. Agricultural equipment dealers have also begun demonstrating more of an interest in specialized equipment, specifically for tillage and non-chemical weed management. As the project has matured, there is widespread consensus that we have been able to demonstrate to the tomato industry that organic production is biologically possible and economically viable at premium market prices.

Because farmers are such a heterogeneous group and manage their farms in their own unique style, it would be very difficult to assess how many growers have actually used specific project results for their own operations. However, as interest in sustainable agriculture grows, the project has come to serve as an information base for growers and farm advisors in the area looking for either specific or theoretical information.

Operational Recommendations

Results from the first years provided information on transition strategies that might benefit growers as they decide to shift to reduced chemical input farming. Foremost is that a grower should plan a transition to low-input or organic farming based on a workable crop rotation, equipment realities and management skills. There may very well be a delay of several years before the soil microbial populations are able to optimally provide plant nutrients from organic inputs and fertilization strategies may want to reflect this delay. Good soil and cover crop management is critical at all times; a multifaceted approach to nitrogen fertility including cover crops, manures, composts, starters and foliars is probably the best strategy for reducing risk of nitrogen deficiencies. Potential variability in the C:N ratio of organic amendments should be recognized, and quantification made, if possible, of the N content of these materials before application. Organic inputs with a high C:N ratio should be avoided in nitrophilic crops such as corn. Composted manures, while having less leaching potential than fresh manure, may not always release N at necessary rates. Less N demanding crops such as beans might be more appropriate in the early part of a transition.

Specific information about N application rates in cover cropped systems for corn and tomatoes is now being developed. Data is very clearly showing that cover crops combined with mineral nitrogen are biologically and economically feasible. The low input system has been a profitable system every year (except for 1994 when the tomato yields were dramatically reduced by a virus), suggesting that widespread reduction of chemicals coupled with a “whole farm” approach to management could be successfully implemented.

Specific data is also available about cover crop biomass and N production. Reduced tillage could be successfully implemented in winter cereal/legume cover crop mixtures. Problematic areas in cover crop systems have also been identified. Growers would want to have a solid window between cover crop incorporation and planting of safflower to avoid insect damage. We have also observed that repeated cover cropping with the same species may lead to higher disease build-up, and might recommend that cover crops be rotated in the same manner as cash crops.

Farmer Evaluations/Testimonials

Anonymous evaluations from the annual field day:

“SAFS project is excellent. First rate approach.”
“Excellent, well worth the visit.”
“Good work.”
“Very exciting. Well conceived and executed.”
“Very excited about the project-will watch it closely during its second half and hope that there is funding for future projects.”

Producer Involvement
Number of growers/producers in attendance at:
Workshops: NA
Conferences: 150
Field Days: 130
Other Events: NA


Areas needing additional study

New Hypotheses

1. Winter covers of a grass/legume mixture can extract more residual soil nitrogen than a grass or legume alone.

2. Current crop varieties are bred for conventional agriculture systems and are adapted to respond to short periods of high nitrogen availability and may not perform optimally in organic systems where nitrogen release is microbial mediated and more irregular.

3. Higher disease populations have built up in the two year rotation and are causing yield reductions in tomatoes.

4. Cover crops in the low-input and organic systems provide habitat for beneficial insects and contribute to their conservation and biological control effects

5. Organic soils are more suppressive than conventional soils to disease by plant pathogens.

6. Microbial populations and activity may be temporarily decreased in conventional systems because of high inorganic fertilizer additions.

7. There are differences in microbial species and functional diversity in soils associated with different farming systems.

8. Petiole nitrate is not good predictor of yield in organic systems because nitrogen uptake and translocation is different in organically fertilized systems; conventional tomatoes receive a large input of inorganic N at a time of high plant demand, while organic tomatoes more likely receive smaller amounts of N over a long period of time as organic inputs decompose.

9. N mineralization rates vary considerably among sources of composts. N mineralization rates are not solely tied directly to total compost N but are also a function of total C, chemical components of C and the C:N ratio of the compost.

10. Early season N deficiency in organic tomatoes will be alleviated by presence of high numbers of bacterial feeding nematodes in the spring.

11. Denitrification losses are higher in organic than conventional cropping systems as a function of higher C inputs. These losses can be minimized through management practices.

Literature Cited

Cavero, J., R.E. Plant, C. Shennan and D.B. Friedman. Nitrogen dynamics in processing tomatoes under conventional, low input and organic management systems. (Submitted).

Friedman, D.B., R.O. Miller, S.R. Temple and T. Kearney. Agronomic performance of field corn in conventional, low input and organic farming systems. (Submitted)

Geraldson, C. M. and K. B. Tyler. 1990. Plant analysis as an aid in fertilizing vegetable crops. In R. L. Westerman (ed.). Soil Testing and Plant Analysis. SSSA Book Series: 3. pp.549-562.

Lanini, W.T., F. Zalom, J.J. Marois, and H. Ferris. 1994. Researchers find short-term insect problems, long-term weed problems. California Agriculture 48(5):27-33.

Scow, K.M., O. Somasco, N. Gunapala, S. Lau, R. Venette, H. Ferris, R. Miller, and C. Shennan. 1994. Transition from conventional to low-input agriculture changes soil fertility and biology. California Agriculture 48(5):20-26.

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.