The goals of this 3-year project were to 1) increase cover crop use and decrease herbicide use among non-organic farmers, 2) increase adoption of rotational tillage among organic farmers, and 3) evaluate energetic and economic performances of standard- and no-till organic and conventional cropping systems.
The primary tools used to achieve these goals were field days and workshops held at Rodale Institute and collaborating farms, research trials conducted on organic no-till systems, and on-line articles and conference presentations featuring those events and trials. A booklet and a technical bulletin were also produced to outreach agronomic, energetic and economic information to the local and national farming community.
Field days were held at Rodale Institute in 2008 and 2009 and on a collaborating farm in 2010. Total attendance for the three field days was 195 people. Surveys were conducted immediately following the field days to assess what materials and outreach strategies worked best and were of most interest and use to the audiences.
In 2008, survey results showed that we reached a large number of farmers and extension educators (42 out of 63 respondents), increasing their awareness and understanding of organic and sustainable techniques. Over 87% of participants responded that they were considering incorporating cover crops into their practices as a result of information received at that year’s field day and 41% of farmers said that the field day increased their motivation to try organic practices on their farm.
In 2009, 92% of survey respondents stated that the field day increased their awareness of environmental benefits of organic practices, built their confidence in the topics presented, and increased their motivation to further explore sustainable/organic agriculture practices. In assessing the impact of the field day in advancing knowledge, it was impressive to find that a sizeable 79% of respondents indicated that they learned a new sustainable practice at the field day. And almost all of them indicated that they would make a change in their practices in the next 2 years as a result of attending the field day.
In 2010, 9 out of 10 people attending the field day said that, as a result of the field day, they would change or adopt a new practice in the next two years.
In a follow-up survey conducted one year after the first field day, about half of the surveyed farmers stated that they had made changes in their operations, either by planting cover crops for the first time, trying new cover crops, rolling cover crops instead of plowing them, or setting up an organic test plot. These changes effected close to 5% (70 non-organic acres and 130 organic acres) of the approximately 4000 acres that were being farmed by the interviewed farmers.
Approximately 100 people learned about cover crop and no-till techniques in workshops and conference presentations at Rodale Institute, at the Northeast Weed Science Society Meeting in Baltimore, at the Agronomy Crops and Soil conference in Pittsburgh, and at the Organic Grain and Hay Production Meeting in Maryland, to name a few that were funded with this grant. However, we reach a multitude of people through other off-site speaking engagements at various conferences and trade shows (more than 15,000 per year), and through smaller farm tours and custom programs given at Rodale Institute (400 people for custom tours plus over 2,000 general visitors per year).
For the on-farm portion of this grant we focused on monitoring soil carbon content on 9 local farms before and after conversion to conservation practices like cover cropping and no-till using our newly developed mobile field lab. Results were very variable, with carbon increases ranging from 1% to 222% and carbon losses ranging from 1% to 49%. These results taught us that short-term projects need to measure parameters that can be expected to change within that time period.
Six articles were posted on Rodale Institute’s website, covering changes being made to the long-term Farming Systems Trial, as well as the field days and several of our organic no-till trials. These 6 articles had a total of 17,196 unique views during the project period. In addition we had more than 18,000 unique views of the no-till page in 2011, more than 23,000 unique views of the Farming Systems Trial microsite (which summarizes the main results of the 30-year trial), and 1,700 to 2,600 unique views each for on-line articles describing other research trials with rolled cover crops.
Detailed data collection for the six different cropping systems in the Farming Systems Trial was conducted to determine energetic efficiency and agronomic and economic performance. The energy analysis showed that corn and soybean production in a no-till organic system require approximately 30% fewer energy inputs than tilled organic corn and soybean production. The main energy savings result from reduced fuel and labor inputs due to a reduced number of field operations. Similar results were documented in the economic analysis: Compared to the tilled organic system, total expenses in the no-till organic system are 20-30% lower due to significantly lower labor, fuel and equipment costs.
For corn, a crop that has high nitrogen demands, energy differences between organic and conventional systems are even bigger than between tilled and no-till organic systems: Total energy requirements in a tilled and no-till conventional system are more than 70% higher than their respective organic counterparts. This is due to the fact that more than half of the energy requirements in the conventional systems can be attributed to the production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides. Results from those analyses are summarized in a booklet on the long-term trial and in a Technical Bulletin on cover crops and organic no-till. These publications are available in print and on-line.
Fifty non-organic farmers will integrate cover crops to reduce herbicide and fertilizer inputs impacting more than 2000 acres. Twenty five organic farmers will strategically utilize rolled/crimped cover crops to suppress weeds in no-till planted cash crops on at least 250 acres. Fifteen county based extension educators will acquire new knowledge of cover crops and rotational no-till practices and incorporate project findings into education programs.
All in all, measuring the exact impact of this project proved to be very challenging, since there is no statistical information on how many farmers switched to a rolled cover crop system or increased their cover crop use, and on how many acres it was done. In addition, it would be especially difficult to determine how many changes could be attributed to this specific project.
In hindsight, we concluded that more follow up surveys via phone, internet, or at conferences, could have been helpful in measuring the effect of this specific project. For our current SARE funded project (“Reducing plastic mulch use by expaning adoption of cover crop based no-till systems for vegetable producers”), we are planning on conducting more surveys (either surveys that are emailed to field day attendants or in-person interviews).
We can, however, try to quantify our impact by assessing the number of people we reach with field days, at conferences, through tours given at the farm, and through the website.
The three field days held in 2008, 2009 and 2010 had a total attendance of 195 people.
Responses from surveys conducted at those field days showed that the presented material increased the awareness and understanding of organic and sustainable techniques for the majority of attendants. In addition, at each field day about 80-90% of survey respondents said that the field day increased their motivation to change or adopt a new practice on their farm.
In 2009 we conducted a follow-up phone survey with the farmers that attended the field day the previous year. Goal of the survey was to determine whether or not farmers had made any changes in their farming operation since they attended the field day. About half of the surveyed farmers stated that they have made changes in their operations. These changes effected close to 5% (70 non-organic acres and 130 organic acres) of the approximately 4000 acres that were being farmed by the interviewed farmers (see section 5 for more details).
Aside from field days, we reach many people through off-site speaking engagements at various conferences and trade shows (>15,000 per year), farm tours given at Rodale Institute (400 people for custom tours plus over 2,000 general visitors per year), and through the website: >18,000 unique viewers of just the no-till page in 2011, >23,000 unique viewers of the Farming Systems Trial microsite (which summarizes the main results of the 30-year trial), and 1,700 to 2,600 unique viewers each for on-line articles describing our research trials with rolled cover crops.
Also, the demand for the roller/crimper, based on sales information from one local manufacturer, can help us quantify how many farmers are implementing this technology. Jake Blank, owner of I and J manufacturing, shared his sales numbers with us, indicating that they sold approximately 40 rollers (various sizes) per year, have sold over 100 in the last three years and are taking advance orders. These numbers do not include other roller manufacturers, people who built their own roller, or farmers who may have rented or shared equipment.
The fact that more than 1400 people have registered on Rodale Institute’s website to download free do-it-yourself blueprint plans for the no-till roller in the past five years shows that farmers from all regions are very interested in this technology.
Elucidate costs and benefits of different cropping systems in terms of energetic efficiency and economic performance and publish rigorous multi-year comparative soil carbon, yield, labor, and input data from standard- and no-till organic and conventional cropping systems that incorporate cover crops.
This target was reached. Energy and economic analyses are attached and we are in the process of writing several manuscripts to be submitted to scientific journals.