Improving Soil Quality During and After Organic Transition

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2005: $145,509.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Kathleen Delate
Iowa State University

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, oats, soybeans, wheat, hay
  • Animals: swine


  • Animal Production: manure management, feed/forage
  • Crop Production: cover crops, crop rotation, organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension
  • Pest Management: biological control
  • Soil Management: composting, soil analysis, organic matter, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    Organic farming has increased to a $13 billion industry in the U.S. and continues to expand at a 20% annual growth rate. The USDA-ERS (2003) estimated there were approximately 700,000 acres in organic production in the Midwest in 2001. The 2002 U.S. Farm Bill offers incentives to support the transition from conventional to certified organic production, which has increased the demand for research-based recommendations for suitable crop rotations and soil management practices that provide high yields, grain quality, and adequate soil fertility during the organic transition and beyond certified organic status. According to an Organic Farming Research Foundation survey, methods to improve or enhance soil fertility were cited as one of the most critical management problems facing organic growers. The objectives of the proposed research include: i) Within our Long-Term Agroecological Research (LTAR) site and on three area farms, examine the effects of organic farming practices, including crop rotation, cover cropping, compost application, and non-chemical weed control, on soil quality, crop yield and grain quality; (ii) Examine how soil organic matter (SOM) quantity and quality influence the interrelationships among soil fertility, crop resistance to pests and diseases, and environmental conservation of nutrients and carbon; and (iii) Determine which crop rotations and nutrient management practices will increase the crop's competitiveness with weeds, build soil fertility, and maximize biological control of insect pests and diseases. Our Approach will follow current guidelines for soil quality measurements, including a determination of short- and long-term carbon and nitrogen pools, microbial activity and key enzymes. Evaluation and feedback from transitional and organic farm families through structured workshops, surveys and an advisory group will constitute an important component of the project. Projected outcomes include greater awareness of methods to enhance soil quality; lowering of risk during organic transition; greater acres farmed without highly-mobile sources of nitrogen; and increased income for Midwestern farm families as a result of lower costs of production.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Our overall intent is to advance the viability of organic agriculture, family farms and rural communities by increasing the amount and diversity of high-value, organic products and sustainable agricultural systems. Specifically, this work will result in:

    · Increased farmer awareness of high-value, organic crop production;
    · Recommendations to enhance soil quality/crop production during and after organic transition;
    · Increased farmer access to practical science-based, organic information;
    · Strengthened capacity between the university and farmer-based organizations to serve farmers wanting to move into high-value organic production;
    · More farm families adopting organic production techniques that integrate quality of life, production, environmental quality and marketing;
    · Increased linkages among organic farmers, markets and consumers.

    Short-term (changes in knowledge, awareness, skills and attitudes):
    1. Increase awareness of methods for enhancing and maintaining soil quality during and after organic transition;
    2. Increase awareness and skills related to organic agriculture for farmers and Extension staff involved in this project;
    3. Improve attitudes on the value of providing information on organic agriculture and soil quality.

    Intermediate- and Long-term Changes (behavioral and systematic changes):
    1. Lower the risk of organic transition through more informed decisions;
    2. Increase the number of acres farmed without highly-mobile sources of nitrogen;
    3. Increase the income of Midwestern farm families as a result of lower costs of production;
    4. Increase economic viability, social acceptability, and environmental sustainability among farmers using practices developed through this research.

    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.