CEFS Long-Term Systems Research: Providing the Building Blocks for Resilient Food Production Systems

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2012: $300,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Chris Reberg-Horton
North Carolina State University

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans, sunflower, wheat, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: grazing - rotational, feed/forage
  • Crop Production: crop rotation
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, agricultural finance
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration
  • Pest Management: mulches - killed, cultivation
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: soil microbiology, soil chemistry, organic matter, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    The Long-Term Farming System Research trial (FSRU) at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) was initiated in 1998 and comprises more than 200 acres with 5 different systems replicated 3 times. The objectives for initiating this trial 13 years ago were to research: 1) how the various systems impact long-term sustainability of soil and water resources, 2) whether some systems are more resilient to perturbations in weather, input and market prices, and 3) how the systems impact biodiversity, wildlife, pest dynamics and the ecological services of farmland. Our study is designed to provide a better understanding of how different systems interact with and impact the natural resource base and economic viability of farms, as well as identify alternative approaches with potential for synergistic effects, such as diversification, access to direct markets, and environmental conservation. Over time the FSRU systems experiment has become irreplaceably unique for several reasons. First is the comprehensive nature of the systems being studied and their relevancy in the South. Second, the scale (200 acres) and large plot size gives us the ability to study important production system dynamics (e.g., insect and disease management) that others cannot, making our results more relevant to producers. We are also a model of interinstitutional collaboration with involvement of various departments and colleges at each 1890 and 1862 Land Grant university, the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and NGOs as diverse as Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and the NC Farm Bureau. Our systems experiment has also integrated outreach at every level with farmer involvement in both research and educational programming. These funds will set our project on a path of long-term sustainability at a critical time as the state undergoes major budget cuts that put the experiment at risk. The NC Department of Agriculture and both universities are cutting personnel and operating support. Short-term grant funding has been indispensable with starting this project, but after 13 years of piecing together support we have learned that maintaining the core components of a systems trial is extremely difficult with sporadic funding. We are also preparing the FSRU for a new future. Half of our advisory board are new members of CEFS. Their guidance on what is the current thinking of the farm community lends new vitality to our work. Similarly, retirements at the university are at the highest rate in decades. Eight of the faculty involved with this grant are new hires and were not involved with the establishment of the FSRU. This experiment is key to recruiting these faculty to work in sustainable agriculture. Fresh research questions in soil processes, insect ecology, livestock productivity, and socioeconomic impact of cropping systems were developed for this grant in response to board input and new expertise at our institutions. We hope to use this grant to prepare a solid future for the FSRU over the coming decades.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Resiliency is the ability to recover from or adjust easily to change. Agriculture can expect rapid change in coming decades due to rising global temperatures, expanding populations, and volatility in commodity and fuel prices. Some farmers associated with CEFS have already successfully transitioned to fewer external inputs, greater market diversity, and sustainable production practices that will give their farms the long term stability required in a changing environment. The FSRU at CEFS aims to understand how resiliency is achieved and to demonstrate long-term impacts of various farming systems.

    The FSRU comprises more than 200 acres and 5 different systems that have been replicated 3 times (Mueller et al. 2006). These systems include: a) Best Management Practices (BMP), b) Integrated Crop/Animal System, c) Organic Production System, d) Plantation Forestry System, and e) Old Field Successional System. Within each type of system, multiple rotational approaches are tested. For example, within the organic system, four possible rotations are used to test different approaches to organic weed control. Our findings have generated extension recommendations for organic growers to control the growth of their weed seedbanks (Reberg-Horton et al. 2011).

    The objectives for initiating FSRU 13 years ago were to research: 1) how systems impact long-term sustainability of soil and water resources, 2) system differences in resilience to perturbations in weather, inputs and market prices, and 3) how systems impact biodiversity, pest dynamics and ecological services of agriculture.

    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.