Cornell Organic Cropping Systems Project

by Tina Wright

Brian Caldwell, technical coordinator for the organic cropping systems project, explains the study during a farmer field day at Cornell's organic vegetable farm.       

        The Organic Cropping Systems Project ( at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., started in 2004 to compare different approaches to growing organic vegetables. Projected to last 15 years, the study is not complete, but funding ran dry when Congress allowed the 2008 farm bill to expire in October 2012 and the one-year extension did not include money for the USDA's Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI).

        In a world where entire industries can transform in a decade, it's hard to fight the trend for instant answers and fast-track research. Even in agriculture, research grants tend to be short-term, with few projects funded longer than an undergraduate's four-year stay at the university. Perhaps we need a slogan like "slow research" for long-term studies in agriculture to match the slow food movement that encourages a return to basic food and real cooking.Oat/pea cover crop and nearby cabbage.

        Brian Caldwell, technical coordinator for the cropping systems project, said, "The main thing we're struggling with: We want this to be a long-term study, and our program funding came to an end last year. For long-term trials like ours, there aren't any good funding streams other than OREI."

        So far, it's been a good run for the money. In 2003 and 2004, Anusuya Rangarajan, a senior extension associate in the Cornell Department of Horticulture, facilitated the formation of a new group, the Northeast Organic Network (NEON). "That was all about getting researchers and the farmers and farmer organizations like NOFA [Northeast Organic Farming Association] to form a collegial group of interested researchers and farmers," Caldwell explained.

        The NEON group led to a focused study of well-run organic farms in a quest for best management practices for vegetable and grain farmers. Two outstanding farms were selected as models to work from in research. (The cropping system research in organic grains is a sister study.) For organic vegetable production, Eric and Anne Nordell's farm in Pennsylvania is an example of a bio-extensive system, with their use of cover crops and their practice of leaving plots fallow in alternate years.

        The Cornell study compared this extensive low-input farming approach with three others, all with a crop rotation of winter squash, late-season cabbage, early lettuce and potatoes.

        Caldwell came on board Anusuya Rangarajan, a senior extension associate in the Cornell Department of Horticulture, shows people a variety of mulch choices during an open 2005 to run the cropping trials in the 30-acre organic section of the Homer C. Thompson Vegetable Research Farm in Freeville, N.Y., about 10 miles from Cornell's main campus. Caldwell, a research support specialist in the Department of Horticulture, described the four "farms" represented by the experimental trial plots.

        Four farms
        The first farm, the intensive system, is patterned after the typical scenario on Northeast organic vegetable farms. Caldwell said, "It uses compost as a source of nutrients, and it does not use legume green manures to any great extent." You get six cash crops in four years, because in two of four years you get an "extra" double crop. After early lettuce, there's a late crop of spinach, and before the late-season cabbage, there's a crop of snap peas.

        The second farm, the extensive system, uses the Nordell model and brings in two cash crops in four years. He explained, "For instance, it would start with winter squash, and the following year cover crops and fallowing, and then into year three of standard rotation lettuce. This system has much lower reliance on compost and much higher reliance on cover crops."

        The third farm, the intermediate system, falls somewhere between the other two systems, following the four-year standard rotation and sneaking in a few cover crops during the growing season. For example, before late-season cabbage the intensive system grows snap peas, but this intermediate system gets an oat and pea cover crop in that time slot.

        The fourth farm, the ridge-till system, is the same as the intermediate system, except tillage is reduced. A row of vegetables in a ridge-tillage system looks like it's growing in a row of hilled potatoes with the top sliced off flatCornell agriculture students take biomass clippings in an oat/pea cover crop.. The researcher explained, "In the ridge-tillage plots, we're not doing any sort of intensive primary tillage, no moldboard plowing, no chisel plowing, no heavy discing. Instead, we're either pushing the soil up into ridges or slicing the top of the ridge off and pushing that into the valleys. The ridges are only raised maybe a couple inches above the valleys so we can use regular cultivation equipment--tractor-mounted cultivators--to manage the weeds."

        The setup
        To make a study of four farm types, they started off with two entry points into the rotation. With two of the four crops grown in a given season and four replications, you get 32 plots total. The plots are 25 feet by 65 feet in a randomized block design.

        Everything was tilled with a moldboard plow, rotovator and harrows, except the ridge-tillage farm system. Ridge tillage requires some specialized equipment, and the whole point is to reduce tillage. (See "Organic Veggie Cropping Systems" in the August 2010 issue of Growing magazine,

        Figuring out the economics
        The research paper "Economic Performance of Organic Cropping Systems for Vegetables in the Northeast" appeared in the Journal of Agribusiness in 2011. The paper was co-authored by Caldwell; Stephanie Chan, a graduate research assistant; Bradley Rickard, assistant professor at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell; and Charles Mohler, senior research associate at Cornell. Part of the organic cropping systems study, transplanting cabbage in ridge-till plots.

        The paper says: "Agricultural producers need to carefully assess the trade-offs between the numerous management options and strategies to maximize profitability while also considering biological and social sustainability."

        Their preliminary data and analysis found that different crops did best in different systems, but the best overall profitability, the highest return for land and labor, was in the intensive system.

        Hit the pause button
        This past winter, the Cornell Organic Cropping Systems Advisory Group, which guides and weighs in on this research, met with the Cornell agriculture people. With little money available, they decided to run a uniformity trial--that is, plant the whole thing, all four farm types, to something like sorghum-sudangrass to buy time and allow soil studies to continue as funding comes in.

        There's still a lot of data to analyze. Advisory group member Lou Lego, an organic fruit and vegetable grower at the Farm at Elderberry Pond in Auburn, N.Y., says it's "way cool" that the real science is still ahead--studying soil health and traits on each separate "farm" in this long-term study.Irrigating vegetable plots in the organic cropping systems study at Cornell's Homer C. Thompson Vegetable Research Farm in Freeville, N.Y.

        The aggregate stability of soil in a field, for example, is a good indicator of soil health, as it measures the ability of the soil to really soak up the rain. The ridge-till system farm has some nice soil--the best aggregate stability of the farm types--but it's tough to get plantings going in this system, with lots of weed pressure and less profit.

        In addition, Cornell agricultural researchers are just starting to puzzle out the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus utilized by the plants in these systems and their balance in the soil. "Things are just getting interesting, now that we're running out of money," Caldwell said.

        Editor's note: Since this article was written, a new farm bill was passed, reauthorizing the OREI program. However, a message from Caldwell before press time said, "We will submit a grant proposal to the OREI program within the month, but it is too late to continue the Freeville experiment, even should we be awarded the grant. Instead, we are proposing some on-farm organic vegetable experiments for this round."

        The author is a freelance contributor based near Ithaca, N.Y., specializing in dairy and organics, but dabbling in all things agricultural.
        Photos 1 and 3 by Tina Wright. Photos 2, 4, 5 and 6 courtesy of Cornell University.