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Thirty Years After the Original, a New Study of Organic Agriculture

Thirty years ago, the Rodale Institute showed that organic farming methods work just as well as conventional ones. The experiments continue.

Thirty years ago, the Rodale Institute set out to prove that organic farming methods work just as well as the conventional ones common at big farms across the country. The institute began the Farming Systems Trial, a data-driven project to compare the yields of organic and conventional wheat, soy, and corn crops. Its latest analysis shows that not only do organic yields match conventional crop loads, but organic methods do a better job of maintaining the health of a farm’s soil.

Last weekend, the institute celebrated the 30th anniversary of the experiment by honoring organic pioneers likes Richard Harwood, who helped design the original Farming Systems Trial, and Maurice Small, who works to build urban gardens in cities like Cleveland and Detroit. GOOD caught up with Rodale executive director Mark Smallwood to talk about the future of the Farming Systems Trial and why its innovation still produces insights decades after it first began.

GOOD: Where did the original idea for the Farming Systems Trial come from?

MARK SMALLWOOD: In 1981, on a visit to Washington, D.C., to talk about organic agriculture, [Robert Rodale] said, "What is it going to take for me to have you understand what’s going on?: They said, "There’s no data. There’s no science. He came back to the farm and said, Now I know what I’m going to do."

We’ve found now, with 30 yeas of gathering this information, that the yields do not differ year-to-year very much. Usually there’s an insignificant difference in yield. Except when there's drought—that’s when organic outperforms conventional crops, including GMO crops that are portraying themselves as drought-resistant.

GOOD: So even though we’re working on high-tech solutions to solve these problems, we already have the technology we need.

SMALLWOOD: It’s old technology. Growing organically was around long before biotechnology. Growing biologically is how nature intended it to be. Now, we do have methodologies and cultural practices that are better. We also have products and machinery that are far improved. So it is modern organic agriculture that we're touting.

GOOD: What are the new innovations that you’re working on?

SMALLWOOD: What we are going to do this year is close the door on the old Farming Systems Trial and open the door on the new Farming Systems Trial. We are in the design phase right now, but it is going to change. What’s motivating us is the consumers—they want information about food. That going to be one of the focuses. We're going to switch over and grow a lot more food. It’s not going to be corn, wheat, and soy.

We're also going to start a new initiative called right-sized garden [...] What’s the right size for you? How much ground do you have? You might say, "I only have a tenth of an acre." Well, can you have backyard chickens? We’re going to have those demonstrations [that show] "here’s what you can do with one-half of an acre, one acre, three acres, five acres." We’re going to be able to show them how do that. You’d be able to come here take workshops, see our demonstration gardens, replicate it, and grow what you want to grow.

GOOD: Why is it important to keep this sort of innovative project going over the long term?

SMALLWOOD: Thirty years ago, when we were trying to transition big farms, this was a great tool, and it still is. Now we want to take it to a different level. It will always have credibility, and it will always have respect and longevity. That’s the key. If we want to feed the world for the next 1,500 years, it will have to be organically. The Farming Systems Trial is where we create the hypothesis and then prove it.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user LivingOS

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