Organic Broadcaster

Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial compares organic and conventional production in side-by-side strips. 2021 marks the 40th year of this compelling research, which includes a total of 72 experimental plots. Photo by Rodale Institute

At 40-year milestone, Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial demonstrates benefits of organic production

By Margaret Wilson

In 1981, Rodale Institute had been researching the benefits of regenerative organic practices for over 30 years. But the world at large still scoffed at the idea of organic agriculture—the idea that farmers could feed the world without harsh chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, or other inputs. That’s why Bob Rodale, son of Rodale Institute founder J.I. Rodale, began an experiment to compare organic and conventional grains—crops that make up a majority of America’s agricultural commodities. He called it the Farming Systems Trial (FST), and over time, the results surprised a food community and contributed to the codification of what we know as organic agriculture today.

2021 marks the 40th year of the Farming Systems Trial. The FST is located on 12 acres at Rodale Institute’s headquarters in Kutztown, Pennsylvania.
There are a total of 72 experimental plots.

Since its inception, the FST has compared three core systems: a manure-based organic system, a legume-based organic system, and a chemical-input-based conventional system. In each, corn and soybeans are the focus. In 2008, each core system was further divided into traditional tillage vs no-till plots. At that time, genetically modified seeds were also introduced into the conventional system to mirror common practice.

Organic Manure:
This system represents an organic dairy or beef operation. It features a long rotation of annual feed grain crops and perennial forage crops. Fertility is provided by leguminous cover crops and periodic applications of composted manure. A diverse crop rotation is the primary line of defense against pests.

Organic Legume:
This system represents an organic cash grain system. It features a mid-length rotation consisting of annual grain crops and cover crops. The system’s sole source of fertility is leguminous cover crops; crop rotation provides the primary line of defense against pests.

Conventional Synthetic:
This system represents a typical U.S. grain farm. It relies on synthetic nitrogen for fertility, and weeds are controlled by synthetic herbicides selected and applied at rates recommended by Penn State University Cooperative Extension.

The FST is a long-term study by intent. Short-term studies that take place over only a few years can’t measure longer-term weather effects, like drought, that will inevitably occur, or biological changes to the soil, which can happen slowly. We need long-term studies to find real solutions to problems affecting the future of global food production.


For 40 years, Rodale Institute researchers have collected data measuring differences in soil health, crop yields, energy efficiency, water use and contamination, and nutrient density of crops grown in the FST. Our decades-long research has shown that organic systems produce favorable results in soil health, yields, nutrient density, water quality, and more.

Soil Health
Data from the FST show that organic matter, and thus soil health, in organic systems continuously increases over time. Soil health in conventional systems has remained essentially unchanged.

Due to improved soil health, 15-20% more water percolates through the soil in organic systems, replenishing the ground table and helping organic crops perform well in extreme weather. More organic matter also means more total microorganisms that make nutrients available to plants for strong growth.

Results from the FST have shown that not only are organic yields competitive with conventional yields after a 5-year transition period, but they can also produce yields up to 40% higher in times of drought.

In 2016, our no-till organic manure systems produced 200 bushels of corn per acre—a record-breaking yield for our county that was almost twice the conventional no-till system.

Nutrient Density
The long-term comparison trial model has proven effective in measuring the impacts of regenerative organic management on grain cropping systems. Because of this method’s ability to compare systems in the exact same conditions, Rodale Institute has adapted this model to answer one of the biggest questions about organic agriculture: is it healthier?

So far, it seems so. Organic oats grown in systems utilizing legume cover crops in the FST contained significantly greater total protein concentration along with a suite of essential and non-essential amino acids. We also found significantly greater soil carbon and nitrogen (the building blocks of proteins) in both organic systems compared to the conventional system.

For non-grain systems, the Vegetable Systems Trial (VST) was started in 2017 and plans to run for more than 20 years, pulling inspiration from the FST to compare organic and conventional fruit, leaf, and root crops for nutrient density. The site of the Vegetable Systems Trial has been managed organically for more than 40 years. We expect to observe a degradation of soil health in the conventional systems that are a part of the VST—similar to what has happened in much of global food production since the advent of chemical agriculture. Our controlled experiment gives us the unique opportunity to see if and how degraded soil health affects the chemical composition of food.

The Farming Systems Trial shows an increase in organic matter over time in the organic systems and little change in the conventional system.  Graphic by Rodale Institute


Climate Change
The four decades of the Farming Systems Trial have demonstrated that regenerative organic agriculture is a concrete solution to climate change, capable of sequestering carbon, backed by peer-reviewed research and the observations of agronomists working around the world.

Throughout the FST, soil carbon concentration has differed significantly between organic and conventional systems. Soil organic carbon (SOC), microbial biomass carbon (MBC), active carbon (PoxC), and water extractable carbon (WEC) were all higher in the organic manure systems, compared to the conventional system, while SOC and MBC were higher in the organic legume system than the conventional system.

To harness soil carbon sequestration and its co-benefits, farmers choose interlinking management strategies that increase biodiversity above and below ground. A systematic review of over 50 international studies found nearly 60% more biomass from soil microorganisms in organically managed farm systems versus conventional. This is not surprising, as most organic systems, and all regenerative systems, are built on interlinking practices designed to increase biodiversity and support soil health. An abundance of biodiversity above ground results in greater soil health and soil carbon sequestration below ground.

Equally as important, the FST has shown that organic systems use 45% less energy and release 40% fewer carbon emissions than conventional systems. Agriculture contributes to increased warming—farming and deforestation account for a quarter of global greenhouse emissions—and any way we can collectively reduce emission is a strategy that should be considered.

In 2016—a drought year—both organic systems produced higher yields than the conventional system. The Farming Systems Trial has shown that organic yields, following the transition years, are competitive with conventional. Graphic by Rodale Institute

Water Quality
Recent results reveal that conventional farming systems leach atrazine, an herbicide known to disrupt human and animal endocrine systems, in amounts between 1 and 3 parts per billion into the water table. Replicated controlled studies on frogs have shown that exposure to atrazine at just 0.1ppb causes significant changes to male frogs’ hormonal profiles, rendering them hermaphroditic. Humans may tolerate higher levels of atrazine than amphibians, but the chemical’s marked effect on animals and ecosystems at levels lower than previously thought is cause for concern. Organic systems, which do not rely on synthetic inputs, leach zero atrazine.

In 2018, Rodale Institute began a new study in partnership with Stroud Water Research Center to explore and educate the public on connections between farming practices and clean water. Named the Watershed Impact Trial, this research measures pesticide residue in water, infiltration rates, runoff characteristics, and more to determine the connection between farming systems and water quality over time.

The findings of research projects like the FST provide scientific backing for the benefits of regenerative organic agriculture and have helped Rodale Institute build dynamic farmer training and education programs available to organic and transitioning farmers everywhere.

An economic analysis, which has been expanded in the last decade of the FST, originally showed that organic farmers are three to six times more profitable than conventional farmers. This finding encouraged Rodale Institute to empower farmers to transition to organic and build their businesses. Through our Organic Crop Consulting service, we help farmers interested in transitioning part or all of their land to organic or regenerative organic practices by developing a plan tailored to their individual operation.

Rodale Institute also operates online courses on organic certification and regenerative organic that are available worldwide, as well as webinars, online workshops, and print resources like white papers to help organic farmers learn about the latest innovations.

Looking Forward

Rodale Institute plans to release the FST 40 Year Report this fall, outlining the latest research initiatives including advances in nutrient quality and density, crop yields, soil health evaluations from the Soil Health Institute, a closer examination of tillage vs. no-tillage practices, and more data around soil organic carbon origins and chemical structure. The report also will include an expanded economic analysis of regenerative organic farming, showcasing the financial benefits for farmers who transition to organic and the advantages these practices can have for our food system.

To connect with Rodale Institute, access educational resources, or sign up for Rodale Institute’s email newsletter can do so at Follow @RodaleInstitute on social media for the latest updates on regenerative organic agriculture.

Margaret Wilson is the Content & PR Manager for Rodale Institute.


From the July | August 2021 Issue


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