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Rodale research paves the way for Pennsylvania's "PATH to Organic"

Dollars, tech support incentivize conversion to carbon-sequestering, greenhouse-gas cutting practices.

By Paul Hepperly and Greg Bowman | Rodale Institute

Pennsylvania is a conflicted state when it comes to assessing sustainability.

It is home to some of the most progressive organic and sustainable farmers anywhere, food producers who masterfully combine influences on natural systems to reduce energy and toxin use, integrate livestock and crop cycles, and manage healthy soil to produce nutritious food.

Yet farm-related pollution remains a significant factor in the water-quality deterioration of the Chesapeake Bay. Coal-fired electricity plants—which power much of the Mid-Atlantic—are about 33 percent of the reason why Pennsylvania is responsible for 1 percent of worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases, ranking it among the top 25 nations in the world.

A new initiative born of agricultural research and political determination may prove, however, how agriculture done well—and targeted to increasing the productivity and environmental services that soil provides—can become part of the answer, transforming farms from sources to sinks in greenhouse gas accounting.

The state is tackling these and other environmental challenges with PATH to Organic, a new initiative of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture being introduced this spring. Its goals are to:

  • Provide four years of economic incentive for farmers to make the three-year transition to certified-organic farming within the USDA National Organic Program.
  • Evaluate organic production practices—including composting and cropping techniques—as tools in improving soil health, protecting water quality and sequestering atmospheric carbon on a pilot-project basis outside of the traditional research environment.

Participants are eligible to receive reimbursement payments of up to $7,500 per year or up to a total of $30,000 over a period of four years to implement an approved Organic System Plan on the way to USDA organic certification.

Facts on the ground

The program’s core—on-farm research driving soil-building practices—testifies to how its author came to embrace the cause. David Kessler, a freshman representative to the Pennsylvania Assembly from Berks County, was starting his term in fall of 2007 when he had a chance encounter with Tim LaSalle, then new in his post as CEO of the Rodale Institute. Focused in his quest to project the findings from the Institute’s 30 years of research on organic farming systems into smarter public policy, LaSalle told him:

Science shows that our only real leverage to correct water and atmospheric challenges comes from improved soil health, a challenge that can’t be accomplished with chemical-based agriculture.

We’ve squandered the choice to farm sustainably as a nation to this point, but we still have the opportunity going forward to reinvest in our critical natural resources, the first being soil. Regenerative organic farming is best way we know to do that.

Kessler, already an organic food eater, wanted to know more. When he observed the organic farming practices at the Institute’s 333-acre farm near Kutztown, also in Berks County, he began to see the public benefit of how individual farmers chose to farm.

He sought data to make the practical case for organics. Kessler embraced findings showing that over time, in properly managed systems, organic practices tend to increase soil organic matter from decomposing biomass. This foundational change in soil, in turn, improves:

  • Biodiversity of microorganisms linked in complex food chains. Through their dynamic interactions, fueled by incorporated organic matter, these thousands of species cycle nutrients for plant uptake. Result: The need for chemical fertilizer is eliminated, weed profiles are changed, and pest management is improved.
  • Physical structure, due in part to the proliferation of mycorrhizal fungi and their extensive lace-like hyphal “root” structures. Result: Soil erosion and siltation are reduced, subsequently reducing ag pollution of waterways.
  • Water retention and drainage capacity, thanks to the pore spaces that develop due to improved soil structure. Result: Production is more resilient in wet seasons and especially during drought—the greatest cause of crop-loss claims in the state.

Organic farmers select the most appropriate practices to use universal organic principles in their farm-specific situation. Rodale Institute uses these basics: cover crops (grain and legumes), a complex crop rotation (including hay) and compost.

Compost boosts carbon capture

Rodale Institute’s compost bulking material is mostly leaves—hundreds of tons per year— that come from area towns. These are mixed with mostly horse manure and smaller amounts of broiler litter and dry-pack dairy manure. The compost-making process requires minimal handling. A front-end loader shapes the initial windrows, which are then thoroughly mixed by several passes of the Institute’s well-powered, home-made, row-spanning compost turner. The windrows are turned when temperature shows a decomposition cycle has slowed.

Owen Macguire works compost winrows with the Rodale Institute farm-built compost turner.

Over a 22-year period, the organic legume-only system in Rodale’s Farming Systems Trial (FST) accumulated 512 pounds carbon per acre per year (lbs C/a/yr ) in a grain rotation that included cover crops and standard tillage. The FST organic with manure system achieved even greater soil-carbon sequestration, gaining 875 lbs C/a/yr an average in a manure-amended grain-cover crop-hay rotation with standard tillage.

Compost helps to increase rates of carbon sequestration. In Rodale’s 9-year compost utilization study, where we added raw dairy manure, broiler litter-leaf compost, or dairy manure-leaf compost to a grain/cover crop/vegetable rotation, we saw three rates of carbon sequestration. Averaged over 9 years, the system amended with raw dairy manure gained only 280 lb C/a/yr, while the broiler litter-leaf compost treatment carbon accumulated at a rate of more than 1,100 lbs C/a/yr, and plots amended with dairy manure-leaf compost sequestered more than 2,100 lbs C/a/yr.

Soil carbon sequestration rates in pounds of carbon per acre per year shown from left to right: Dairy manure (278), conventional no-till (509), FST legume system (512), FST manure system (876), CUT broiler litter compost system (1125), CUT dairy manure compost system (2108).

Organic systems hold the potential to significantly improve the carbon-sequestration performance of conventional no-till, the current prevailing standard for a soil-friendly system. By eliminating tillage and the related boost in biological activity that the aeration generates, conventional no-till systems aim to suppress soil respiration as a means to retain and sequester carbon in the soil. However, West and Post’s (2002) comprehensive review of 276 paired no-till and tilled systems found that this herbicide-dependent system sequesters only 509 lbs/a/yr on average.

Seeing is believing

Kessler wanted to see how farmers were using the organic practices he saw at Rodale. In visiting a number of organic farms to understand the “bio-logic” or organic management, he grew confident enough to propose what is now the PATH program to help farmers to convert to organics. This route offered the greatest potential environmental improvement—a big selling point for other legislators. Choosing the USDA certified organic program gave the state the clearest set of integrated practices which have existing technical support, farmer networks and farmer-paid annual inspections already in place. With a number of ag and environmental groups on board, the bill became law with $500,000 in guaranteed funding.

Pennsylvania farmers will have until this summer to apply for the program, which will reimburse 15 to 20 participants for supplies, equipment and other steps needed to comply with their organic system plan over a four-year period. Those with the sound production and marketing plans, nearest critical waterways and within the Chesapeake Bay watershed will be given priority in selection.

“This pilot program will show what’s really possible, bringing in four years of hard numbers from working farms,” Kessler said. “Rodale research shows that when compost goes into the farming formula, lots more carbon can be sequestered.”

Environmental credits

If data from the PATH farms sufficiently verifies the organic ways that farmers can improve soil and its ecological benefits, Kessler wants to develop an “environmental tax credit” to extend the public benefits. This payment would reward farmers (certified organic or not) for using practices with the best evidence of supplying the most environmental benefit to their communities and the state.

Farmers who begin co-composting in mixed rural and metro areas will provide a new and carbon-positive route for municipal leaves, excess manure, supermarket and food-service produce trimmings (see sidebar "It's wet, it's heavy...") and even post-consumer food waste, when siting and permit requirements are addressed. This initiative also will increase the availability of organic feedstocks for organic livestock producers in the grain-deficit Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions.

Rodale Institute uses compost as a soil amendment, applying it here on corn stalks at about 15 tons/acre (wet weight), with an estimated value of 2.7 percent nitrogen by weight.

The Commonwealth and federal governments have invested significantly for over 20 years to reduce agricultural and municipal non-point source pollution in Pennsylvania waterways leading to the Chesapeake Bay. The Susquehanna River and its tributaries have been the focal point of much of this work, particularly in regard to excess agricultural leaching into groundwater. This is attributed both to the frequent and excessive application of non-composted manure (as a fertilizer and just to dispose of it) and to the overuse of commercial fertilizers to support crop yield.

Pennsylvania farmers have made great strides in adopting practices that reduce ag pollution risks, but now also face greenhouse gas and carbon-cycle management challenges as climate-change science identifies the impact of agricultural practices.

Its supporters hope that PATH to Organic will pave the way for many more farmers to make carbon sequestration and biological nutrient cycling a cornerstone of their farms, and an ongoing ecological service to their communities.

Paul Hepperly, research director, and Greg Bowman, communications manager, are on staff at Rodale Institute, Kutztown, Pennsylvania.

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