20 years of organic agriculture research

Delate and piglet A story ran in the Spring 2000 Leopold Letter that highlights the organic crops initiative at Iowa State University, with support from the Leopold Center.

Kathleen Delate (at left) began the organic research at ISU and is the go-to person for organic agriculture in Iowa. She was awarded several research grants over the last 20 years that explores the benefits of organic agriculture from soil health, crop yield, economics and more, including one for 2017: Impacts of cropping system diversity and input reduction on greenhouse gas mitigation, soil and water quality, and economic performance of Iowa grain systems [XP2017-11].

Most of the research has been conducted at the Long-term Agroecology Research (LTAR) initiative sites which have been in place since 1997 at ISU Research and Demonstration Farms located across Iowa.


Center organic initiative offers lift to producers

by E. Anne Larson, communications specialist

With commodity prices scraping bottom, Iowa farmers are looking for options to boost their profitability. Organic crops may be one way to augment that margin, and a Leopold Center-funded organic research initiative may help answer some of the questions surrounding organic production in Iowa.

The Long-term Agroecology Research (LTAR) initiative is led by Kathleen Delate, Iowa State University's first specialist in organic agriculture, working in the departments of horticulture and agronomy. The Center provided $30,000 for start-up costs and also supports three competitive grants related to organic production. Former center director Dennis Keeney says the initiative holds promise for agriculture. "We view organic production as a great opportunity for Iowa farmers to expand their market base and provide value-added and value-retained production for Iowa communities, and offer high-quality and healthy alternative foods for Iowa markets."

The initiative has been fashioned out of input gathered through 1997 listening sessions. Discussions were held at six sites to gauge the needs of producers interested in organic agriculture. By conducting replicated experiments at sites throughout the state over a dozen or more years, Delate believes reliable best management practices can be developed to suit Iowa conditions.

Neely-Kinyon LTAR plots

The plan is to eventually have LTAR sites at up to five locations throughout the state. The first site, established on 17 acres at the Neely-Kinyon Research Farm south of Greenfield, (aerial photo, right) produces organic soybeans, oats, alfalfa and corn. Rotations being studied include conventional corn-soybean, organic corn-soybean-oats (with alfalfa), organic corn-soybean-oats (with alfalfa)-alfalfa, and organic soybean-winter rye (spring plow-down). 

Other research is being conducted at the Southeast Research Farm in Crawfordsville and the Muscatine Island Research Farm, as well as on farms of private cooperators. Delate also oversees research projects at eight sites that include work on organic soybeans, vegetables and herbs.

Information gleaned from this research will have an eager audience, judging from the burgeoning interest in organic production in Iowa. Delate says premiums for organic crops can range from 20 to 300 percent. Organic acreage in Iowa has increased dramatically from 13,000 acres in 1995 to 120,000 acres on nearly 700 farms in 1998. Iowa organic crop production has become a $200 million industry nationally. International demand for organic products is also on the rise, especially from Japanese and European markets. 

While economics is one reason farmers are interested in organic production, enhancing environmental quality and consumer concerns about food safety are also considerations. Delate believes that over time, differences will emerge between the conventional and organic systems, including decreased pest pressures and increased soil quality under the organic regime due to longer rotations and additions of organic matters from compost and cover crops.

Data from the first two years of the project showed comparable yields between the systems, despite a very wet spring in 1999. Second-year results also seem to indicate that spring-plowed land in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) yielded the same as fall-plowed land, while reducing soil erosion. Soil health also seems to be improving, as evidenced by an average 128 percent greater microbial biomass-carbon supply than conventional crops, indicating a greater nutrient-cycling capacity. For the coming season, expanded organic crops research will include growing onions and tomatoes. Another project, for which Delate is a consultant, is planning production of organic apples at the Homestead Orchard near Runnells.

While results continue to roll in, Delate is kept extremely busy with managing the many facets of the organic initiative and making scores of presentations, conducting field days, and sharing information with media.