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Sustainable Agriculture

Learning What's Possible—WVU Research Farm Goes Organic

With suburban growth creeping into some of West Virginia’s farm country, growers who raise vegetables and field crops among the steep slopes of this mountainous state are considering organic production as a way to improve profits and stay in harmony with their new neighbors. Responding to their needs, researchers at West Virginia University launched a comprehensive, SARE-funded study examining best transition strategies, with a focus on soil fertility.

“There’s a desire to move to more sustainable practices on some of the farms now surrounded by houses, especially by reducing potential conflicts over pesticide spraying,” said James Kotcon, WVU researcher and leader of the project. Since converting to organic requires a 3-year transition, Kotcon set out to research this phase to smooth the way for producers.

With growers’ needs in mind, WVU researchers worked throughout the project—from setting objectives to experimental design to farming techniques—with members of the Mountain State Organic Growers and Buyers Association and focused on yields, soil quality, pest management, and economics. The project converted WVU’s 60-acre Horticulture Farm to organic by 2003.

Four field days drew interested growers. “So many people go, and it exposes people to these options—they get a better handle on what’s possible,” said Susan Sauter, an organic farmer from Bruceton Mills, WV, who worked on the project’s steering committee and benefited from demonstrations of a new pest management product for squash. “It [organic transition] is not so scary.”

Scientists tested soil management strategies in two systems—small-scale vegetables and field crops with livestock. Their main thrust was comparing fertility sources: cover crops only versus a combination of cover crops and compost amendments. In the first season of the vegetable trial, they sowed rye, clover, and vetch cover crops and plowed them under as a green manure in the cover-crops-only treat-ment, followed by a 4-year rotation of legumes, leafy vegetables, tomatoes/ peppers, and cucurbits. In the compost-plus-cover-crops treatment, researchers amended the soil with 10 tons of dairy manure compost per acre and began harvesting the first season. They mirrored this test on the 3-acre crop-livestock trial, which included wheat, potatoes, soybeans, and lamb.

Adding compost along with cover crops added organic matter to the soil and boosted yields for vegetables, compared to the cover-crops-only plots, with economic returns up to three times greater. Yields for pepper, pumpkin, and spinach were significantly higher, Kotcon said, while yields for other vegetables were comparable to national averages. Field crop yields were inconsistent, although they produced healthy lambs each year.


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