On a still and warm summer morning, as scientists drive along the dirt roads that crisscross the Arlington Agricultural Research Station, the fields sweep in a green carpet to the horizon.
This land some 20 miles north of Madison was once part of the vast Empire Prairie, a sea of grassland that stretched south to the Illinois border. So high and thick were those grasslands, history tells us, that they could swallow a rider on horseback.
Named by settlers from New York in the 1830s for their home state, the prairie and its rich soils would prove to be ideal for growing corn and other row crops that are the mainstays of modern-day agriculture. And today, the region is home to hundreds of farms, some of which date back a century or more.
It makes sense, then, that this place with its productive soils and old farms would also be home to a most unusual agricultural endeavor— a 26-year-old research project aimed at bridging the gap between past and future farming practices. It’s called the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial, or WICST for short.
On 60 acres of land at the CALS-based Arlington Agricultural Research Station, university researchers from a number of departments within CALS are doing big science with tractors and combines and manure spreaders. Clad in blue jeans and work boots instead of lab coats, these scientists are engaged in ambitious longterm research that is relying upon the study of the ancient soils of the Empire Prairie to point the way toward a sustainable agricultural future.
From this effort, started in 1989 by an idealistic and insightful young agronomy professor named Josh Posner, has come research that shows farmers can both run a sustainable farm and grow enough food to play a significant role in feeding a burgeoning world population. It is important, forward-looking work at a time when many farmers face an uncertain economic future as well as changing climatic conditions that are only going to heighten the risks associated with bringing a crop to harvest or livestock to market.
“It’s among the most important farm-scale research being done in the UW system,” says Dick Cates PhD’83, associate director of the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, the administrative home for WICST.
Cates, who also owns and works a managed grazing farm near Spring Green, praises WICST for the quality of its research as well as its unusual long-term approach to studying varied approaches to farming. He uses the research in teaching young farmers in a program he helped found, the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers.
The science on sustainable practices particularly resonates with younger farmers, Cates says: “They understand long-term consequences.”
Research at WICST has been conducted on fields that are farmed using three cash grain and three forage-based production systems common in the Midwest. They include 1) conventional corn; 2) no-till corn-soybean rotation; 3) organic corn– soybean–wheat rotation; 4) conventional dairy forage; 5) organic dairy forage; and 6) rotationally grazed pastures. In 1999, Posner added plots devoted to the study of switchgrass and diverse prairie, which has allowed for grazing and bioenergy studies nested within the bigger experiment.
Toiling in their plots at Arlington, WICST researchers (including a steady stream of graduate students) have compiled an impressive archive of publications showing that sustainable farming practices, such as managed grazing and crop rotation, make sense from both economic and ecological perspectives.
They’ve studied everything from the effect of alternative crop rotations on farm profitability to soil health and carbon sequestration. They’ve tallied earthworms and ground beetles. They’ve analyzed weed populations. They’ve learned more about manure than you would suspect is possible.
Among their key findings:
• Organic- and pasture-based farming systems have been the most profitable cropping systems at WICST.
• Organic systems produced forage yields that were, on average, 90 percent of conventional grain systems and as high as 99 percent in two-thirds of the study years.
• Over a 20-year period, all five grain and forage cropping systems— except for grazed pasture—lost significant soil carbon to the atmosphere.
It’s a record that would have impressed and pleased the late Posner, who died in 2012. It is rare for any conversation about WICST not to lead eventually to Posner and his pioneering idea of a decades-long research project dedicated to the science of agricultural sustainability.
Posner, who held a Ph.D. in agronomy and a minor in agricultural economics from Cornell University, had conducted significant sustainability research from South America to West Africa before coming to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His interest in agriculture grew from his work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cote d’Ivoire, Africa, in a school gardening program.
Posner was hired by UW in 1985 to coordinate a UW research program in Banjul, The Gambia. He arrived in Madison in 1987 and began teaching and research in the Department of Agronomy. In 1993, he and his family moved to Bolivia, where he led a UW research program on sustainable agriculture for several years. From 1998 to 2001, he directed CONDESAN, an international agency based in Lima, Peru, to support sustainable mountain agriculture across the six Andean countries in South America.
Posner’s widow, Jill Posner, who still lives in Madison, recalled that her husband first started thinking about the project that would become WICST while working in West Africa with farmers who grew crops without the benefit of modern-day fertilizers and pesticides.
“There was a real link between what he was doing in Africa and the low-input systems he wanted to study here,” Jill Posner says. “It was one of those things that he always kept on the back burner. No matter where we were, he was always thinking about that connection.”
In 1988, Posner, a focused and persuasive scientist, would pull together the team that created WICST. His plan was to establish a research project that would compare sustainable land management practices, organic agriculture and traditional approaches. And the project would be ambitious in both size and duration. Research would be conducted on a scale that approximated the conditions on an actual farm. The science would stretch over not just a year or two but decades. Wherever Posner’s work took him around the world, he continued to oversee WICST, reviewing the plans and results and returning to Madison to connect with his research team at least twice a year.
That Posner would propose such an audacious project didn’t surprise those who knew him. He thought big, recalls Dwight Mueller, director of all UW Agricultural Research Stations— and Posner saw something else that many others didn’t fully understand at the time: The eventual emergence of organic and other conservation-minded farming as powerful and necessary trends.
“If you knew Josh, you might have had an inkling,” says Mueller regarding Posner’s long-range vision of field research that would meet the challenges posed by increasingly stressed resources. This was a time, Mueller notes, when crop farming largely meant planting year after year of corn with little rest for the soil. And organic agriculture was thought of by many as a hobby or possibly a passing fad.
“‘Organic’ was a dirty word when we started,” says Mueller.
Randy Jackson, a CALS agronomy professor and grassland ecologist who now leads WICST research and has been involved in the project since 2003, says the crop experiments played an important role in bringing science to bear on organic and other sustainable practices. For such practices to become more widely accepted, it was important to demonstrate that these grain and forage production systems could yield as much as conventionally managed systems in most years, he says.
The two main questions posed by Posner are still in play at WICST, says Gregg Sanford, a research scientist in the Department of Agronomy who has worked on WICST since joining Posner’s lab as a graduate student in 2004: Whether organic agriculture would be able to provide enough calories to feed the world and whether agroecology, or sustainable farming, would be embraced as economically feasible.
Key to the project was its scale, its focus on the long horizon and its collaborative nature, Sanford explains while driving along the project’s dirt lanes.
Conducting the research on the scale of an actual farm-sized operation in large plots has proven a boon, Sanford says, because it lends more validity to the science. Farmers tend to take the results more seriously when they know that the research had to be conducted in the face of the same challenges they face—everything from bad weather to insect infestations to equipment breakdowns.
This element of the research project becomes immediately clear on a visit to Arlington. There is little doubt that this is a working farm with its crops, grazing livestock, and sheds and barns, where begrimed farmhands coax tractors and cultivators and other equipment into working order.
The true-to-life nature of the research is strikingly apparent in annual reports that are similar to the notes kept by scientists in their laboratory notebooks but refer instead to the vagaries of storm and drought and insect scourges.
In a report from 2011, for example, Posner and researcher Janet Hedtcke reported “unseasonable cold well into May resulting in delayed start to the cropping season.” We find out that “in late September, strong winds knocked down a lot of corn, especially the organic corn, which was tall, had big ears way up high, and thin stalks,” they wrote, referring to a particular cropping system treatment.
Or there is the 2012 report, in which Hedtcke laments that crops and livestock endured extreme heat and drought. “Springtime,” she noted, “arrived early with temperatures soaring to above 80 for eight days in March.” Then one can hear the relief of a real farmer when she writes that, after a dry June, “an unforgettable and precious soaking rain came on July 18.”
Such challenges make conducting the research much like farming itself. “We’ve had years where we’re trying to get manure applied and it starts snowing on us,” Sanford says.
“We’ve had years where we’ve had complete crop failures because of the rain.”
But there is a twist, of course. The harvest at Arlington isn’t just of crops but also of science. A lost crop year represents a loss of crops, but it also provides a critical piece of data in a real-world experiment that shows how risky growing particular crops can be.
Even so, the length of the project has allowed researchers to weather the ups and downs. And the many years of data collection have paid off in ways that traditional science, conducted over periods of months or maybe a year or two, has trouble duplicating.
“It has shown the value of a longterm project,” says Mueller. “That can’t be overestimated. There are things you learn only by having a trial for a long time.”
Jackson says such long-term research is crucial when studies involve dynamics that unfold over a period of years or longer. He cites climate impacts as an example.
“It allows us to separate the vagaries of inter-annual climate variability and actual directional changes,” Jackson says.
Also, natural systems can be slow to respond to change, Jackson notes. Sometimes when a particular treatment is applied to a parcel of farmland, the result does not become apparent for two or three years or more.
Both the size and the length of the project have made the data more realistic, says Sanford, allowing scientists to account better for variables thrown their way by weather and other obstacles.
The value of research flowing from WICST has also been enriched by another characteristic built in by Posner with his original plan—the project’s collaborative nature. From the beginning, WICST has involved not just CALS scientists but also farmers, business owners, nonprofits and, notably, UW–Extension educators.
And, as envisioned by Posner, the research on WICST’s 60 acres at Arlington has been conducted across multiple disciplines in CALS, from soil scientists to grassland ecologists to entomologists.
Entomology professor David Hogg, along with his students, has spent long hours on WICST land sifting through the soils looking for links between soil health and insect health.
“It’s a great laboratory for doing this kind of work,” says Hogg. “And it’s unusual.”
Much of the work at the Arlington plots has focused on the soil, the single resource that farmers value more than any other for providing them a living and the world its food.
The science of soil has been approached from many angles by WICST researchers, with a number of surprising and useful results. Among the more eye-opening work has been the study of soil for its ability to store atmospheric carbon to help mitigate the changing climate. This characteristic has thrust agriculture and soil health and management into the climate discussion in a big way, according to Sanford.
The issue has driven much of Sanford’s work with WICST. In fact, the subject of his dissertation was land management and its effect on carbon in soil, where he comments that “the importance of soil in the global carbon budget cannot be overstated.”
Soil, Sanford reports, contains almost twice the combined amount of carbon found in the atmosphere and vegetation globally. Through his work with WICST, Sanford has been able to demonstrate which practices—using cover crops, for example, or increased crop rotation—help keep more carbon in place and out of the atmosphere.
As was Posner’s intent, the science coming out of the WICST fields has found its way into some of the most prestigious scholarly journals—and, importantly, into the hands of farmers. In the best tradition of the Wisconsin Idea, the shared knowledge from the trials has given farmers new tools for improving their yields, boosting the health of their soil, and protecting resources such as water.
Few are more aware of the power of WICST science than UW–Extension county agents, who spend their days in farm fields and barn lots working with farmers and sharing with them the latest knowledge gleaned from university research plots.
“Arlington research has helped greatly with crop production questions,” says Ted Bay, an agricultural extension agent in Grant County.
Bay cites a heightened interest among farmers in soil and water conservation and sustainable practices as reasons for sharing with them the results of the WICST research. More farmers, he says, are asking how they can use cover crops to protect and improve their soil in row crop production. Research from WICST has confirmed the value of using cover crops to protect soil, and provided information on integrating cover crops in grain production systems.
“Farmers are interested in the longterm impact of production practices that WICST research can help explain,” Bay says.
Gene Schriefer, the agricultural extension agent in Iowa County, in hilly southwest Wisconsin, says he’s had Sanford out to talk with farmers about the WICST research. He says farmers, who are nothing if not practical, tend to be more trusting of information that comes from a research program that has stretched over decades.
“Most research is over two or three years,” says Schriefer. “This research has been going on for nearly 30 years. That’s amazing.”
Schriefer sees particular interest among farmers in research that tells them how to return their soils to health and how to keep it in place in the face of storms that are both stronger and more frequent.
“We’re out here in the hills,” Schriefer says, “and any time it rains, there is not a clear stream out here. That’s our soil.”
Such growing consciousness in the farming community of the connections between agriculture and a healthy environment is heartening to researchers such as Sanford. For Sanford and other WICST researchers, it’s a testament to the power of Josh Posner’s vision all those years ago in distant Africa.
Sanford, tooling around the WICST fields on a summer morning in his beatup pickup truck, stops to show off a fading sign that dates back nearly to the start of the research. He notes the prominent mention of sustainability, agroecology and organic agriculture. Staffers, Sanford says, are reluctant to take the sign down despite its age because it is a poignant reminder of Posner’s hope and optimism.
“When Josh built this experiment, he was setting us up to understand how crop yields and soils respond not only to farm management, but also to a changing climate,” says Jackson. “These are critical questions whose answers should guide agricultural production in the 21st century.”
This article was originally published in the Spring issue of Grow magazine.