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Marion organic research hub strives for healthier food, soil and waterways
The Rodale Institute Midwest Organic Center was established in 2019
MARION — In mid-January, the Rodale Institute Midwest Organic Center’s 30 acres were in a period of transition. Remnants of crops still marked the fertile ground; some cover crops were beginning to sprout in plots; a tractor was tucked away out of sight.
By growing season, the land in Marion — leased within the Indian Creek Nature Center’s Etzel Sugar Grove Farm — will be a buzzing hub of organic agriculture research once again.
The Midwest Organic Center was established in 2019 as the first regional resource center of the Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute, a nonprofit organization researching organic farming. The institute is especially known for its 40-year trial comparing conventional and organic agriculture.
That legacy is extended at the Midwest Organic Center, where the team researches different organic agriculture techniques. Every plant on the property is grown without any synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. The resulting field conditions and crop yields are analyzed and shared with farmers throughout the Midwest.
The team is working toward a future where synthetic fertilizers and chemicals aren’t needed in agriculture — one that could improve water quality, bolster human health and still garner profits for farmers.
“It's raining glyphosate on us,” farm manager Drew Erickson said, referring to an herbicide used in products like Roundup. “There's so many health issues that we're having, and there's more and more research coming up that's tracing that back to the use of glyphosate. But agriculture — through cover cropping, through organic practices, through limiting tillage — can play a big part in reducing nitrogen and all of those things feeding these rivers with a chemical soup.”
Research in progress
In the summers, Linda Sturm-Flores, the Midwest Organic Center’s research technician, collects data from the acres of crops: taking soil samples, tissue samples, moisture readings, temperature readings. Research director Jean Bertrand Contina holds an integral role in the center’s studies, too.
One of the team’s many research projects investigates how three different tillage treatments may affect vegetable productivity. Some plots are not tilled, some plots are tilled and left bare and some plots are tilled and covered with black plastic mulch.
Tilling disrupts soil’s structure and microorganisms, while no-tillage methods promote soil health, require less labor, decrease erosion and retain water. Yet most Iowa farmers still till their plots.
Corn, a driving force of Iowa’s economy, is of interest to the center, too. The team is testing how different amounts of locally produced fertilizer pellets — made from organic poultry manure — affect corn yields in hopes that farmers can reduce how much they apply and increase profitability. The study is in its second year.
“That's the cool and tricky thing about farm research: It needs to be done year after year after year to account for different weather phenomenons,” Erickson said. “We try to repeat studies every year for at least for a couple of years.”
The Midwest Organic Center collaborates with other organizations, like the Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Organic Association and Iowa State University. The team’s goal is for their findings to be published in research papers.
Any food-grade crops from the center’s studies go to Feed Iowa First.
“We’re not trying to compete with farmers,” Erickson said. “We’re here to support farmers. … We’re doing this so we can tell farmers, ‘Don't try this’ or ‘This is the technique you need to use.’”
The Midwest Organic Center is an advocate for cover crops — and it has an interesting way of re-purposing them when growing season comes around.
Instead of terminating the plants with the herbicides, like most farmers do, the team uses what’s called a roller crimper: a large cylinder with a chevron-like pattern that attaches to a tractor. As the tractor rolls along, the roller crimper rotates and packs the cover crop to the ground, where it serves as a layer of mulch to protect the soil, prevent weeds and create organic matter that improve soil health.
Seeds are planting behind the tractor following the rolling process.
The center’s team is using rye as its cover crop in three different densities. They’re experimenting by planting black beans at three different seeding rates to find which system creates the best yield.
“I think in organic, there's always a need for tillage in the system to incorporate manure or to control weeds,” Erickson said. “But if we can reduce that with rotational tillage, that’s kind of what we're chasing.”
Spreading the word, future research
There’s a fairly large amount of small organic vegetable producers in Iowa who grow organic, Erickson said. The challenge is swaying large-scale corn and soybean growers to shift from conventional farming to newer organic methods.
“We're fighting an uphill battle in Iowa,” Erickson said. “They’ve got to see it work here before they're going to even think about it.”
To share its findings, the Midwest Organic Center hosts monthly field days for anyone interested in organic farming. The team also shares its research at conferences and webinars.
Starting this year, the team will follow in the footsteps of the Rodale Institute by setting up a long-term trial comparing organic crop rotations to conventional rotations side by side.
The team is figuring out what crops or methods — like livestock rotation — could yield the best overall harvest when integrated into rotations of corn and soybeans. They are trying to find markets for those alternative crops, too.
The second phase of the project starts later this year, when acres of land will be covered in cover crops. In year two, the team will start weaving different crops into the organic rotations.
Alongside the long-term study, the team also will set up sensors in the soil to track nitrogen and herbicide runoff from the different plot trials. They hope to find that their organic practices lead to cleaner soils that translate to cleaner waterways for Iowans.
“I get nervous when my daughter comes home from camp and she's like, ‘We swam in the creek today,’” Erickson said. “We've got to do something to clean up the water because we all drink it. We all want to go swim in our rivers. We all want to go paddling on the weekends or tubing.”
Brittney J. Miller is the Energy & Environment Reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.
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