Magazine article Science News

Keeping Topsoil Down on the Farm

Magazine article Science News

Keeping Topsoil Down on the Farm

Article excerpt

Keeping topsoil down on the farm

Amid the steeply rolling hills of the Palouse region near Spokane, Wash., lies the ideal "laboratory' for testing the effects of different farming techniques on soil. In that area, one farm has relied on crop rotations and native soil fertility for plant nutrients ever since it was first plowed in 1909. Next to it, another farm, first cultivated in 1908, has been receiving recommended doses of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides since 1948. By examining the soil in two adjacent fields, one belonging to each farm, researchers have now been able to ascertain that an organic farming system is significantly more effective in reducing soil erosion than a system based on the use of manufactured fertilizers.

"The differences are dramatic,' says John P. Reganold of Washington State University in Pullman. "People say there should be differences, but until now, no one had clear evidence.' Reganold and his colleagues report their findings in the Nov. 26 NATURE.

The organic farm used in the study operates on a three-year cycle. It produces winter wheat the first year, then a crop of spring pea the following year. Both crops are harvested. In the third year, Austrian winter pea is planted. The mature plants are plowed under to provide "green manure' for the fields. In contrast, the conventional farm alternates between crops of winter wheat and spring pea. Although the crop yields are similar for both farming systems, the organic farm produces a cash crop on a given field in only two out of three years of the cycle. …

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