Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

The performance of organic and conventional cropping systems in an extreme climate year

  • D.W. Lotter (a1), R. Seidel (a1) and W. Liebhardt (a1)

The 1999 severe crop season drought in the northeastern US was followed by hurricane-driven torrential rains in September, offering a unique opportunity to observe how managed and natural systems respond to climate-related stress. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial has been operating since 1981 and consists of three replicated cropping systems, one organic manure based (MNR), one organic legume based (LEG) and a conventional system (CNV). The MNR system consists of a 5-year maize–soybean–wheat–clover/hay rotation, the LEG of a 3-year maize–soybean–wheat–green manure, and the CNV of a 5-year maize-soybean rotation. Subsoil lysimeters allowed quantification of percolated water in each system. Average maize and soybean yields were similar in all three systems over the post-transition years (1985–1998). Five drought years occurred between 1984 and 1998 and in four of them the organic maize outyielded the CNV by significant margins. In 1999 all crop systems suffered severe yield depressions; however, there were substantial yield differences between systems. Organic maize yielded 38% and 137% relative to CNV in the LEG and MNR treatments, respectively, and 196% and 152% relative to CNV in the soybean plots. The primary mechanism of the higher yield of the MNR and LEG is proposed to be the higher water-holding capacity of the soils in those treatments, while the lower yield of the LEG maize was due to weed competition in that particular year and treatment. Soils in the organic plots captured more water and retained more of it in the crop root zone than in the CNV treatment. Water capture in the organic plots was approximately 100% higher than in CNV plots during September's torrential rains.

Corresponding author
R. Seide (
Hide All
Anon. 1994. Nature farming rice crop succeeds despite record cold summer: Story is front-page news in Japan. World Sustainable Agriculture Association Newsletter 3(12):1.
ClarkM.S., FerrisH., KlonskyK., LaniniW.T., van BruggenA.H.C., and ZalomF.G.. 1998. Agronomic, economic, and environmental comparison of pest management in conventional and alternative tomato and corn systems in northern California. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment 68 (1–2):5171.
DenisonR.F. 1996. Organic matters. The LIRAS century, 4 (March): Long Term Research on Agricultural Systems (LTRAS). College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of California Davis.
DormaarJ.F., LindwallC.W., and KozubG.C.. 1988. Effectiveness of manure and commercial fertilizer in restoring productivity of an artificially eroded dark brown chermozemic soil under dryland conditions. Canadian Journal of Soil Science 68:669679.
DrinkwaterL.E., LetourneauO.K., WorknehF., VanbruggenA.H.C., and ShennanC.. 1995. Fundamental differences between conventional and organic tomato agroecosystems in California. Ecological Applications 5(4):10981112.
EasonW.R., ScullionJ., and ScottE.P.. 1999. Soil parameters and plant responses associated with arbuscular mycorrhizas from contrasting grassland management regimes. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment 73(3):245255.
FlemingK.L., PowersW.L., JonesA.L., and HelmersO.A.. 1997. Alternative production systems' effects on the K-factor of the revised universal soil loss equation. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture 12(2):55.
GerhardtR.A. 1997. A comparative analysis of the effects of organic and conventional farming systems on soil structure. Biological Agriculture and Horticulture 14(2):139157.
HenningJ. 1994. Economics of organic farming in Canada. In LampkinN.H. and PadelS. (eds.). The Economics of Organic Farming. CAB International, Wallingford, UK. p. 38.
Holt-GimenezE. 2002. Measuring farmers' agroecological resistance after Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua: a case study in participatory, sustainable land management impact monitoring. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment, in press.
JaenickeE.C. 1998. From the Ground Up: Exploring Soil Quality's Contribution to Environmental Health. Policy Studies Report No. 10. Henry A. Wallace Center for Agricultural and Environmental Policy.
LiebigM.A., and DoranJ.W.. 1999. Impact of organic production practices on soil quality indicators. Journal of Environmental Quality 28(5): 16011609.
LockeretzW., ShearerG., and KohlD.H.. 1981. Organic farming in the Corn Belt. Science 211:540546.
LohrL., and SalomonssonL.. 2000. Conversion subsidies for organic production: results from Sweden and lessons for the United States. Agricultural Economics 22(2): 133146.
LotterD.W. 2003. Organic agriculture. Journal of Sustainable Agriculture 21(4).
MaderP., EdenhoferS., BoilerT., WiemkenA., and NiggliU.. 2000. Arbuscular mycorrhizae in a long-term field trial comparing low-input (organic, biological) and high-input (conventional) farming systems in a crop rotation. Biology and Fertility of Soils 31(2): 150156.
MoyerJ.W., SaporitoL.S., and JankeR.R.. 1996. Design, construction, and installation of an intact soil core lysimeter. Agronomy Journal 88:253256.
PetersS.E. 1994. Conversion to low-input farming systems in Pennsylvania, USA: an evaluation of the Rodale Farming Systems Trial and related economic studies. In LampkinN.H. and PadelS. (eds.). The Economics of Organic Farming. CAB International, Wallingford, UK. p. 265284.
PetersenC., DrinkwaterL., and WagonerP.. 1999. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial: The first 15 years. The Rodale Institute, Kutztown, PA.
PrettyJ., and HineR.. 2001. Reducing Food Poverty with Sustainable Agriculture: A Summary of New Evidence. SAFE Research Project, University of Essex, UK.
ReganoldJ.P. 1995. Soil quality and profitability of biodynamic and conventional fanning systems: A review. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture 10(1):3646.
ReganoldJ.P., PalmerA.S., LockhartJ.C., and MacgregorA.N.. 1993. Soil quality and financial performance of biodynamic and conventional farms in New Zealand. Science 260(5106):344349.
ReganoldJ.P., GloverJ.D., AndrewsP.K., and HinmanH.R.. 2001. Sustainability of three apple production systems. Nature 410(6831):926930.
RyanM.H., ChilversG.A., and DumaresqD.C.. 1994. Colonisation of wheat by VA-mycorrhizal fungi was found to be higher on a farm managed in an organic manner than on a conventional neighbour. Plant and Soil 160(1):3340.
SmolikJ.D., DobbsT.L., and RickerlD.H.. 1995. The relative sustainability of alternative, conventional and reduced-till farming system. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture 10(1):25.
SombrockW.G., and GommesR.. 1996. The climate change-agriculture conundrum. In BazzazF.A. and SombrockW.G. (eds.). Global Climate Change and Agricultural Production. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy, p. 114.
StanhillG. 1990. The comparative productivity of organic agriculture. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment 30 (1–2): 126.
SwiftJ.J. 1994. Maintaining the biological status of soil: A key to sustainable land management? In GreenlandD.J. and SzabolcsI. (eds.). Soil Resilience and Sustainable Land Use. Proceedings of a symposium held in Budapest; 28 September to 2 October 1992, including the Second Workshop on the Ecological Foundations of Sustainable Agriculture (WEFSA II). CAB International, Wallingford, UK. p. 235247.
SylivaD.M., and WilliamsS.E.. 1992. Vesicular-arbuscular mycorrhizae and environmental stress. In G.J. Bethenfalvay and R.G. Linderman (eds.). Mycorrhizae in Sustainable Agriculture. Proceedings of a symposium, 31 October 1991. American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America, Madison Wisconsin, p. 101124.
USDA. 1994. Summary Report: 1992 National Resources Inventory. Soil Conservation Service, US Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC.
WeissH., and BradleyR.S.. 2001. What drives societal collapse? Science 291(5506):988.
WellsA.T., ChanK.Y., and CornishP.S.. 2000. Comparison of conventional and alternative vegetable farming systems on the properties of a yellow earth in New South Wales. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment 80(1–2):4760.
WynenE. 1994. Economics of organic farming in Australia. In LampkinN.H. and PadelS. (eds.). The Economics of Organic Farming. CAB International, Wallingford, UK. p. 185199.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Journal of Alternative Agriculture
  • ISSN: 0889-1893
  • EISSN: 1478-5498
  • URL: /core/journals/american-journal-of-alternative-agriculture
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 86 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 804 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 24th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.