Published online by Cambridge University Press: 16 May 2012
Ecologically based farming conserves and improves the soil resource and protects environmental quality by using organic or natural resources without the application of synthetic chemicals. Soil quality assessment indicates the ability of management systems to optimize soil productivity and to maintain its structural and biological integrity. Our objective was to evaluate the effect of ecologically based management on biochemical characteristics of soil [soil quality indicators (SQI)] as an assessment of soil quality. The study was conducted on an ecologically based farming enterprise established on gently sloping soils of Sharpsburg silt loam (fine montmorillonitic, mesic Typic Argiudolls) in Clay County, Missouri, which was previously under conventional corn and soybean production. The transition to organic farming began in 1995, which included a primary management strategy to restore soil organic matter consisting of the establishment of native prairie plants and the application of composted vegetative residues and litter from horse and laying hen operations. Soils were collected at 0–10cm depths from sites under organic production (orchard and vegetable), managed prairie/pasture and from adjacent unmanaged fields during 2003–2008 for soil quality assessment. Soil organic carbon (SOC) and water-stable soil aggregates were considerably increased by up to 60 and 72%, respectively, in organic production sites compared with tilled cropland by the fifth year of assessment. Organically managed systems and restored prairie sites significantly increased (P<0.05) soil enzyme activities compared with unmanaged grass and tilled cropland. For example, dehydrogenase and glucosaminidase activities increased by 60 and 73%, respectively, under organic vegetables compared with tilled cropland. Soil enzyme activities were significantly correlated with SOC content (r values up to 0.90, P<0.001). The results of the soil quality assessment suggest that ecologically based management successfully restored biological activity of silt loam soils previously under intensive conventional agriculture. The system practiced at the study sites illustrates how resources internal to the farm (i.e., composts) can be used to manage soil productivity.