Located on 2000 acres of Eastern North Carolina soils, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ (NCDA&CS) Cherry Farm in Goldsboro is home to CEFS’ research farm. One of the nation’s premier research and demonstration facilities for organic and sustainable production systems, the CEFS farm houses CEFS’ core research programs, or “units.” The Farming Systems Research Unit, the Organic Research Unit, the Pasture-Based Beef and Dairy Units, the Small Farm Unit, and the Alternative Swine Unit all provide research opportunities for faculty, graduate students and visiting scientists, and demonstration models for farmers, extension agents and students.
The farm is a unique resource. Faculty from North Carolina State University (NC State) and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T) utilize the farm to conduct research on a wide range of production factors including soil health, land and water conservation, insect and disease dynamics, and pasture management. Farm research is supported by staff from the NCDA&CS’ Research Stations Division, headed by Research Operations Manager Andy Meier. Says Meier, “The success of the CEFS research and demonstration program is directly related to the cooperative partnership of NC State, NC A&T and NCDA&CS, and also to the long-term, multidisciplinary approach to both applied and basic research questions.”
The research has had a tremendous impact on farmers across the state. Debbie Hamrick, Director of Specialty Crops for the North Carolina Farm Bureau, has seen how the farm’s research benefits a wide range of producers, from small- to large scale, and conventional to certified organic. “CEFS’ work gives people reasons to unite, not segregate,” she says. “The research being conducted at CEFS informs the science that underpins modern agricultural production. Through looking at problems with multidisciplinary rigor at the core of crop and livestock systems, CEFS’ work is useful for all agricultural producers in North Carolina and nationally.”
In fact, CEFS’ Farming System Research Unit (FSRU) is home to one of the country’s foremost long-term, comparative systems experiments. The unit’s 200+ acres are split into five different systems which have been in continuous study since 1999: Best Management Practices in a Conventional Cash Cropping System; an Integrated Crop-Animal System; an Organic Cropping System; a Plantation Forestry System; and a Successional Ecosystem.
Dr. Chris Reberg-Horton, CEFS Assistant Director of Collaborative Research, helps manage the unit. “Comparative systems trials are the best method for assessing the long-term impacts of farming practices on productivity and the environment. For the last 15 years, the FSRU trials have produced data that serve as an important resource to scientists and policy makers in the U.S. and internationally,” he says.
“The research being conducted at CEFS informs the science that underpins modern agricultural production. Through looking at problems with multidisciplinary rigor at the core of crop and livestock systems, CEFS’ work is useful for all agricultural producers in North Carolina and nationally.”
– Debbie Hamrick, Director of Specialty Crops, North Carolina Farm Bureau
While conceived as a long-term study, the FSRU was also designed to allow the nesting of short-term experiments, enabling scientists to study emerging issues that impact producers immediately. Responding to growing concern about climate change and its impact on agriculture, in 2013 CEFS researchers initiated a study at the FSRU entitled Assessing the Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Potential of Organic Systems in the Southeast. The central hypothesis of the project is that organic farming can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing tillage and chemical nitrogen fertilizers, while taking advantage of organic manures and cover crops.
Greenhouse gases are produced in the soil and, depending on how that soil is managed, eventually released into the atmosphere. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that agriculture contributes 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The FSRU research compares three certified organic systems and three parallel conventional systems in order to quantify carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions and identify the potential mechanisms underlying carbon and nitrogen stabilization in soil. “Organic farming may provide one of the most economically and environmentally friendly farming practices for reducing greenhouse gas emissions while enhancing soil carbon storage,” says Dr. Shuijin Hu, a professor of Soil Ecology in the Plant Pathology Department at NC State and the project’s lead researcher.
Outcomes of the project will provide essential data for developing agricultural practices that reduce nitrous oxide emissions while increasing soil carbon sequestration. CEFS faculty will also develop new curricula on greenhouse gases and agriculture for educating students and stakeholders.
Dr. Charles W. Raczkowski, Soil Scientist and Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Agriculture and Natural Sciences at NC A&T, has been conducting experiments at the FSRU since its inception. The long-term research housed at the unit is critical, says Dr. Raczkowski, because of the ability to verify results over the long-term. “Many of the natural processes that occur at the field scale are not represented under small plot experiments. Recommendations have consequences for growers. We have more credibility making recommendations based on evidence gathered from large scale experiments like we have at CEFS,” he concludes.
Top photo: Tomas Moreno/CEFS