Two-year corn-and-soy rotation field (left) and four-year rotation field covered in alfalfa (right). Both were photographed in early September, 2012. By using cover crops like alfalfa, researchers achieved dramatic reductions in herbicide, pesticide and fertilizer use without sacrificing productivity.
Photo: David Sundberg

Big, Smart and Green:
A Revolutionary Vision for Modern Farming

By Brandon Keim
October 19, 2012 | 5:00 pm

What they’re doing on Marsden Farm isn’t organic. It’s not industrial, either. It’s a hybrid of the two, an alternative version of agriculture for the 21st century: smart, green and powerful.

On this farm in Boone County, Iowa, in the heart of corn country, researchers have borrowed from both approaches, using traditional techniques and modern chemicals to get industrial yields — but without industrial consequences.

If the approach works at commercial scales, and there’s good reason to think it will, it might just be an answer to modern farming’s considerable problems.

“We wanted to show that small amounts of synthetic inputs are very powerful tools, but they’re tools with which you tune the system, not drive it,” said Adam Davis, a researcher with the United States Department of Agriculture.

The Marsden Farm experiment, which is described in a study published Oct. 10 in Public Library of Science One, started in 2003, when Davis was a graduate student under agronomist Matt Liebman of Iowa State University. Liebman’s specialty is integrated pest management, or strategies that use nature to accomplish what’s typically done with pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizer.

It’s not a new idea, but it’s one that’s been generally neglected for the last several decades, as large-scale farming came to rely on simplified, chemically intensive and ultimately unsustainable approaches. For a while, these worked, but with high yields came big problems: the threat of catastrophic disease outbreaks in monocultures, an insatiable demand for nitrogen fertilizer, pesticide-resistant bugs and herbicide-resistant superweeds, and a new generation of crops designed to be drenched in toxic chemicals.

“We have two choices now,” said Liebman. “We can double down, load more chemicals into the system, and get another decade of increasingly ineffective control — or we can choose the path towards integrated management.”

Read more: Big, Smart and Green: A Revolutionary Vision for Modern Farming | Wired Science.

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