On a still and warm summer morning, as scientists drive along the dirt roads that crisscross the Arlington Agricultural Research Station, the fields sweep in a green carpet to the horizon.
This land some 20 miles north of Madison was once part of the vast Empire Prairie, a sea of grassland that stretched south to the Illinois border. So high and thick were those grasslands, history tells us, that they could swallow a rider on horseback.
Named by settlers from New York in the 1830s for their home state, the prairie and its rich soils would prove to be ideal for growing corn and other row crops that are the mainstays of modernday agriculture. And today, the region is home to hundreds of farms, some of which date back a century or more.
It makes sense, then, that this place with its productive soils and old farms would also be home to a most unusual agricultural endeavor— a 26-year-old research project aimed at bridging the gap between past and future farming practices. It’s called the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial, or WICST for short.
On 60 acres of land at the CALS-based Arlington Agricultural Research Station, university researchers from a number of departments within CALS are doing big science with tractors and combines and manure spreaders. Clad in blue jeans and work boots instead of lab coats, these scientists are engaged in ambitious longterm research that is relying upon the study of the ancient soils of the Empire Prairie to point the way toward a sustainable agricultural future.
From this effort, started in 1989 by an idealistic and insightful young agronomy professor named Josh Posner, has come research that shows farmers can both run a sustainable farm and grow enough food to play a significant role in feeding a burgeoning world population. It is important, forwardlooking work at a time when many farmers face an uncertain economic future as well as changing climatic conditions that are only going to heighten the risks associated with bringing a crop to harvest or livestock to market.
“It’s among the most important farm-scale research being done in the UW system,” says Dick Cates PhD’83, associate director of the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, the administrative home for WICST.
Cates, who also owns and works a managed grazing farm near Spring Green, praises WICST for the quality of its research as well as its unusual long-term approach to studying varied approaches to farming. He uses the research in teaching young farmers in a program he helped found, the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers.
The science on sustainable practices particularly resonates with younger farmers, Cates says: “They understand long-term consequences.”
Research at WICST has been conducted on fields that are farmed using three cash grain and three forage-based production systems common in the Midwest. They include 1) conventional corn; 2) no-till corn-soybean rotation; 3) organic corn– soybean–wheat rotation; 4) conventional dairy forage; 5) organic dairy forage; and 6) rotationally grazed pastures. In 1999, Posner added plots devoted to the study of switchgrass and diverse prairie, which has allowed for grazing and bioenergy studies nested within the bigger experiment.
Toiling in their plots at Arlington, WICST researchers (including a steady stream of graduate students) have compiled an impressive archive of publications showing that sustainable farming practices, such as managed grazing and crop rotation, make sense from both economic and ecological perspectives.
They’ve studied everything from the effect of alternative crop rotations on farm profitability to soil health and carbon sequestration. They’ve tallied earthworms and ground beetles. They’ve analyzed weed populations. They’ve learned more about manure than you would suspect is possible.
Among their key findings:
- Organic- and pasture-based farming systems have been the most profitable cropping systems at WICST.
- Organic systems produced forage yields that were, on average, 90 percent of conventional grain systems and as high as 99 percent in two-thirds of the study years.
- Over a 20-year period, all five grain and forage cropping systems— except for grazed pasture—lost significant soil carbon to the atmosphere.
It’s a record that would have impressed and pleased the late Posner, who died in 2012. It is rare for any conversation about WICST not to lead eventually to Posner and his pioneering idea of a decades-long research project dedicated to the science of agricultural sustainability.
Posner, who held a Ph.D. in agronomy and a minor in agricultural economics from Cornell University, had conducted significant sustainability research from South America to West Africa before coming to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His interest in agriculture grew from his work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cote d’Ivoire, Africa, in a school gardening program.
Posner was hired by UW in 1985 to coordinate a UW research program in Banjul, The Gambia. He arrived in Madison in 1987 and began teaching and research in the Department of Agronomy. In 1993, he and his family moved to Bolivia, where he led a UW research program on sustainable agriculture for several years. From 1998 to 2001, he directed CONDESAN, an international agency based in Lima, Peru, to support sustainable mountain agriculture across the six Andean countries in South America.
Posner’s widow, Jill Posner, who still lives in Madison, recalled that her husband first started thinking about the project that would become WICST while working in West Africa with farmers who grew crops without the benefit of modern-day fertilizers and pesticides.
“There was a real link between what he was doing in Africa and the low-input systems he wanted to study here,” Jill Posner says. “It was one of those things that he always kept on the back burner. No matter where we were, he was always thinking about that connection.”
In 1988, Posner, a focused and persuasive scientist, would pull together the team that created WICST. His plan was to establish a research project that would compare sustainable land management practices, organic agriculture and traditional approaches. And the project would be ambitious in both size and duration. Research would be conducted on a scale that approximated the conditions on an actual farm. The science would stretch over not just a year or two but decades. Wherever Posner’s work took him around the world, he continued to oversee WICST, reviewing the plans and results and returning to Madison to connect with his research team at least twice a year.
That Posner would propose such an audacious project didn’t surprise those who knew him. He thought big, recalls Dwight Mueller, director of all UW Agricultural Research Stations— and Posner saw something else that many others didn’t fully understand at the time: The eventual emergence of organic and other conservation-minded farming as powerful and necessary trends.
“If you knew Josh, you might have had an inkling,” says Mueller regarding Posner’s long-range vision of field research that would meet the challenges posed by increasingly stressed resources. This was a time, Mueller notes, when crop farming largely meant planting year after year of corn with little rest for the soil. And organic agriculture was thought of by many as a hobby or possibly a passing fad.
“‘Organic’ was a dirty word when we started,” says Mueller.
Randy Jackson, a CALS agronomy professor and grassland ecologist who now leads WICST research and has been involved in the project since 2003, says the crop experiments played an important role in bringing science to bear on organic and other sustainable practices. For such practices to become more widely accepted, it was important to demonstrate that these grain and forage production systems could yield as much as conventionally managed systems in most years, he says.
Continue reading this story in the Spring 2017 issue of Grow magazine.