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Answers came from the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) in Goldsboro, where long-term research on agricultural systems has been under way since 1998. Located next to the Neuse River, the center’s farming systems research unit experienced the same floods as much of eastern North Carolina.
Geographically referenced soil samples from the research unit, taken before and after the floods, gave researchers a true picture of changes in soil composition the floods might have caused. They concluded that, except for some minor changes in soil bacteria, the floods had little impact on soil composition.
“ This is a perfect example of the reason for having this center here,” said Dr. Paul Mueller, professor in the Crop Science Department of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Located at the Cherry Research Farm, the CEFS is a partnership between N.C. State University, N.C. A&T State University and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The center includes an organic unit with a student organic farm, pasture-based dairy unit, eastern North Carolina beef cattle project and conservation tillage studies unit, in addition to the farming systems research unit.
In the early 1990s, Mueller chaired a task force that was asked to determine what facilities were needed for research and extension on sustainable agriculture, the approach that emphasizes a farm as a living, changing system that is in constant interplay with the total environment. In 1992, the group recommended the establishment of a unit to do long-term research on farming systems, including research on organic production. CEFS was dedicated in 1994, and, in 1998, work began on the systems unit.
“ The idea was to have a place where you could do long-term, large-scale, interdisciplinary systems work,” Mueller said.
The farming systems unit is not a place where results come quickly. It is designed to examine over time the effects of agricultural practices and environmental changes on different types of farming systems. Nevertheless, short-run observations and results are continuously contributing new information to the sustainable agriculture knowledge base.
The unit is recognized as a unique experiment in agriculture. In 2002, a three-day tour that included CEFS drew 500 producers and agricultural professionals from across the country. Many on the National Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program tour said they knew of no other center doing systems research on the scale of CEFS.
is also a program that embraces the land-grant mission of research,
teaching and extension.
Extension workshops held here each month teach new practices to growers and Extension agents. Large, interdisciplinary research teams, representing at least 10 departments in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, bring diverse perspectives to agricultural concerns.
The beef cattle project is primarily a demonstration site to show how beef cattle can be produced in a coastal plain environment to maximize profits, while controlling expenses and minimizing environmental impacts. The unit is located on 175 acres of low, poorly drained land at CEFS that was once used to grow food for nearby Cherry Hospital.
Two different breeds are raised at the unit – Angus, a popular beef breed, and Senepol, a breed imported from the Virgin Islands. Senepol was developed on low-quality forages and is more heat- and fly-tolerant than other breeds.
The pasture-based dairy system is designed to make dairy production more efficient for operators, while reducing the use of agricultural inputs and protecting water quality. The unit’s herd of 160 cows is milked twice daily, and the entire herd can be fed and milked in about two hours. Waste from the milking facility is sprayed over pasture land nearby to reduce the environmental impact on one particular area.
This system is believed to be a good model for the Southeast, where dairy farms are in decline. Eastern North Carolina has advantages for this type of system: productive land, a long growing season, the need for diversification in agriculture and fewer urban pressures.
At the farming systems research unit, five different types of systems are under investigation. Each of the five is replicated three times within the unit, in order to account for site differences and increase reliability of results.
The best management practices (BMP) system represents practices used by the top 10 percent of producers, Mueller said. The fields are in a three-year rotation of corn, cotton and peanuts.
The fields in the BMP system are divided into conventional tillage and conservation tillage plots. This system uses integrated pest management principles in fields – scouting for insects and only spraying pesticides when necessary.
The organic system plots are each divided into four subplots to mimic the small scale used by most organic growers. The subplots proved to be too large to grow the vegetable crops normally raised in organic operations, so researchers planted organic field grains, soybeans, sweetpotatoes and cabbage.
Within the organic system, an interdisciplinary research team is conducting research to learn the most cost-effective ways of transitioning from conventional to organic agriculture.
For operations to be “certified organic,” growers must use no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers for three years. But dropping all those inputs at one time can result in yield declines. The researchers are exploring six ways growers could transition from conventional inputs to organic system inputs, prior to the three-year certification period.
CEFS Director Nancy Creamer, a member of the research team, hopes the project will lead to recommendations that will make it economically feasible for growers to make the transition to organic agriculture.
The third farming system involves integrating animal agriculture and crops. Fields are divided into three subplots, with two planted in crops and one used as pasture for animals.
In this system, dairy steers graze in one subplot, and last year, they were joined by a pen of turkeys. An electric wire system and water pipes throughout the system allow operators to move the animals each day to graze fresh pasture. Moving the animals allows manure to break down and pasture grasses to recover.
In the two remaining subplots, fields have been planted in crop rotations of cotton, corn, peanuts, soybeans and winter wheat. Within the next year or two, one of the crop subplots will be converted to pasture, and the pasture subplot will be planted in crops.
The fourth system under investigation is a forestry/woodlot system, involving several commercially important forestry species – black walnut, bald cypress, green ash and longleaf pine.
The final system is an old-field succession, representing an important control for comparing the environmental impacts of farming with those of agricultural land that is no longer farmed. The three successional plots are located adjacent to farming and forest areas so researchers can study the interplay of different habitats on pests and beneficial organisms as well.
“ Establishing the farming systems unit has been labor-intensive and slow," Mueller said, "but once in place, it will prove to be an invaluable resource."