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ISU launches $599,000 water quality project

By Staff | Oct 9, 2009

AMES – When research plots at Iowa State University’s Neely-Kinyon Farm in Adair County were established more than a decade ago, one of the first concerns was whether organic production could match yields from conventional methods.

In fact, a variety of organic crops from the side-by-side comparisons equal or exceed their conventional counterparts. Soil quality improvements have also been recorded.

Researchers will tackle another important question: how does organic production affect water quality? The ISU Organic Program has received a $599,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set up a water quality monitoring project of organic and conventional plots in Story and Greene counties.

“Organic farming requires that producers rely on crop rotations with legumes, composted manure and other natural sources for their nitrogen and soil fertility inputs,” explains Kathleen Delate, associate professor in agronomy and horticulture who set up the Long-Term Agroecological Research (LTAR) in 1997 with initial and ongoing support from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

“For many years, we have wondered if these differences can be observed in the water quality originating from organic farms.”

Co-leading the project is Cynthia Cambardella, a soil scientist and the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames.

They will work with other scientists involved in water quality research at the Ames lab including Dan Jaynes, Rob Malone and Tom Sauer. ISU Extension farm management specialist Craig Chase will evaluate the effect of specific organic practices on farm environment and profitability.

The project will be set up at an ISU site in Story County and on an organic farm near Jefferson to compare sediment delivery, nutrient use and transport, and overall water availability between conventional and organic cropping systems.

Physical measurements of soil and surface water conditions will be matched with modeling information generated at the same spatial and temporal scale.

Delate said the project is designed to demonstrate the benefits and challenges to soil and water availability, both in quality and quantity, posed by implementing certified organic practices.

The grant also will support ISU Extension training to facilitate development of self-assessments and implementation of water quality enhancement programs on individual farms.

The project is funded by the USDA-CSREES Integrated Organic and Water Quality Program. The grant is a joint effort between the Organic Transition Program and the National Integrated Water Quality Program, whose goal is to contribute to the improvement of the quality of surface water and groundwater resources through research, education, and extension activities.

Only three such grants were awarded in the country.

“This has always been my dream,” said Cambardella, who has been analyzing LTAR soil data for the last 12 years. “We have extensive soil quality data from the organic systems we’ve been studying and water quality data will complete the picture.”

Delate said the LTAR results have demonstrated a clear benefit from organic practices in terms of greater carbon sequestration in the organic fields.

“We hope that the water quality data will bear similar results,” she added. “We are excited to have this opportunity to bring together such an outstanding team to thoroughly investigate the question.”

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