Large-scale organic farm operations should think twice about applying agronomic lessons from small test plots, according to new Michigan State University research. Yields could fall as much as 30% if farmers attempt to apply lessons from small test plots because of soil variations when planting cover crops, distinct labor needs and other factors.
Quoting from an article in Science Daily: "The big conclusion is that, when you have management practices that require a lot of time and effort, and when the success of the practice requires more work than a farmer could reasonably do in an entire farm, then we as scientists need to adjust our recommendations," says Sasha Kravchenko, lead author of the study and a plant biologist at Michigan State.
Conventional fields can take advantage of uniform chemical applications, while organic fields rely on cover crops including red clover for nitrogen enrichment. Because large fields have varying factors such as soil quality and elevation, researchers say, it’s difficult to achieve the uniform yield benefits from cover crops that might occur in a small test plot. Similarly, large fields require rotary tilling and other labor-intensive field work that small test plots do not, which can increase variability at a commercial scale.
That means university researchers have an obligation to accurately include field size into their research to help organic farmers scale appropriately. “Large field experiments aren't just a luxury but something that must be done, especially for testing practices that require extra skills and labor," Kravchenko concludes.