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Study: Higher grain yields in drought from organic farming

New research reveals organic agriculture produces higher crop yields during periods of extreme weather.

Rodale Institute research technicians collect data for the Farming Systems Trial. Photo courtesy of Rodale Institute
Rodale Institute research technicians collect data for the Farming Systems Trial. Photo courtesy of Rodale Institute

Organic farming may produce higher yields of certain crops during periods of drought, according to a long-term study led by the Rodale Institute.

The research fields that helped lead to the USDA Certified Organic standard have revealed that regenerative organic agriculture may hold the key to securing the global food supply as the world’s climate changes.

40-year study shows regenerative organic ag is effective in extreme weather

For more than 40 years, the Farming Systems Trial (FST) at Rodale Institute has combined real-world practices and scientific analysis to document the different impacts of organic and conventional grain cropping systems.

The scientific data gathered from this research has established that organic management matches or outperforms conventional agriculture in ways that benefit farmers and lays a strong foundation for designing and refining agricultural systems that can improve the health of people and the planet.

New FST research has shed light on how regenerative organic agriculture is an effective and resilient farming model in an era of extreme weather.

This is a significant finding as farmers around the world contend with the devastating effects of crop losses stemming from droughts and floods.

“Regenerative organic farming builds healthy soil through enhancing soil organic carbon,” said Rodale Institute Chief Scientist Dr. Reza Afshar. “This allows the soil to absorb more rainfall during periods of flooding and retain moisture for longer periods during droughts.”

Key takeaways from the report:

  • YIELDS: Organic systems produce yields of cash crops equal to conventional systems. In extreme weather conditions, however, such as drought, the organic plots sustained their yields while the conventional plots declined. Overall, organic corn yields have been 31% higher than conventional production in drought years.
  • CARBON CAPTURE: Healthy soil holds carbon and keeps it out of the atmosphere. Organic systems usually have much more diverse carbon inputs going into the soil so microbial biomass is significantly higher than in the conventional system, leading to higher soil organic matter over time.
  • WATER: Water infiltration is significantly faster under long-term organic management compared to conventional practices.
  • SOILS: FST data has established that soil health in the organic systems has continued to increase over time while the soil in the conventional systems has remained essentially unchanged.

FST facts

“The Farming Systems Trial is one of our most significant research projects,” said Rodale Institute CEO Jeff Moyer. “In fact, with FST’s now 40 years of accumulated data and findings, it is fair to say that it is the most consequential study of organic agriculture anywhere.”

The Farming Systems Trial (FST) compares three core farming systems: a chemical input-based conventional system, a legume-based organic system and a manure-based organic system.

Corn and soybean production is the focus of each system because 70% of U.S. acreage is devoted to growing grain.

In 2008, each core system was further divided to compare standard full-tillage and emerging reduced-tillage practices. At that time, genetically modified corn and soybeans were also introduced to the FST’s conventional system to mirror common practices.

For more findings from the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial 40-year report, visit

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