WASHINGTON, June 29--On a hot Monday morning in May, Aref A.
Abdul-Baki and John R. Teasdale are glad it's not raining. "It
rained so much, we never thought we'd get the tomatoes planted,"
As the two men tromp through the field in workboots, they make
sure that the new automatic planter punches tomato seedlings into
the ground, waters and fertilizes them and packs soil around the
Over the weekend they spend 12 hours a day toting shovels,
helping a farm crew build raised beds of soil for several thousand
tomatoes. And now, two weeks later, they are ready to plant sweet
corn on other beds.
Their work, building on research begun several years ago, is
part of a broad-scale research and demonstration project that the
U.S. Department of Agriculture's Beltsville, Md., Agricultural
Research Center has started this spring.
Donald D. Bills, who heads the USDA Agricultural Research
Service project at "The Farm" in suburban Washington, D.C., said
the goal is to demonstrate successful sustainable agriculture
techniques for the nation and study long-term effects on farm-sized
He said sustainable agriculture is farming for the long run,
balancing environmental and financial concerns. "This means that
whenever possible, what's used on the farm should come from the
farm and stay on the farm. For example, we're recycling manure from
our dairy barns and using green manure crops and cover crops to
substitute for some of the chemical fertilizers used on our farm."
Bills said Maryland farmers would serve on an advisory board,
helping the researchers to provide answers they and other farmers
need, especially those in the mid-eastern states. "Already the
project is attracting the interest of those who want to keep farm
chemicals out of the Chesapeake Bay," he said.
He said the project's research involves both vegetables and
field crops--including corn and soybeans--on almost 60 acres of
land. "We will be documenting everything from crop yields to soil
tillage practices, composting, farming costs and other concerns."
He said Abdul-Baki and Teasdale, the plant physiologists who
are conducting the vegetable part of the project, have developed a
good working model of sustainable farming that gets 20 percent
higher tomato yields. Tomato seedlings are planted in hairy vetch
rather than plastic mulch. Hairy vetch is a nitrogen-fixing legume
that reduces soil erosion, adds organic matter and lowers water
use, Bills said.
Abdul-Baki is testing various rates of fertilizer nitrogen to
find the lowest amount needed on the vetch-covered, raised beds of
Bills said the model currently uses half the chemical
fertilizer of conventional systems and less insecticide and
herbicide. He said it is environmentally friendly--lowering
chemical use and other costs--while increasing yields.
"At times in such studies, we feel more like farmers than
scientific researchers," said Bills, who chairs the center's
Sustainable Agriculture Project Coordinating Committee.
Other parts of the project:
o Corn, soybeans, red clover and barley are growing on a
14-acre demonstration field;
o On-farm composting of farm and urban waste will begin this
o And, a 40-acre field is being prepared for corn-soybean
research beginning in the spring of 1995.
Over the next two years, "an unusually thorough pre-testing
will identify places in the 40 acre field that, although only a few
feet apart, can vary dramatically in yields," Bills said. Among
the technologies used will be aerial mapping, satellite imagery of
soils and crops, global positioning systems and soil analysis.
"Our goal is to track subtle but significant changes in soils and
crops that occur very slowly over a period of time," he said.
"Individual researchers will use the 40-acre field for their
own related studies, in addition to the main experiments we have
scheduled," Bills said. "Already more than 40 of our scientists
have submitted other proposals for projects, in disciplines ranging
from soil chemistry to human nutrition and family economics. We
expect researchers from the University of Maryland and elsewhere to
For details, contact Donald D. Bills, Director, Product Quality and
Development Institute, Beltsville Agricultural Research Center,
Agricultural Research Service, USDA, Beltsville, Md. 20705.