St. Olaf College owns over 700 acres of land in addition to our 300 acre campus. In the early 1990’s corn was the major crop grown here using conventional farming methods. Since then, close to half of this land has been placed in our Natural Lands program by restoring to native habitat (prairie, woodlands and wetlands). However, over 400 acres is currently rented to local farmers whose agricultural systems now include corn, soybeans and some alfalfa.
In 1993, a 44-acre parcel of farmland was converted from conventional agriculture (mainly corn using heavy tillage) to a more sustainable system of a four-crop/five-year rotation of corn, soybeans, oats/alfalfa, alfalfa, alfalfa (C-S-O/A-A-A). An arrangement for this project was made with a local farmer who included alfalfa in his rotation. Since then the college has become very supportive of the idea of encouraging sustainable agriculture and in 2004 agreed with it’s farm renters to convert all its farmland to a corn-soybean rotation employing NO-TILL agriculture with the incorporation of more legume (alfalfa) in the rotation. In addition to improving our environmental stewardship of this valuable farmland, it has provided an outdoor laboratory for student research projects.
Student Agriculture Research
In 1992 environmental studies students Cheri Weber and Derek Fisher conducted a feasibility study in which they interviewed farmers, collecting data on inputs, costs, labor time in the field, crop prices, yields, chemical use, etc. This study was instrumental in the conversion from a conventional (C) “corn only” system to a more sustainable rotation (C-S-O/A-A-A) system in 1993. A 3-year grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Energy and Sustainable Agriculture Program enabled student research projects by Jan Nicholls (’94), Erica Wetzler (’95) and Ketil Rogn (’96), to study soil quality, soil organisms, crop production, economics, energy efficiency and other parameters. Briefly, these projects found that the C–S-O/A-A-A rotation reduced soil erosion over 60%, reduced energy consumption more than 20%, reduced chemical use 65%, and slightly increased overall yields and income per acre compared to growing corn only. However, time spent in farm labor was nearly three times greater for the sustainable operation meaning that one person could not farm as much land. Wendell Berry defines sustainable agriculture as “supporting both the land and the people.” The St. Olaf study demonstrated that adding a cover crop to the rotation significantly increased ecological sustainability, but market conditions have to change before farmers can obtain economical sustainability on a diverse rotation.
More recently, in 2003 Megan Gregory conducted agriculture research on St. Olaf farmland comparing soil characteristics, runoff water quantity and nutrient fluxes, energy use, and overall productivity of three farm types, including conventional “corn-only” fields, more sustainable rotational fields, and a no-till “corn/soybean” operation. Her work demonstrated very similar advantages for the rotation and the corn/soybean/no-till systems over the corn-only system as described above. Her work resulted in a publication in the Journal of Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (see citation below). Biology and Environmental Studies classes at St. Olaf College now incorporate information from these studies and field trips to the agriculture sites as part of their learning experience.
Land Stewardship Project
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center
Community Alliance with Family Farmers
Extension Service at University of Minnesota
Minnesota Department of Agriculture
Sustainable Agriculture Network
Sustainable Farming Connection
USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)