Haughley Experiment

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The Haughley Experiment was the first scientific comparative study of organic farming and conventional chemical-based farming, started in 1939 by Lady Eve Balfour and Alice Debenham, on two adjoining farms in Haughley Green, Suffolk, England.

In the words of Lady Eve, from her address to the IFOAM conference in Switzerland, in 1977:[1]

The Haughley Experiment was started in 1939 on my farm and taken over by the Soil Association in 1947 which for the next 25 years directed and sponsored it. This pioneering experiment was the first ecologically designed agricultural research project, on a full farm scale. It was set up to fill a gap in the evidence on which the claims for the benefits of organic husbandry were based. It was decided that the only way to achieve this was to observe and study nutrition cycles, functioning as a whole, under contrasting methods of land use, but on the same soil and under the same management, the purpose being to assess what effect, if any, the different soil treatments had on the biological quality of the produce grown thereon, including its nutritive value as revealed through its animal consumers. This had never been done before.

Three side-by-side units of land were established, each large enough to operate a full farm rotation, so that the food-chains involved — soil–plant–animal and back to the soil — could be studied as they functioned through successive rotational cycles, involving many generations of plants and animals, in order that interdependences between soil, plant and animal, and also any cumulative effects could manifest.

In order that you may understand the significance of some of the results I cannot avoid a short summary of how these units were operated. One was a stockless arable farm which for the purpose of this talk I shall ignore — the other two were both ley farms (temporary pasture alternating with arable) operating the same rotation. Each carried a herd of dairy cows, a flock of poultry and a small flock of sheep. All livestock was fed exclusively on the produce of its own unit, replacements were home bred and cereal and pulse crops raised from home-grown seed. All wastes of crops and stock were returned only to its own unit. Only livestock products and surplus animals were sold off the farm. All crops were put through the animals. On one of these two comparable units supplementary chemical fertilizers were used, as well as herbicides, insecticides and fungicides when thought necessary. This unit was called the Mixed Section.

On the other unit, called the Organic Section, no chemicals were used. It was thus entirely dependent on its own biological fertility. As nearly as possible a closed cycle was maintained so that a minimum of unknown factors should be introduced into the food chain to confuse the issue.

You can see, I expect, why such an exploration into the unknown was left to the private enterprise of a charitable society with small resources. It was at total variance with the fragmentary techniques of orthodox agricultural research, which is based on randomised small plots — a technique quite incapable of throwing any light on biological interdependencies in a functioning whole. The establishment of the day even went so far as to declare that there was no case to investigate — they were particularly critical of the closed system on the organic section, yet most of the significant findings were the outcome of this, and would not have been revealed without it. I will attempt to summarise a few of the more important findings, concentrating on those that have special relevance for the subject matter of this conference.

In addition to carefully recorded field observations, an extensive range of sample analyses (soil and products) was carried out by the consultant bio-chemist, Dr. R.F. Milton. These included analyses for available plant nutrients in every field every month for a period of over 10 years."

In the early 1980s, properties of the three sections were measured and showed differences in earthworm density, crop root depth, and soil properties including soil carbon, moisture and, surprisingly, temperature.[2]

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