The KBS Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) Project in Row-crop Agriculture was initiated at Michigan State University in 1987 to examine basic ecological relationships in field-crop ecosystems typical of the U.S. Midwest. Our goal was – and remains – to test the long-term hypothesis that agronomic management based on ecological knowledge can substitute for management based on chemical subsidies—without sacrificing the high crop yields that modern agriculture provides for society. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation with support from Michigan State University AgBioResearch. A renewal proposal is submitted to the National Science Foundation every six years, making this our fourth funding cycle.

Most of our specific hypotheses have been addressed in the context of the simple experimental design of our Main Cropping System Experiment: replicated systems along a management intensity gradient that includes four annual cropping systems (corn-soybean-wheat rotations ranging from conventional to biologically-based management), two perennial cropping systems (alfalfa and hybrid poplar trees), and a set of early to late-successional unmanaged communities.

Our initial focus was on the biophysical underpinnings of ecological processes in row-crop ecosystems. In 1998 we added watershed biogeochemistry, and in 2004 we added an economic valuation component. Since 2004 our work has been guided by a conceptual model that integrated our activities around the concept of ecosystem services delivered by agriculture. We continue to focus on ecosystem services and incorporate key research linkages between ecological and social systems in these landscapes. This integration of ecological and social systems is critical to address long-standing environmental and productivity challenges in row crop agriculture.

In 2008 we expanded our research with major funding from Department of Energy (DOE) to include potential cellulosic biofuel crops as part of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. This expansion builds on our longstanding comparisons of annual and perennial cropping systems, and includes experimental cellulosic and grain-based biofuel cropping systems designed to examine the delivery of and trade-offs among agronomic, biogeochemical, and biodiversity services.