Whole-Farm Life Cycle Assessment during Transition to Organic and Low-Input Practices

Sean Clark
Agriculture and Natural Resources, Berea College

Presented at the All Scientists Meeting (2015-04-15 to 2015-04-16 )

Management changes were put into place in 2009-11 to improve the Berea College Farm’s economic performance and reduce negative environmental impacts. Organic horticulture and grain production were expanded, cattle were transitioned from grain- to grass-finishing, hogs were moved outside and rotated, and the use of renewable fuels, such as biodiesel and wood, was adopted to replace diesel and natural gas. This analysis compares the farm’s energy inputs, outputs and emissions across three periods: pre-transition (2007-08), transition (2009-11) and post-transition (2012-13). The practices implemented resulted in relatively little change in total energy inputs and outputs, though somewhat lower levels of both were observed during the transition period. There was a steady decline in the use of non-renewable energy inputs during the study period and a subsequent decline in GHG emissions per unit area and per unit of energy output. The trends in energy flow and GHG emissions were explained largely by the smaller livestock herd sizes and a corresponding increase in organic crop production. The expansion of organic crop production resulted in a marked reduction in N fertilizer use and concomitant reduction in GHG emissions. A decrease in the use of fossil energy sources, including natural gas, electricity and gasoline, also contributed to the trends, though diesel consumption increased during the study period. This case study demonstrates the capacity of farms to reduce the use of non-renewable resources and generation of GHG emissions with organic and low-input practices and highlights the interdependencies and interactions among enterprises within diverse farming systems.

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