WOOSTER, Ohio -- Ohio State University's unique no-tillage plots have reached their 45th anniversary. But the world's longest continuously maintained no-till experiment is facing a middle-age crisis of sorts: the crop-raising practice it helped get off the ground has grown so popular that support to maintain the historic plots has dwindled, and there's concern they may end up getting plowed under.

Convinced that the plots -- a network of sites spread across Ohio and representing three different soil types -- have plenty more to offer, no-till supporters are mounting a campaign to beef up an endowment previously set up by the university to fund research and upkeep of the plots. The endowment yields some $1,000 per year, which is enough for basic functions but not for the maintenance that the plots require.

"No-tillage agriculture has revolutionized how crops are grown in the United States and many other parts of the world, and some of the first studies on no-tillage took place in Ohio on these plots," said Warren Dick, a soil scientist based on the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center's Wooster campus and a professor with Ohio State's School of Environment and Natural Resources.

"These plots represent an ideal real-world laboratory of the effects of no-tillage on soil and crop variables. As farmers continue to adopt and maintain no-tillage on their fields, they are naturally curious and concerned about how this will affect the overall sustainability of their management systems. These plots can provide answers to their questions."

When weed scientist Glover Triplett and soil physicist Dave VanDoren established their no-till trial back in 1962, farming without plowing the soil was a strange concept to say the least. But data generated by the Wooster, Hoytville and South Charleston plots has been instrumental in transforming no-till from an oddity into an accepted strategy to improve crop yields, reduce farming costs and prevent soil erosion.

Today, nearly 38 percent of the Midwest's soybeans and almost 18 percent of the region's corn are no-tilled.

In addition to helping consolidate no-till farming, studies on the plots have provided researchers and farmers with valuable information on other agricultural and environmental issues -- such as weed seed-bank numbers and germination rates in no-till as compared to conventional plots, impact of soil type and crop rotations on yield, water infiltration, and nutrient analyses.

And the plots can still break new ground, no-till farmers argue.

"There are probably a lot of unanswered questions, especially about soils," said Keith Kemp, head of the Ohio Soybean Council's Production Research Committee, who has no-tilled his farm near West Manchester, Ohio, for 15 years. "There's still a need for research on the aggregation of soils, cover crops, and I'd like to see some work on soil microbes. It's just like everything in no-till -- every year is different, every year you're learning something new."

The Triplett-VanDoren plots were also crucial in supporting some of the earliest work on the effects of no-till on carbon sequestration -- the practice of storing atmospheric carbon in plants and soils, which has been shown to boost crop production while reducing the emission of greenhouse gases that reportedly contribute to global warming.

Carbon trading, which involves energy industries paying no-till farmers for sequestering carbon in their fields, is emerging as an opportunity for these growers to earn extra money just for doing what they are already doing. On average, Ohio soils can sequester about 500 pounds of carbon per acre every year.

"Deepening our understanding of the global environmental services, in addition to the local environmental services provided by no-till activities, is of critical importance as the world faces a major challenge in reducing the risks associated with greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change," said Michael Walsh, senior vice president of the Chicago Climate Exchange, a global market that administers carbon-credit trading.

Bill Richards, former chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and a no-till farmer near Circleville, Ohio, pointed out that further understanding of soil carbon sequestration will come from long-term no-till experiments like that of Ohio State. He also highlighted the importance of keeping and strengthening the legacy of no-till research right here in Ohio.

"If a problem arises with no-till, we could start working on the answer within a year," Richards said. "We wouldn't have to wait for a grant, wouldn't have to wait for Washington to approve it. These plots keep that research at home, close to the farmers of Ohio."

For information on how to support the Triplett-VanDoren Endowment Fund, contact Warren Dick at the School of Environment and Natural Resources, OARDC, 1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, Ohio 44691, (330) 263-3783, dick.5@osu.edu; or contact the Ohio State University Development Office and direct contributions to Development Fund #405639.

SOURCE: News release from the Communications and Technology unit of Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.