Systems approaches to research can be used to study characteristics of agricultural systems that cannot be addressed using conventional factorial experiments. The goal of a factorial experiment is to break down a complex system in order to isolate and study specific components and identify cause-effect relationships. In contrast, systems experiments aim to understand how a complex system functions as a whole and thus requires that intact systems be studied. Two approaches have been successfully applied to agricultural systems research: 1) field station experiments where simulated cropping systems are established in replicated plots and 2) studies of intact agroecosystems using commercial farms as study sites. These two approaches have complementary strengths and limitations and have made significant contributions to our understanding of ecological processes in agricultural systems. The development of sustainable agroecosystems will be best accomplished using an integrated research approach combining systems experiments with appropriately designed factorial experiments.
Laurie E. Drinkwater
Laurie E. Drinkwater, Deborah K. Letourneau, Fekede Workneh, Marita Cantwell, Ariena H.C. van Bruggen, and Carol Shennan
Twenty commercial tomato production systems were compared in a multidisciplinary on farm study. The aim was to determine if organic (ORG) and conventional (CNV) systems differed in terms of agronomic criteria or indicators of underlying ecological characteristics. Field level measures of inputs, yields, fruit quality, arthropod abundance and management operations were made. Also, multiple samples within each field were taken to measure soil chemical and physical properties, root pathogen populations, disease incidence, and pest damage levels for multivariate analysis. Management effects on agronomic criteria (yield, fruit quality, pest damage) were small, whereas differences in soil N pools, microbial activity, pathogen populations and arthropod communities between ORG and CNV sites were sufficiently robust to be distinguished from site to site variation. Relationships between management, crop productivity and fruit quality will be discussed.