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The Dudley Smith Farm Sustainable Agro-Ecosystem Plan

The Issues

The Earth is now a human-dominated system (Vitousek et al., 1997).  With 23% of the world’s surface occupied by row cropping and pastureland, the conversion of the landscape to agriculture is one of the most significant human alterations to the global environment (Matson et al., 1997).  Serious questions have arisen over the long-term sustainability and environmental consequences of intensive modern agriculture.  It is clear that these practices have negative local consequences (such as increased erosion, lower soil fertility, and reduced biodiversity); negative regional consequences (such as pollution of ground water and eutrophication of rivers and lakes); and negative global consequences (including impacts on the atmosphere and climate, and hypoxic conditions of ocean ecosystems) (Matson et al., 1997).  With the world population expected to reach 8-10 billion by the mid 21st century, the looming pressures on agriculture to produce will not soon subside.  Agricultural intensification must be a major target of research and development so that we can reconcile the increased need for production with greater protection of the environment for the future (Matson et al., 1997).  In other words, we must practice “sustainable agriculture.”

Of the agricultural problems listed above, four are extremely critical and have recently arisen: 1) human-caused climate change; 2) build-up of toxic chemicals in the environment; 3) energy shortages; and 4) full human utilization of the earth’s photosynthetic capacity (Diamond, 2005).   These ‘new’ threats will become critical globally within the next several decades and, if they are not solved, will undermine not just developing nations but all of the world’s societies.  Research is needed now to explore methods of sustainable agriculture to determine the best practices to implement.  The efforts we make today will determine the state of the world in which current generations of children and young adults will live out their middle and later years (Diamond, 2005).

Our Approach

Typical agricultural research often focuses on one particular aspect of agriculture, e.g., optimizing the production of beef cattle or the response of corn to fertilizer.  This research approach helps to advance knowledge in a particular area but it ignores all other areas of interaction.  Although such an approach accurately reflects the monocultural nature of modern farming and helps further the advancement of the industrial agricultural system, it fails to see the farm for what it truly is, a complex system made up of interwoven energy and nutrient cycles embedded in an even more complex system of social, economic and ecological cycles. While a great deal of quality research has been conducted on sustainable agriculture, typical academic agricultural research is focused on an outdated industrial model that is in dire need of some far-reaching meta-analysis.  We seek to develop a holistic, sustainable agroecosystem master plan for the Dudley Smith Farm.   We propose a design plan that would integrate farm program development to form a sustainable agroecosystem research facility. 

We envision a sustainable farm as one that meets the following criteria:

  1. Produces all energy needed for farm operations, hauling, and processing of biofuels or fertilizers.
  2. Sequester more carbon then it produced and off set all Nitrous Oxide and Methane Emissions
  3. Produces all feeds needed for animal production
  4. Import no chemical nutrients
  5. Reduce nitrate runoff by 90% from existing conditions and capture at least 75% of nitrate originating from the farm
  6. Be economically viable 
  7. Farm that is well-integrated into the local and regional economy and culture and the markets for its goods are near enough that fossil-fuel based, long distance transport is unnecessary.

 The Dudley Smith Farm can meet all of these rigorous criteria.  It can become a model for sustainable agriculture to be followed by both farmers and research Universities throughout the Midwest.  But to meet these criteria, the farm must be analyzed and designed as a whole agroecosystem.  This is the purpose of our project.

The Illinois Farm Sustainability Calculator

To facilitate such a holistic analysis, our first step was the development of a computer model called the Illinois Farm Sustainability Calculator (IFSC).  IFSC is a spreadsheet-based model capable of quantifying and analyzing some of the most important measures of agricultural sustainability for any farm in the state of Illinois.  Users input data from their farm including soil information, the production area of each crop, nutrients added to the fields, tillage methods, the number and type of animals raised, livestock dietary requirements, energy sources used, building energy use, product hauling distances etc.  The model takes these inputs, combines them with data concerning crop productivity, carbon sequestration and emissions, energy use for different types of tillage and buildings, alternative energy production, and many other subjects.  From these parameters, IFSC produces final balance sheets for animal feed production vs. consumption, energy production vs. consumption, carbon sequestration vs. carbon emission, and nitrate runoff.  It also indicates how many people the farm can feed.  In other words, IFSC allows its user to discover whether or not their current farm design is sustainable and test it against any number of hypothetical farm designs until a sustainable design is reached.

We used IFSC to analyze and create a plan for the Dudley Smith Farm and the University of Illinois South Farms.  But another goal for IFSC was for it to be placed online for free download by any farmer, researcher or citizen in the state of Illinois. For more information about IFSC and to download the model, click here

Bioregional Analysis

A bioregion is a unique region definable by natural boundaries with a geographic, hydrological and ecological character capable of supporting unique human and non-human communities (Thayer, 2003). Commonly, bioregions are organized around watersheds and transcend political boundaries. The successful design of a sustainable agro-ecosystem also requires an analysis beyond the scope of the farm itself. The bioregion for the Dudley Smith Farm includes its watershed, land features, neighboring cities, social and agricultural demographics. Each of these components were analyzed as a series of GIS overlays. The specific Dudley Smith Bioregion is an area bounded by the Sangamon South Fork and Lower Sangamon River Watersheds running from just north of Pana, Illinois northwest through Taylorville and Springfield to the confluence of the Sangamon and the Illinois River. The Dudley Smith Bioregion also connects many similar hydrological, glacial, geological and social attributes. Understanding the Dudley Smith Bioregion informs and aids in the development of sustainable strategies, technologies, and farm programs that can incorporate the DSF into its bioregion in a sustainable and ecologically sensitive way.

Scenario Master Plans

The Dudley Smith Farm and any potential master plan cannot exist in isolation; rather they include several primary stakeholder groups. In our case, these groups included the University of Illinois faculty and staff, the Dudley Smith Board, University of Illinois Extension and especially the local Christian County Extension Office. Traditional planning is based on the belief that the application of pure professional expertise to achieve well-defined goals will ensure efficient and effective management of a system. However, such plans often fail to consider the variety of local conditions or the propensity for novel situations to create extraordinary surprises (Scott, 1998). A traditional expert-driven industrial approach is not the ideal tool to develop a future orientated master plan for the DSF. A more non-conventional alternative, collaborative and scenario planning approach is a better strategy to address, explore and engage the complex futures, uncertainties and novel possibilities for the DSF. The Dudley Smith Scenario Planning Workshop allowed the stakeholders to address and filter potential complex interactions between various events and outcomes that DSF and Dudley Smith Bioregion face or need, as well as creating indicators and metrics to assess impacts a scenario may have on the bioregion. The stakeholder workshop was held on the University of Illinois Campus in early October, 2008 and was followed up by a series of one on one interviews. The Dudley Smith planning workshop outcomes included the assessment of critical trends in agriculture across four potential futures for the Dudley Smith Bioregion, the key issues and themes in the Dudley Smith Bioregion, and a set of metrics to asses the Dudley Smith Farm mater plan.

The Research Team            

The research team is comprised of three graduate students and one University of Illinois faculty member.  The Illinois Farm Sustainability Calculator project is headed up by Peter McAvoy, a recent graduate of the master's program in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  The Farm Sustainability Calculator is Peter McAvoy’s master’s project.  Bioregional analysis and master planning has been completed by Aaron Petri and Timothy Marten, recent graduates of the dual masters' program in landscape architecture and urban planning.  For Petri and Marten, this project constitutes their theses for the joint degree program.  Dr. David Kovacic of the Department of Landscape Architecture serves as faculty adviser for all projects.

More about the Illinois Farm Sustainability Calculator

The Illinois Farm Sustainability Calculator (IFSC) is an open-source spreadsheet-based computer program designed to evaluate the sustainability of any farm—real or envisioned—in the state of Illinois.  Users input data from their farm including soil information, the production area of each crop, nutrients added to the fields, tillage methods, the number and type of animals raised, livestock dietary requirements, energy sources used, building energy use, product hauling distances etc.  The model takes these inputs, combines them with data concerning crop productivity, carbon sequestration and emissions, energy use for different types of tillage and buildings, alternative energy production, and many other subjects.  From these parameters, IFSC produces final balance sheets for animal feed production vs. consumption, energy production vs. consumption, carbon sequestration vs. carbon emission, and nitrate runoff.  It also calculates crop yields and indicates how many people the farm can feed.  In other words, IFSC allows its user to discover whether or not their current farm design is sustainable and test it against any number of hypothetical farm designs until a sustainable design is reached.

IFSC is free and open-source so that any farmer, researcher, or other citizen can download it, use it, and make changes to it free of charge.

To use IFSC, you can download the package here.  (The zipped folder contains two Microsoft Excel files.  The important one is called IFSC_1.3.xls.  IFSC_Methods_1.3.xls is an assortment of data and sources that feed into IFSC.  It is not essential to IFSC's functioning.)

IFSC was created by Peter McAvoy, Tim Marten, and Aaron Petri, graduates of the masters programs in the departments of Urban and Regional Planning and Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  The project was overseen by professor David Kovaicic of Landscape Architecture and funded by the Dudley Smith Initiative.  If you have any questions or comments about IFSC, feel free to contact us by email: pete@octagonal.org.