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Outdoor Laboratories Provide Unique Opportunity for Environmentally-Responsible Food Production

Posted by Tara T. Weaver-Missick, Agricultural Research Service in Conservation Research and Science
Feb 21, 2017
Grassland-shrub savanna characteristic of the northern Chihuahuan Desert on the 193,000-acre Jornada Experimental Range
Grassland-shrub savanna characteristic of the northern Chihuahuan Desert on the 193,000-acre Jornada Experimental Range. Photo by Peggy Greb, USDA-ARS

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

Some of the world’s most unique cacti, reptiles and plants reside right here in the United States among our nation’s lush watersheds and rangelands. Their ability to survive and thrive provide clues to preserving a diverse, sustainable habitat well into the future. USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) are the stewards of some of the agricultural lands that these fascinating creatures live on.

One such place, ARS’s Jornada Rangeland Research Facility in Las Cruces, NM, is a treasure trove for observing and gathering long-term information about how these species, environmental factors and agricultural practices intertwine and impact one another.

“The Jornada” is uniquely located within the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in North America. The region covers nearly 650,000 square kilometers and is one of the most biologically diverse arid landscapes in the world. It is one of 18 research locations spread throughout that nation that makes up ARS’s Long-Term Agro-ecosystem Research Network (LTAR).

LTAR was established in 2011—with 10 sites initially and expanded in 2014 to 18—to address our farmers’ need to maximize agricultural food production while minimizing environmental impact. The driving factor behind this network approach to gathering and conducting long-term research was the need to provide enough food, feed, fiber and fuel for a global population expected to grow to more than 9 billion people by 2050.

The agricultural lands that are part of this network include experimental watersheds, rangelands and farms—to more closely coordinate and examine large-scale, multi-year research and environmental management efforts related to our nation’s agricultural ecosystems.

In a sense, LTAR networks are a living laboratory. ARS scientists are working with university collaborators and other USDA and Federal agencies to gather data from these rich biodiverse lands to evaluate and develop sustainable practices that help will help farmers. Scientific experts from various research locations across the United States will analyze agricultural production, environmental quality, natural resource use and economic return on these “outdoor laboratories” over the next 30 to 50 years. They will also closely monitor the unique habitats and the living plant and animal species that reside on these lands.

Each LTAR site has its own unique landscape, environmental influences and habitat. Each region has its own distinctive environment and growing conditions that farmers and ranchers have to weigh. ARS scientists will use their collective information to share and build a scientific knowledge-based approach to developing site- and region-specific agricultural production practices that protect and enrich our natural resources.

Data mined from their observations will offer critical information needed for feeding a growing global population, sustaining land use and adapting to climate change that makes predicting future agricultural food production trends difficult.

Knowing how a variety of plant and animal species survive and thrive in their natural habitats, under a variety of changing environmental conditions may provide some answers to producers to help them meet society’s demands for a sustainable, environmentally conscious food supply system. ARS researchers are committed to providing research-based agricultural production solutions that consider long-term, sustainable environmentally responsible practices needed to meet the world’s growing demand for food, feed and fiber.

Visit: for research progress and other information on ARS’s LTAR network.

For an interactive look at USDA's work in conservation and forestry over the course of this Administration, visit

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Josh Wilson
Feb 24, 2016

is this saying that Experimental crops are being grown on public lands?

David Friedman
Feb 24, 2016

Will ARS work with NRCS to develop soil management practices and soil health standards that could be incorporated into cost share initiatives? Why do we pay for irrigation practices or other drainage practices without thinking about building, restoring and sustaining functional soils?

Josh Wilson
Mar 03, 2016

why will you not reply? it is an honest question. maybe Ask BLM

Ben Weaver
Mar 09, 2016

@Josh Wilson - the Long-Term Agro-ecosystem Research Network (LTAR) sites are a mix of public, university and private land. We are conducting research on the sustainability of agricultural systems and landscapes – including crop yield, environmental quality, and economic viability of crop production systems. The focus is not to grow experimental crops on these lands. You can learn more about the sites here: <a href="; rel="nofollow"></a>