As the 21st Century unfolds, agriculture will face significant challenges in providing enough food, fiber, and fuel to support a global population that is expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050. These challenges must be met without depleting our natural resources or degrading our environment, and against a background of changes in climate expected to alter the patterns of temperature and precipitation on which the world’s food production systems depend. The unprecedented nature of these challenges necessitates transformative change to accelerate progress towards the sustainable intensification of agricultural production systems—systems that: 1) maximize production and economic return for producers; 2) minimize environmental degradation; and 3) permit adaptation to future changes in climate, land use, and the demand for food necessitated by unprecedented population growth. Such a transformation requires an improved understanding of the complexities of how agro-ecosystems function at scales ranging from individual fields to whole watersheds and landscapes. Key components of this transformation include increasing the efficiency of agricultural water use and the further development of innovative farming practices (e.g., conservation agriculture; agroforestry; integrated plant-animal production systems). Long-term research at a variety of scales will be essential to achieving this transformation. At stake are the security and safety of our food production systems, our natural resources, and our environment.
Recently, there have been calls for the creation of a ‘Long-Term Agro-ecosystem Research (LTAR) network for U.S. agriculture, similar to the U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network for ecological systems. In the same way that large telescopes support astronomic research or research vessels facilitate oceanographic exploration, networks of this nature represent infrastructure that enables research on landscape-scale processes. The USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) currently maintains 22 benchmark experimental watersheds and ranges that collect long-term, watershed/landscape scale data on agricultural sustainability, climate change, ecosystem services, natural resource conservation, and water quantity and quality, with historical data records that extend as far back as 100 years. The objectives of this paper are to: 1) describe how exisiting ARS and other resources have been organized into an LTAR network; 2) provide an update on the current status of the process, including additional information about the first 10 LTAR sites; and 3) outline future plans to continue the organization and development of the LTAR network. The overall goal is to foster the exchange of information between LTER and LTAR networks for mutual benefit.