Conservation agriculture gaining ground

But breaking through 
tradition is difficult

It’s common to rebel against your parents, except it seems, when deciding how best to farm.

“Never underestimate tradition,” Jodi DeJong-Hughes told those gathered in Winnipeg for the sixth World Congress on Conservation Agriculture last week.

The Minnesota-based extension educator and tillage specialist said there is one thing she hears more often than not when trying to convince farmers to adopt conservation practices like no tillage or strip tillage.

“My dad did it, my dad’s dad did it, and this is the way it should be done to be a good farmer,” she related. “And that’s something where, if you’re a researcher, you can’t change that.”

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Changing how people think about farming and conservation may be one of the greatest barriers to adopting new technology, she said. Others agreed.

“We have a mindset that has kept us trapped,” said Howard Buffett, of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. “If we used cellphones or smartphones, or whatever you want to call them, like we farm we’d still have one of those big AT&T things with the big antenna. We have not changed our thinking nearly as quickly as we have changed our adaptation of technology.”

But changing deeply held views on conventional agriculture is not an easy process, DeJong-Hughes points out.

“You can work with (farmers) and show them all the data and how great things are, but you know they live in a small community, they get talked about at the cafés and the bars, and… we have to be respectful of that,” she said.

Attitudes

Steve Groff who farms in Pennsylvania said his own attitudes towards conservation agriculture — cover crops in particular — changed when he started to look at them as crops unto themselves, and not just as a management tool.

“Cover crops have been treated as an afterthought, that’s what I did 30 years ago,” said the founder of Cover Crop Solutions — an American cover crops seed company. “But when I started seeing what they could do for me, I started treating my cover crops like my cash crops. And if you treat your cover crops with the same amount of management that treat your cash crops, you’re well on your way to being a successful farmer.”

That means carefully evaluating your seed selection, planning for your planting window and climate, as well as taking advantage of precision planting technology — just like you would for any other crop, he said.

Some argue that financial incentives are also key to getting farmers to adopt conservation agriculture practices, such as no till and the maintenance of riparian areas and waterways.

“If you don’t get the incentives for individual farmers right for doing the right practices, we won’t get where we need to get in terms of adoption,” said David Montgomery, author of Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations. “We need to reward farmers as a society for maintaining the fertility of their soil.”

However, a disconnect between those who create agricultural policy and people who farm and research farming means those aims don’t always align, said the geologist.

“There are these myths… that you hear from policy-level people that I think the data doesn’t actually support, and yet the argument is not getting through to them,” Montgomery said. “From a policy perspective, I think we have a lot of ground to make up — no pun intended.”

Long-term view

Producers also need to shift to a long-term point of view, said Groff, if they want to succeed using conservation techniques.

“A lot of farmers are used to thinking, I buy fertilizer for this year, then I subtract what crop took out and I add whatever I need to next year. But when we talk about the biology of the soil, we’re talking about a whole other component and it’s a long-term commitment,” he said, adding that there is good news on the cover crop front.

In the last five years, U.S. farmers using the practice have expanded their cover crop areas from an average 116 acres, to over 450 acres per operation.

Traditional knowledge can also be used to create value, according to Amir Kassam of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The problem is some traditions — however well proven to benefit production and conservation — have been shut out of the conversation around conventional, tillage-based farming practices.

“Anything culturally related to nature and mankind, it is always sort of devalued — that’s traditional, this indigenous, oh, it’s ethnic —  it can’t be important,” he told congress participants. “So I think we are in a very interesting situation with this.”

Traditional knowledge

Valuing traditional knowledge in developing areas of the world — areas where attempts at intensification are now being made — may be able to prevent the export of the highly intrusive tillage agriculture currently damaging soil and water in many western nations to developing countries.

Back in North America, changing demographics are also hindering the adaptation of conservation agriculture, said DeJong-Highes, especially when it comes to making investments in new equipment and technology.

“The other thing out of our control is how old our farmers are,” she said. “The average age of a farmer in the U.S. in 56, so do they want to invest in new technology, new education, a whole new way of farming — especially if they don’t have kids to take it over?”

Even so, interest in cover crops and other conservation practices is growing among producers, the tillage specialist said. However, that growth is occurring at rates much slower than advocates of conservation agriculture would like to see.

“We are running out of topsoil, but the good news is that it’s happening at a slow enough pace, where we’re not at any danger of running out of topsoil in the near future,” said Montgomery. “Now we need to shift to a kind of agriculture that builds soil, even while we grow food intensively… we need to stop treating soil like dirt.”

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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