You could say mad scientists and farmers operating on the lunatic fringe brought about one of the greatest innovations of 20th century agriculture. Some might go so far as to suggest it has saved Prairie farming – from plowing itself into a dusty oblivion.
Zero tillage or no-till farming, as it has come to be known, is certainly not practised by all farmers growing crops on the Canadian Prairies. But it can take credit for significantly reducing the amount of tillage and concurrently the amount of soil lost due to wind and water erosion over the past 40 years.
Over that relatively short time span, conventional wisdom has all but abandoned practices such as summerfallow, and tilling fields until they were covered by a “dust mulch.” We now recognize the value of surface crop residues left to anchor and feed the soil.
Some of the researchers, engineers and farmers who helped bring this approach to cropping into the mainstream met last week in Saskatoon, partly to ensure its history is not lost, but also to examine whether this story serves as a template for future innovations.
Landscapes Transformed –The Quiet Triumph of Conservation Tillage and Direct Seeding was a conference called with a specific purpose of learning from our history – something we humans don’t do well.
What emerged from the discussions was a story about people in different times and different places, willing to take risks in order to pursue an idea. But just as important was the fact that they had the capacity to innovate.
Federal scientists working at Agriculture Canada research stations started dabbling with the notion of planting a crop without tillage as far back as the early 1950s as they explored how the advent of herbicides could change farming.
The notion of a “plowless future” was a wacky idea at the time. Back then, farmers routinely summerfallowed half their land to conserve moisture and pulverized it with tillage to control weeds. Although soil erosion had been reduced since the devastation of the Dirty Thirties through the use of shelter belts and other means, it was still a common seasonal occurrence, particularly in dry years.
These scientists were able to operate outside of their research framework due to research funding that wasn’t tied to specific projects and benevolent, albeit skeptical, administrators.
“We were told we were wasting our time,” said Indian Head AAFC researcher Guy Lafond, who has been on the forefront of helping farmers understand and adapt to zero tillage. He recalls a meeting two decades ago with the assistant deputy minister of agriculture. “He didn’t think the public would accept the increase in pesticide use.” But their research was allowed to continue.
Bernie Sonntag, formerly the director general of the PFRA, referred to it as the “patient capacity” that existed within the research framework of the day.
That early work that concluded that low-disturbance seeding and chemical fallow was possible, although not profitable, due to the high cost of non-selective herbicides. And there it sat until the late 1970s when a small group of farmers passionate about soil conservation became interested in the concept, eventually banding together under the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero-Tillage Farmers Association. Farmer organizations in Alberta and Saskatchewan soon followed.
The farmer groups fought for better seeding technology. The mainline companies’ reluctance to embrace the new concept spawned a profitable equipment manufacturing business on the Prairies as smaller companies stepped in to fill the void.
Those farmers lived with the disapproving looks of their neighbours. “These guys were pretty much on the lunatic fringe of farming at the time,” said Blair McClinton, of the Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association.
They fought with the herbicide companies, particularly Monsanto, which eventually halved the price of glyphosate – and more than doubled its income from sales.
“Would this have occurred if there weren’t farmers out there pushing the envelope?” said Richard Gray, an agricultural economist with the University of Saskatchewan.
It took a few years, but that commitment to caring for the soil was rewarded in the form of improved soil fertility and moisture retention. That created an opportunity to diversify into a wider range of crops, which brought about a host of advantages in the form of risk management, weed and disease control.
Great strides indeed, but the job is far from done. Farming systems must continue to evolve.
But with research funding increasingly tied to specific projects with a short-term focus, and with farmers living year to year, many at this conference left wondering whether there are enough mad scientists and lunatic farmers with sufficient capacity to breathe life into tomorrow’s innovations. [email protected]