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Towards A Sustainable Future

It is purely coincidental, but it seems somehow fitting that this year’s Manitoba North Dakota Zero-Tillage Farmers Association annual workshop is taking place in Brandon during Manitoba’s first-ever Organic Week.

At first glance, it would seem these two production systems are polar opposites.

One aims to reduce or eliminate tillage, usually replacing it with chemical weed control. The other seeks to avoid artificial inputs, more often than not, replacing chemical weed control with tillage.

There’s not much common ground there.

But both production systems have been gaining ground in Manitoba in recent years, one driven by agronomics with the other pulled by growing consumer demand. Farmers in both camps have found it easier to survive economically by moving away from conventional practices to systems that lower their costs of production.

But these two production systems are united around a common interest in healthy soil and long-term sustainability. Both are facing challenges that make that difficult under current practices. The overuse of production inputs, including tillage, was highlighted earlier this month at the fourth World Congress on Conservation Agriculture in New Delhi. (see below)

Conference participants were told the growth in agricultural productivity is falling and failing to keep pace with the world’s growing demand for food, concluding that farmers must quickly shift to more sustainable and productive farming practices.

No-till farmers will sooner or later need to confront the likelihood that important herbicides such as glyphosate, that essential pre-seeding burnoff many count on to give their crops a jump-start on weeds, may not be as reliable a production aid in the future.

Glyphosate is gradually being rendered ineffective with the widening array of annual volunteers from glyphosate-tolerant crops and the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds. Companies are now starting to stack herbicide-tolerant traits, such as glyphosate with dicamba, an indication of those changing weed profiles.

While the effectiveness of herbicides may be a subject of debate, their cost isn’t. Many farmers would jump at the chance to use less if they could. Many no-till farmers are already making great strides in reducing their use through crop rotations, growing competitive crops and reducing the weed seed bank.

Long-term no-till rotations are also associated with improved soil fertility, which continues to be a challenge for organic farmers who don’t have livestock. Organic farmers are also challenged to come up with methods of controlling weeds without tillage, which contributes to erosion and reduces soil organic matter. Nitrogen requirements can be met with legume cover crops or through a rotation that includes legume perennials. But phosphorus remains a problem.

Zero-tillage operations are known to have healthier populations of mycorrhizae, fungal organisms which improve the phosphorus uptake efficiency of many crops. Some organic farmers are turning to using cover crops that are then rolled and left as a seedbed mulch through which the emerging crops pop up. These approaches may also have applications in no-till operations.

While these two systems are flirting with each other, they are a long way from the altar, according to Pat Carr, a researcher with North Dakota State University, who is among a handful of researchers across North America exploring the concept. “The concept of a no-till organic farmer is kind of where conventional and no till was 50 years ago,” Carr said in a recent interview. While some no-till farmers growing certain crops may indeed be able to avoid pesticides for several years in certain crops, they will occasionally want them for some weed problems.

That brings us to the incoming federal and provincial regulations designed to provide standards and labelling requirements for Canadian organic producers. By this summer, producers who are not certified organic will be unable to market their production using the word “organic.” Several Manitoba organic producers with organically rooted production systems have decided not to pursue certification because the regulations are too onerous. Ironically, some of the organic growers who helped build the industry are now no longer qualified to be part of it.

In its bid for international credibility, the organic industry risks fracturing itself into subcategories. That could further confuse consumers, and lock producers into a production system that proves difficult to sustain over the long term.

The fast and loose misuse of “organic” as a marketing tool certainly needs to be reined in, and that means rules and regulations. But let’s not lose sight of the organic ideal, which is a farming system that is sustainable for the known future. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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