Soil protection measures aren’t top of mind for many farmers

Why don’t farmers with some of the most productive farmland in the world embrace conservation agriculture?


That theme echoed throughout the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture, held in Winnipeg June 22-25.


A complex mix of factors, including inherent farmer conservatism, anxiety over unproven production methods and complacency, seem to explain why soil protection measures that seem obvious to farmers in difficult areas aren’t top-of-mind for those in areas under less stress.


No-till is widespread in environmentally challenging regions such as Western Canada and western Australia but is rare in large swaths of the U.S. Midwest, California and Western Europe. Often, even basic conservation techniques aren’t used.


“We haven’t had it in California,” said Jeffrey Mitchell, a University of California extension specialist, even though farmers in Arizona and Washington have shown that these techniques can work in irrigated systems.


Seth Watkins, a southwestern Iowa cattle producer who farms in rolling countryside, said many farmers have been enticed by high corn prices to break pasture and forage, threatening the long-term viability of the land.


“Unfortunately, a lot of that land is getting cleared and we’re going to more conventional crops,” said Watkins, who has resisted the move on his own farm.


“If these trends continue, conservation agriculture is not going to be better five years from now.”


The same phenomenon can be seen in parts of Minnesota, where high productivity doesn’t create a feeling of crisis. 


Farmers can make lots of money fast by aggressively growing corn, and there’s little history of cover-cropping or no-tilling.


“The adoption rate is still very, very low,” said University of Minnesota conservation agriculture extension agronomist Jodi DeJong-Hughes.


Farmers who aren’t facing production declines are likely to stick with what has seemed to work, regardless of rational arguments about soil degradation.


“These farmers have had generations telling them that they need to till, and it’s their fathers and grandfathers and people they respect,” said DeJong-Hughes.


Without obvious visual soil erosion, farmers aren’t likely to radically transform their production practices, regardless of her urging.


“There’s always an excuse.”

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