Old school tillage practices persist

No-till farming | In some regions, fertilizers and inputs are masking damaged soils

The surge of acres farmed with no-till and conservation agriculture has been dramatic, but the story isn’t as rosy as it may seem.

Constant tillage is still the norm in large parts of the world and the threat to soil is more extreme than ever, those attending the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture were told last week.

“It’s really not taking off in Minnesota,” Jodi DeJong-Hughes of the University of Minnesota said about farmer adoption of strip-till and other reduced tillage practices.

Farmers, agronomists, government agriculture department officials and agriculture company representatives from around the world echoed the sentiment: farmers in some areas have embraced no-till and reduced tillage, but in many regions that’s not the case.

Soil and soil fertility are being lost in areas where conservation agriculture is not practised.

The congress, a once-every-three-years event, brought hundreds of conservation agriculture advocates to Winnipeg June 22-25. They came from developing nations such as Bangladesh, from long-established and traditional farming nations such as France, from more recently developed farming powerhouses such as the United States, Canada, Australia and Argentina, and from new superpowers with millions of acres still going into production, such as Brazil.

A common theme emerged: conservation agriculture thrives where technology, knowledge and information sources, policy and money allow it to be customized for specific regions. Adoption is poor if any of those elements are weak or missing.

Its adoption is also weak if farmers don’t think they have a problem with soil degradation. That might be why it thrives where farmers grow crops in challenging areas such as dry Canada and parched western Australia, but is less practised in places such as the U.S. Midwest and Europe.

David Montgomery, the geologist who wrote the influential book of the history of soil degradation, Dirt, focused on the break between the short-term lives and careers of humans and the long-term loss of agricultural soil. Farmers and societies often don’t notice the steady erosion of soil from farmers’ fields, or assume little bits don’t matter.

However, he said losses of one millimetre of topsoil per year lead to land becoming worthless for agriculture. Losses can be as high as 100 percent in areas with thin soil, leaving little but rock.

He said those types of losses are happening around the world and cannot continue for long before the planet’s ability to provide food for its burgeoning population is crippled.

Montgomery said the problem goes unnoticed because modern fertilizers and inputs allow poor soil to yield good results.

He said he thinks affordable fertilizer and other modern inputs will eventually disappear and create a crisis for the world’s soil.

Some areas face difficulties convincing farmers to embrace conservation agriculture or have government policies that discourage farmers from it. Others regions can’t find the unique combination of technology, policy and expertise to make it take root.

Examples of successes were also celebrated at the congress.

Bangladesh’s small farmers are embracing no-till by using small, two-wheeled, hand-guided tractors.

Advisers from Australia are experimenting with transferring no-till principles to the five acre plots of Bangladesh.

They have found that all the principles apply, but the approach has to be customized.

In Brazil, approaches to conservation agriculture vary, depending on the local farming population.

Small and medium sized farmers in the south have been quick to take up conservation farming, as have the large commercial farms in the new inland farming zones, such as Mato Grosso.

However, only a few of the small, poor farmers in the northeast have adopted them.

“They are not using anything, not even lime,” said Deivison Santos of Brazil’s influential Embrapa extension agriculture organization.

However, modern communications technology has helped extend knowledge, advice and practical help to the world’s remote rural areas.

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