Sunday, March 22, 2015

Look Ma, no plow!!

                                     
                                                    Comments due by March 29, 2015

— Gabe Brown is in such demand as a speaker that for every invitation he accepts, he turns down 10 more. At conferences, like the one held here at a Best Western hotel recently, people line up to seek his advice. “The greatest roadblock to solving a problem is the human mind,” he tells audiences. Mr. Brown, a balding North Dakota farmer who favors baseball caps and red­striped polo shirts, is not talking about disruptive technology start­ups, political causes, or the latest self­help fad. He is talking about farming, specifically soil­conservation farming, a movement that promotes leaving fields untilled, “green manures” and other soil­enhancing methods with an almost evangelistic fervor. Such farming methods, which mimic the biology of virgin land, can revive degenerated earth, minimize erosion, encourage plant growth and increase farmers’ profits, their proponents say. And by using them, Mr. Brown told more than 250 farmers and ranchers who gathered at the hotel for the first Southern Soil Health Conference, he has produced crops that thrive on his 5,000­acre farm outside of Bismarck, N.D., even during droughts or flooding. He no longer needs to use nitrogen fertilizer or fungicide, he said, and he produces yields that are above the county average with less labor and lower costs. “Nature can heal if we give her the chance,” Mr. Brown said. Neatly tilled fields have long been a hallmark of American agriculture and its farmers, by and large traditionalists who often distrust practices that diverge from time­honored methods. But soil­conservation farming is gaining converts as growers increasingly face extreme weather, high production costs, a shortage of labor and the threat of government regulation of agricultural pollution. Farmers like Mr. Brown travel the country telling their stories, and organizations like No­Till on the Plains — a Kansas­based nonprofit devoted to educating growers about “agricultural production systems that model nature” — attract thousands. “It’s a massive paradigm shift,” said Ray Archuleta, an agronomist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the federal Agriculture Department, which endorses the soil­conservation approach. Government surveys suggest that the use of no­tillage farming has grown sharply over the last decade, accounting for about 35 percent of cropland in the United States. For some crops, no­tillage acreage has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. For soybeans, for example, it rose to 30 million acres in 2012 from 16.5 million acres in 1996. The planting of cover crops — legumes and other species that are rotated with cash crops to blanket the soil year­round and act as green manure — has also risen in acreage about 30 percent a year, according to surveys, though the total remains small. Farmers till the land to ready it for sowing and to churn weeds and crop residue back into the earth. Tilling also helps mix in fertilizers and manure and loosens the top layer of the soil. But repeated plowing exacts a price. It degrades soil, killing off its biology, including beneficial fungi and earthworms, and leaving it, as Mr. Archuleta puts it, “naked, thirsty, hungry and running a fever.” Degraded soil requires heavy applications of synthetic fertilizer to produce high yields. And because its structure has broken down, the soil washes away easily in heavy rain, taking nitrogen and other pollutants with it into rivers and streams. Soil health proponents say that by leaving fields unplowed and using cover crops, which act as sinks for nitrogen and other nutrients, growers can  increase the amount of organic matter in their soil, making it better able to absorb and retain water. “Each 1 percent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre,” said Claire O’Connor, a staff lawyer and agriculture specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. In turn, more absorbent soil is less vulnerable to runoff and more resistant to droughts and floods. Cover crops also help suppress weeds. Environmental groups like the Defense Council have long been fans of soilconservation techniques because they help protect waterways and increase the ability of soil to store carbon dioxide, rather than releasing it into the air, where it contributes to climate change. One recent study led by the Environmental Defense Fund suggested that the widespread use of cover crops and other soil­health practices could reduce nitrogen pollution in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River basins by 30 percent, helping to shrink the giant “dead zone” of oxygen­depleted water in the Gulf of Mexico. The Defense Council, Ms. O’Connor said, has proposed that the government offer a “good driver” discount on federal crop insurance for growers who incorporate the practices. But the movement also has critics, who argue that no­tillage and other methods are impractical and too expensive for many growers. A farmer who wants to shift to no­tillage, for example, must purchase new equipment, like a no­till seeder. Tony J. Vyn, a professor of agronomy at Purdue, said the reasons growers cite for preferring to fully till their fields vary depending on geography, the types of crops they grow and the conditions of their soil. But they include the perception that weed control is harder using no­tillage; that the method, which reduces water evaporation, places limits on how early in the year crops can be planted; and that the residue left by no­tilling is too difficult to deal with, especially when corn is the primary cash crop. Even farmers who enthusiastically adopt no­till and other soilconservation methods rarely do so for environmental reasons; their motivation is more pragmatic.  “My goal is to improve my soil so I can grow a better crop so I can make more money,” said Terry McAlister, who farms 6,000 acres of droughtstricken cropland in North Texas. “If I can help the environment in the process, fine, but that’s not my goal.” For years, Mr. McAlister plowed his fields, working with his father, who began farming outside the town of Electra in the 1950s. But he began having doubts about the effects of constant tilling on the soil. “We were farming cotton like the West Texas guys were, just plow, plow, plow,” he said. “And if you got a rain, it just washed it and eroded it. “It made me sick,” he said. “You’re asking yourself, ‘Is there not a better way?’ But at the time, we didn’t know.” Mr. McAlister said that he switched to no­tillage in 2005, when an agricultural economist calculated that the method offered a $15­per­acre advantage over full tilling. Now he is a convert. Standing in a field of winter wheat, he pointed proudly at the thick blanket of stubble sprinkled with decaying radishes and turnips. “One of the toughest things about learning to do no­till is having to unlearn all the things that you thought were true,” he said. Mr. McAlister grows cotton, wheat, hay, grain sorghum and some canola as cash crops, using a GPS­guided no­till seeder that drills through residue, allowing him to plant precisely and effectively. He credits no­tillage for one of his biggest wheat crops, in 2012, when extreme drought left farmers throughout the region struggling to salvage any harvest. His healthier soil, he believes, made better use of the tiny amount of rain that fell than did the fully tilled fields of other farmers. But few growers go as far as Mr. Brown in North Dakota, who produces grass­fed beef and has given up most agricultural chemicals. Mr. McAlister, for example, still uses nitrogen fertilizer. He plants seeds that are genetically modified for drought or herbicide resistance. And he depends on herbicides like Roundup to kill off his cover crops before sowing the crops he grows for cash. The philanthropist Howard G. Buffett, a proponent of soil­conservation practices, said that the drought and flooding that have plagued much of the country in recent years have drawn more farmers to no­till. “When you get into a drought, that gets everybody’s attention,” said Mr. Buffett, the middle son of Warren E. Buffett, the billionaire investor. “Farmers don’t really change their behavior until they see that they have to, which is pretty much human nature.” The Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay under the Clean Water Act in 2010, Mr. Buffett said, should also be “a wake­up call that the E.P.A. is coming soon” and if farmers do not address fertilizer runoff, the government will do it for them. Still, he said, reaping the benefits of no­tillage farming demands patience, given that it may take several years for deadened soil to recover. Some farmers try no­tilling for one season and then get discouraged. And there is no onesize­fits­all solution: Farmers must adapt what they have learned to their own land and crops. Mr. McAlister and other no­till farmers said that perhaps the biggest barrier to the spread of no­till is the mind­set that farmers must do things the same way as earlier generations did them. “We have a saying in our area: ‘You can’t no­till because you haven’t buried your father yet,’” Mr. McAlister said. “You can’t take on an endeavor like this with someone leaning over your shoulder every day telling you you’re wrong and it’s not going to work,” he said.
NYT March10, 2015)

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

After reading the article, the views show that it is possible for society to move away from conventional agriculture and back to sustainable agriculture. It is an incredible accomplishment to educate farmers on the benefits of "no-till" farming. According to the article: "Each 1 percent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre." With increasing droughts in places such as the American west, an improvement in soil organic matter is much needed. By over-tilling, we are degrading the soil of organic matter that is found in healthy natural ecosystems.
It seems as though every new generation makes the same mistakes with farming. Luckily many farmers are changing their methods due to the proven benefits. According to the article one such farmer (Terry McAlister) decided to change his methods; "My goal is to improve my soil so I can grow a better crop so I can make more money, If I can help the environment in the process, fine, but that’s not my goal." It is unfortunate that the farmers are changing their way for economic reasons, although they are increasing local ecosystems in the process. Even worse, McAlister still uses herbicides thereby damaging most of the progress he has made by no-till methods.
In my opinion, many of our farming techniques have changed to be too different than nature. By using the newest technology, but also sustainable practices, we can increase soil fertility for future generations.

-Frazer Winsted

Chelsea Dow said...

I'm really excited that this article has been posted, because as an environmental studies major my focus has been on sustainable agriculture, and part of my senior thesis includes information on degraded soils in the US, and methods of regeneration. Furthermore, through internships and farm jobs, I have worked on projects to regenerate soils in the northeast. What I found in the article that is true is that of cover crops aiding in nitrogen fixation. In my experience organically farming, I have used legumes planted throughout my crops to promote nitrogen fixation. I have also used the shells of coffee beans, which are high in nitrogen. Building back the soils of the Earth is essential not just for farming purposes for humans, but for ecosystems everywhere. We are not the only species dependent on soil. Many microbes and detritus live amongst the soil, breaking down organic matter and allowing species such as the human to thrive. Therefore, processes like notilling can help to regenerate the depleted soil we now have. However, what struck me as frustrating in the article was the farmer who still uses Roundup and herbicides. In my eyes, the message of notilling is a "return back to nature," or, as the article puts, "mimic the biology of virgin land." With herbicides and Roundup, this is a contradiction, one in which you cannot ignore. Though the aspect of notilling will allow for a decrease in erosion, this farmer is still aiding in the chemical changes of soil, and therefore not truly helping to regenerate. Notilling soil methods should come with a package, to adopt all sustainable farming methods as you see fit, either bio-dynamic or organic.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this article because of how it focused in on how the agriculture business is able to change for the better. Not saying that agricultural ways are wrong, I just believe that things can be improved and some things are certainly in need of some updating. Educating these people on ways like no-till farming will push future generations in the right direction. People don't taken into consideration that soil takes a big part in our life, and if the soil is not teen care of the correct way not only the environment will be negatively impacted but the economy as well. Unhealthy soil leads to unhealthy crops which then leads to less money for the farmers and less products for businesses that buy from these farms. The article made a point to add that McAlsiter, one of the farmers who has switched to no-till, is only switching in order to make more money not specifically for the environments benefit. So in order to make the agricultural world more environmentally friendly,it has to benefit them in some way as well. In the future, with all the advanced environmentally friendly techniques, farmers and environmentalists will come up with ways to benefit each other.

-Katherine Murphy

Joan Podolski said...

This article was really interesting to read. I am actually excited that there is someone out there who respects nature and its environment and to understand that sometimes what you thought was right, isn't the right way. Brown, being a farmer takes his time in growing his crops and makes a great living doing so.

He says to other farmers “The greatest roadblock to solving a problem is the human mind,” He is talking about farming, specifically soil­conservation farming, a movement that promotes leaving fields untilled, “green manures” and other soil­enhancing methods with an almost evangelistic fervor. Such farming methods, which mimic the biology of virgin land, can revive degenerated earth, minimize erosion, encourage plant growth and increase farmers’ profits, their proponents say.

so with this great discovery, if more farmers can do it just like Mr. Brown, then we can progress forward with the farming techniques.

Anonymous said...

I feel like sustainable agriculture is a good idea at this point. I'm no farmer, so I'm not entirely sure about if sustainable farming will affect a farmer's income, but I do know that if farmers continue to overuse their fields and do other things that will make them unusable quicker, that will definitely end up affecting their income later on. Eventually, things will have to end up changing, and if more farmers start picking up more sustainable methods for farming, it could help them later on, in terms of affecting their land. Plus, with sustainable farming comes the possibilities of more income due to either more or better crops being produced, which could make the farmer happy. Either way, as it's mentioned in the article, there tends to be an overall connection between farmers, their land, and their income.

-E. Piper Phillips

Anonymous said...

I think it's pretty awesome that if given the right care that our environment can heal itself. Notill farming is under the same debate as many other environmentally friendly practices. Is it worth it? People care more about the economic (something that's not even real, we made it up) impact than the environmental (this is totally real) impact. I really applaud the farmers that have already made the switch to notill farming, they are aware of the current problems of the widely accepted system and have made the investment to make changes. I think that the only way we can really make people care about being all around environmentally friendly is to offer tax reductions on all environmentally friendly practices. We offer it now for solar panels, so there should be the same reward for making other changes. Maybe not all at the same time but, we should offer reductions until it becomes the standard then we should use the funding to enhance our environmental goals in other sectors.

-Christina Cranwell

Kobe Yank-Jacobs said...

The most interesting quote in this, to me, was when Terry Malister “My goal is to improve my soil so I can grow a better crop so I can make more money. If I can help the environment in the process, fine, but that’s not my goal.” This here is, of course, the rational actor seeking to maximize profit, irregardless of societal cost or benefit. This, too, is where full-cost pricing must be implemented. The environmentally friendly solution must also be the most profitable one. Now in this case, by coincidence, it is. But, the essence of this quote suggests that there is no inclusion of environmental (i.e. societal) cost or benefit in the methods selected by farmers. Unlike with notill, in most cases this "private vice" will no "yield public virtue."

Anonymous said...

I've seen a decent amount of information on this topic in the past. It is a very important problem that does not get the attention it should. Nature naturally recycles nutrients through land and it is important that farmers mimic this process, because otherwise we will run out of food. However, it is important for the government and other outside influences to create an environment that allows farmers to do so. As Terry McAlister stated, he only switched to more eco-friendly farming methods because it was cost effective. Farmers, especially poor farmers, will not freely decrease their own purchasing power to help the environment. This needs to happen in the long-term for the mutual benefit of all humans, but its not fair to make farmers carry the whole burden of this necessary change.

-Chris Magnemi

Anonymous said...

I think this article is a clear example of how progressive our nation is becoming. Agriculture is a huge industry that is responsible for the majority of water usage as well as vehicle use as well. The fact that farmers and people in the agriculture industry have begun to realize that they need to change their practices and help the environment - even if they don't necessarily do it for that reason - shows a real forward-thinking mentality that our nation is beginning to develop. I think that once agriculture is on board with the progressive, eco-friendly movement, the rest of the country will follow suit. Just because farmers are beginning to practice notilling for the economic benefit, this doesn't mean that the environment isn't a concern for them either. In this society, people and businesses tend to do things for the economic benefits rather than for the environmental benefits, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

-Marrina Gallant

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading about Mr. Brown. If we had more people like him trying to change the way we do things for the better of the environment perhaps all of our farms could be functioning like his. This sustainable agriculture is the future, or at least it should be. I think people and science knows that nature repairs itself but we often forget that, and we definitely forget that we can actually use nature’s reparative properties to benefit both humans and the environment.
Nick Stanton

Michael Giordano said...

I feel that it is extremely important for farmers to begin taking care of their land in an environmentally sound way. All farmers want to have a successful crop yield that puts money in their pockets, but if they are actively participating in bad soil management practices, their shooting themselves in the foot because they're the reason for their decreased crop yield. Obviously there is more to consider when it comes to soil, for example you gave to deal with drought, flooding, pests etc. If farmers where to comply with the findings on notill farming stated in the article, they would be able to continue to grow their crops and make money despite the weather factors that are occurring.

Sulana Robinson said...

It's pretty interesting to know we have solutions to big subjects like agriculture etc but this information isn't known by everyone. Nor is it being practiced enough. If there was more publication on alternatives that have positive impacts, the future of our world could be so much brighter. This could be amazing for generations to come. I really hope this doesn't go unnoticed because of something ridiculous or selfish like whether the financial benefit is great enough for those "higher up in power".

"agricultural production systems that model nature" sounds great to me.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting article for many reasons. I found this quote interesting: “One of the toughest things about learning to do no­till is having to unlearn all the things that you thought were true". The fact that farmers can do that no matter how difficult it may be gives hope of the agricultural business changing for the better. I believe that sustainable agriculture will help farmers later on whether they agree with it at the present moment or not. If farmers become more environmentally sound then there is a good future ahead of us and things can truly change for the better.

- Victoria Kusy

Anonymous said...

This article emphasizes the point that our agricultural practices need to change as soon as possible. Maintaining good soil quality is essential for overall health of the crop and surrounding environment. After generations of tilling farmland, the soil is finally growing tired and is creating bigger problems. I think that notill is a practice that should be more widely accepted due to all the benefits if provides. It's a shame that notill and other sustainable methods aren't used that much, but at least some change is being made. Even if some farmers are making the switch for economic reasons, it's a start. I think that in this day in age, it's time for some traditions to be changed if we wish to live in a better environment.
-Emma Weis

Michael Tierney said...

I do not have a full understanding of the argument tilling vs. Notill. All I really know is that every year my did rents a tilling machine and turns, churns, and mixes all the soil up in the vegetable garden. He has done that ever single year and continues to plat the same different variety of vegetables. However, I do see the reasoning behind no tilling. When you till the soil, it leaves the soil naked, thirsty and running of a fever. Come to think of it, the vegie yield that we have has diminished a small amount every year. I'm not sure if it is more from erosion or that we are actually degrading the soil. It does make sense. The next thing is if we do not till the soil, what plants are going to return the necessary nutrients to the soil? Somehow, the plants return the nutrients and then you just have to do more de-weeding and make proper rom for your crops to grow and flourish. The critics are still fighting the no-tilling, but I do not see how much fighting they can do when we have so many different fertilizers and other chemicals and nutrients that overload crops and wash into water sources. I think that this notill movement is very promising, and as long as the big companies and massive farms abide by these practices, then we can start farming much more sustainably. It is a good start on the large scale farmers, however for the smaller scale guys, like my father and myself, I think we are going to stick with tilling until we find a better no till method.

Marisa Flannery said...

I think its good that sustainable farming is emerging more as a thing farmers should do. It is unfortunate however that some only do it to benefit themselves rather than the environment. It's a cool thing to know that the environment can heal itself despite our negative human effect on it. If we start changing the way we farm, it can spark greater support toward the other environmental movements that are occurring. Hopefully when people realize this was of farming is more natural, more people will join the no pesticide movement.

Anonymous said...

As with any other technology, agricultural techniques are bound to grow as we learn. The no-till technique has obvious economic benefits for the farmers, and therefore they have begun to adopt the practice. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that the technique will be environmentally friendly in the long term. The practice saves water as stated in the article, "Each 1 percent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre," and that is certainly nothing to ignore. However, the continued use of pesticides and fertilizers will only prolong the degradation of the ecosystem. The no-till practice seems to hold an economic advantage to farmers more than an environmental advantage for the earth. Only time and observation will expose the impacts of agricultural advancements.

-Nadya Hall

Geordi Taylor said...

Similar to the rest of my classmates, I am very excited to see a movement that is attempting to return agriculture to its origins, which are steeply rooted in sustainability. However, what I am concerned about is the ability to increase the scale of such a system as the world's population continues to rise. How will farmers be able to allow the land to repair itself if humans continue to add more people for the land to feed?

Anonymous said...

This is amazing that was can produce a much better crop by doing a much easier process and more environmentally safer way. The soil is able to maintain more water, which is therefor producing better crops, even though droughts have been increasing throughout America. Thankfully farmers are moving to this "new" method of farming because it's a win-win for them and the environment. All of the chemicals that we are putting into our soil are doing nothing positive for us. If we can improve and maintain a sustainable farming method, the agriculture business won't seem so difficult between droughts and producing quality crops. In fact, it will look the complete opposite! I am very excited that these "new" ways of farming are being used.

Anonymous said...

This is amazing that was can produce a much better crop by doing a much easier process and more environmentally safer way. The soil is able to maintain more water, which is therefore producing better crops, even though droughts have been increasing throughout America. Thankfully farmers are moving to this "new" method of farming because it's a win-win for them and the environment. All of the chemicals that we are putting into our soil are doing nothing positive for us. If we can improve and maintain a sustainable farming method, the agriculture business won't seem so difficult between droughts and producing quality crops. In fact, it will look the complete opposite! I am very excited that these "new" ways of farming are being used.

-Neal Vincent Raimo