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Soil consultant Barry Fisher knows soil. Fisher – a multi-decade veteran of the NRCS and regional manager of the service’s Soil Health Division – recently started a soil health consultancy following his retirement from government service. At the 2022 National No-Tillage Conference in Louisville, Fisher stepped up to conduct workshops and speak when another guest was unable to attend because of the pandemic.

For this No-Till Farmer podcast, sponsored by Yetter Farm Equipment, lead content editor Brian O’Connor talks with Barry about the tests, making a mess in the prestigious Galt House Hotel, and the future of carbon agriculture. Fisher says the level of carbon sequestration by crop plant root systems could rival levels stored by the Great Plains. Listen in to hear why he’s excited about the future of agriculture.

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Yetter Farm Equipment has been providing farmers with solutions since 1930. Today, Yetter is your answer for finding the tools and equipment you need to face today’s production agriculture demands. The Yetter lineup includes a wide range of planter attachments for different planting conditions, several equipment options for fertilizer placement, and products that meet harvest-time challenges. Yetter delivers a return on investment and equipment that meets your needs and maximizes inputs. Visit them at yetterco.com.

 

Full Transcript

Brian O'Connor:

Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Podcast, brought to you today by Yetter Farm Equipment. I'm your host, Brian O'Connor lead content editor for No-Till Farmer. I encourage you to subscribe to this series, which is available in iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, Stitcher Radio, and TuneIn Radio. Subscribing will allow you to receive an alert about new episodes whenever they are released.

Brian O'Connor:

I'd like to take a moment to thank Yetter Farm Equipment for sponsoring today's episode. Yetter Farm Equipment has been providing farmers with solutions since 1930. Today. Yetter is your answer for finding the tools and equipment you need to face today's production agriculture demands. The Yetter lineup includes a wide range of planter attachments for different planting conditions, several equipment options for fertilizer placement, and products that meet harvest time challenges. Yetter delivers a return on investment and equipment that meets your needs and maximizes inputs. Visit them yetterco.com. That's Y-E-T-T-E-R-C-O.com.

Brian O'Connor:

Barry Fisher knows soil. The 39 year veteran of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service retired in early 2021 as regional manager for the Soil Health Division to launch Fisher Soil Health LLC, A consultancy dedicated to raising awareness of soil health among farmers. Fisher was a last minute addition to the agenda at the 2022 National No Tillage Conference in Louisville where he worked shop field soil health tests inside a conference room at the prestigious Galt House Hotel. I caught up with him on the sidelines of the conference to talk about the workshop, how the tests fit into shifts for carbon farming and conservation acts, and more.

Barry Fisher:

Last January, I retired after 39 and a half years with... I had been with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and most recently had been the team leader for the central region for the Soil Health Division, which was a new division that was created just to focus on soil health management systems and how to further... benefiting the soil through conservation tillage systems, no-till systems, cover crops, all those practices and putting them in a logical order and then how to track the actual improvements in the soil, the carbon building and the soil, those kinds of things. It was a great... I have no regrets for my career. I always felt good every single day and that we were doing good. So I didn't retire because of any ill feelings. I loved my career and loved working for the Natural Resources Conservation service. But at some point you got to move on. So then we launched the Fisher Soil Health LLC, where we still do consulting and training and stuff like that.

Brian O'Connor:

Got it. And you were, as I understand it, a last minute addition to our agenda just because of, I guess, uncertainty surrounding the virus and COVID and that kind of thing. How did you wind up stepping in at the last minute?

Barry Fisher:

Well, I've known the staff here at No-Till Farmer. I've been coming to these since the very first one and have missed very few, so I know the staff really well. I've been past presenter on several occasions. I'm an easy recruit, I think, for them. There's a comfort level they have with me and so when somebody couldn't make it, they knew I was coming to the conference, so that made it easy. Had to fill in where I could.

Brian O'Connor:

I hope they didn't put you out too much.

Barry Fisher:

No, I enjoy it. I told old Julia that I owe so much back to the No-Till conference and No-Till Farmer Magazine for the knowledge I've gained over those 30 years that we've been doing this conference: that anytime I can help out, feel free to call.

Brian O'Connor:

Okay. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend your presentation. I did see the aftermath though. We had lots of cylinders full of water with soil in them. Can you explain what did you cover in the basics? What was the... And it seemed very hands-on. I wish I'd been able to go to that. Can you explain for maybe some people at home what you did and what the main thrust of it was?

Barry Fisher:

Well, our goal was to be the messiest workshop of the conference and I think we won that prize so far. We had a... It was a good three hour workshop. Farmers were told to bring their soils. That's what Nicole Masters... that was who I replaced... that's what she was planning to do, is have everybody bring soils from their home farm, bring some good soil from an undisturbed area, and compare some of the areas they're managing. Basically, we're looking at a way to track soil health progress. We're not just doing this for the fun of it. We want real results. We want real improvement in soil function. So we went through several infield diagnostic tasks or assessments of their soils. I brought some soil. But then a lot of these assessments take water. Of course, normally we would be doing this in the field, so we brought the field to the conference room, probably much to the dismay of all of the staff at the hotel here as they went in there and tried to clean up.

Barry Fisher:

But it turned out really good. We had plastic over the tables. One of the tests that we did is measure aggregate stability. Aggregate stability is such a key indicator of soil health. It has so much to do with infiltration, water holding capacity, nutrient cycling. It's a sign that you are building carbon in your soil. It's that new carbon, that active carbon, that's regenerating those functions. That's ultimately what we're trying to do with most of the management topics that we talk about this conference, is we are trying to improve soil function: gain resilience, gain productivity potential. If we're going to be doing all this, then most business people want to track their progress. We're better at managing the things that we measure. So if we can measure and track the progress of our soil health then that's what we were talking about yesterday. We were coming up with several different methods that any farmer can use, any agronomist can use, in the field.

Brian O'Connor:

Now, are those... You say in the field. I want to clarify. Right now, we're on the cusp of, I guess, what would be a big seat change in terms of how carbon is measured: how, ultimately, it's traded. In the field measurements, will they hold up to, say, lab scrutiny for a carbon program? Or is this just for the farmers' understanding so they can get a feel on...

Barry Fisher:

Yes. What we talked about in the room was, "We're going to have these lab tests, but for each lab test there should be a field a validation." In other words, that lab test should be predictive of a soil function that we would see in the field. If we're getting better active carbon readings, if we're getting better soil respiration, it we're getting some improvements in soil proteins, then really that should be equating to an improved aggregate stability in the field: an improved infiltration, improved... We should start being able to correlate the lab tests that will probably be, in part at least, some of the validation for these carbon credits. But we can't live on just the carbon credit money. We have to also be seeing those same improvements in our productivity and our resilience. So we want to be... make sure we're constantly correlating back and forth so that those lab tests are predictive of improvements on the land.

Brian O'Connor:

Got it. Right. Growers can use both. They can use one to bounce off the other to keep it where they need to be.

Barry Fisher:

And absolutely should use both. You may not run the lab tests every year. They're kind of expensive to do them. But it's real easy to run out in a half an hour and take a few quick in field assessments and say, "Yeah, it looks like we're still on track here."

Brian O'Connor:

Got it. Speaking of that change, how big do you think carbon markets are going to be for the future of agriculture in the United States? You mentioned not being able to live on them alone, but there are some people at this conference that are talking a mean game about this potential future. What do you see?

Barry Fisher:

I think the potential is fantastic. I think we're not probably able yet to model the gains that... The data that goes current models being used for agriculture are data that were founded in individual practices and not necessarily individual practices that were intentionally managed for carbon. As we get better at true intentional management for building carbon... and the cumulative benefit of multiple practices in a system... It's a compounded benefit. The whole of the system will far exceed the sum of its parts and at this conference we talked not just about no-till, but no-till plus cover crops, no-till plus wise nutrient management, no-till plus wise integrated pest management. When you start putting these systems together, the cumulative benefit... and cumulative benefit to carbon storage can just be so much more.

Barry Fisher:

No-till is not a thing. I can manage no-till a lot of different ways and I can manage it in a lot of different crop rotations and I can manage other practices together. So if I truly have a goal to improve carbon in the soil, to build carbon, I can no-till in a different manner. I can add cover crops in a different way and manage them in a different way. So when we have intentional management as we... The potential for what we can store in America's farmland, in the soil, and what we can pull from the atmosphere and... We do a really good job. Our crops pull a lot of carbon, a lot of CO2, out of the atmosphere all summer long during the growing season. The problem is most of our crop land releases it back at the end of the season. Well, in a true soil health management system we're wanting to capture CO2 and capture sunlight energy and utilize so much more of the growing season to put more carbon in the soil. So the potential... When the data collection from the researchers truly accounts and catches up and integrates that data into the models for modeling carbon sequestration, I think the potential and the payment and the income to farmers, the benefit to farmers, from what is this really worth is going to be much greater.

Brian O'Connor:

Got it. We've heard various statements about the capacity of farmland to... I mean, how big of a component to the solution to climate change, for example, are our agricultural lands? Like, how do we recognize our full potential? Do we know what the ceiling is for this?

Barry Fisher:

I don't think we know what the ceiling is but we have an example. We know how much the great prairies were able to store. When we first broke those prairies open the amount of carbon that had been stored and how deep it had been stored in the profile was unbelievable. Now, we've lost a lot of that over the years. We've lost maybe as much as half. There's some studies that show as much as half of our organic matter has been lost from some of our crop land. But there's nothing... no reason to think that if mimic nature, mimic that great prairie with our farming system... and we can, and we can do it profitably. That's the thing. All the farmers at this conference over the years, we've been working on and sharing our profitability tactics and strategies. We now know how to come very close to mimicking that native prairie situation. We're starting to build a lot more carbon in the soil and we're building it a lot deeper in the profile... a lot more depth like the prairie did... because we're not disturbing it, the surface. We're, every year, building those root channels deeper in the soil profile, expanding them, and when you dig in a soil pit that's five feet deep and you stand there and you look at a farmer that's been doing this for 30 or 40 years you realize, "My gosh, we can come close to mimicking the prairie."

Barry Fisher:

So if you take that and you take that we're going to be less carbon... we're going to burn less carbon with this kind of a system... We don't need as much horsepower. We don't need to burn as much fossil fuel. We don't need as much energy usage and as many fertilizer products, possibly, or some other things. So the total package, the total potential, is not quantified yet, but when we do quantify it it's going to be a lot more than we currently realize that we can store in the soil.

Brian O'Connor:

One of the things that I noticed recently was that the Illinois Department of Agriculture put out a report about their runoff into the Gulf of Mexico and the... I can't remember the technical term... hypoxia in the Gulf. Illinois has, according to the report that I read, missed their targets. Not only have they missed their targets, it's trending the wrong way. What is the reason... To your estimation, what's your interpretation of why that is? Are we seeing... Are we hitting a threshold of people who just won't adopt no-till no matter what? I mean, where are we at with this?

Barry Fisher:

Well, the hypoxic zone is caused by nutrients: over-nutrification. And primarily in the Gulf, at least, it's... nitrogen is the biggest issue. So if we're losing nitrate nitrogen, especially, into the Gulf, nitrate is very soluble. It'll move through our soils and come out [tile lines 00:16:07] and it will get away from us. Nitrate... it can. However, I think what we didn't initially account for is that nitrate doesn't just come from fertilizer we apply. Nitrate is being processed by the biology in the soil from organic sources, from the organic matter. If we don't have a living route to process it, and the microbes that associate with that living route to process and assimilate that nitrogen and keep it on the land, keeping it in an organic form, it eventually transitions... biochemical processes transition it to nitrate. Once it's nitrate in the fall and we don't have something green and growing and we have tile underneath that land, it's going to go where the water goes, and the water is going to go downhill and it's going to ultimately get to the Gulf of Mexico.

Barry Fisher:

I think we focused, really did a good job, and talked about better nutrient application methods: the four Rs of nutrient application. However, we probably didn't focus, early on, enough on that mineralization process and the capture of all nitrogen sources. It goes all the way back to our carbon sequestration. If we're building carbon in our soil then a component of soil organic matter is always nitrogen. So a building block of organic matter in the soil is nitrogen and that's that part of nitrogen that's being assimilated by the biology and the soil. So anytime we're building carbon in the soil, building soil organic matter, we're also sequestering nitrogen.

Barry Fisher:

We need to have a full system. We have to have a full understanding and make sure that farmers understand the practical steps because farmers would be adopting this more if they saw it as less risky. In other words, they see change. Human nature sees change as risk. Farmers have to lay out such an investment in every crop, every year, that their instinct for self-preservation, that risk tolerance when they've laid out so many dollars, is... It's hard to make someone change because that risk avoidance mechanism kicks in. We have to do a much, much better job, like we do at this conference, like we're doing with some of the soil health training that we're doing in Illinois and across the mid west, to reduce that risk load. In other words, make this transition to these systems that sequester carbon, make the transition, so much more practical, so much more logical, so that we can make the transition without any cost to our bottom line. That's where we're working with the researchers and farmers and farmers are working with researchers now to refocus on whether we should be no-tilling, whether we should be integrating cover crops to how can we integrate them as successfully as possible, right out of the gate. So I don't know if... That's a long answer to your question.

Brian O'Connor:

It seemed like, in general, there were two answers there: on one hand, you had mentioned briefly that the mineralization... There's the mineralization element of it. Then the other component was education, outreach, getting more people on board. Is this what we're seeing in Illinois? Is this the result of past farming practices as opposed to what farmers are doing today? Then we can go back circle around back later to the education outreach. I think that's a huge part of why we're here. But I just want to tease out that one part of it real quick. You said the mineralization... Is this a relic of the years past? Or is this something that we still have a lot of tillers out there that are doing the old spray and pray?

Barry Fisher:

It's tied to tradition. We... for not just decades but centuries and generations... have farmed by using tillage, and so to make that change is very difficult. However, that tillage, that relic, if you will, of tillage, it speeds up the mineralization of that organic matter, and if we speed up the mineralization of the organic matter then we're going to speed up the cycle of nitrogen, of organic nitrogen, to nitrate irrespective of how much nitrogen we're applying. There's still a lot of organic matter in the soil, native organic matter, that if we speed up the mineralization, if we continue the mineralization just like we did in the past, whether we change how we till... but if we're still tilling, we're still mineralizing organic matter, and as we mineralize organic matter CO2 goes to the atmosphere and nitrogen is released to the water.

Brian O'Connor:

And that cuts two ways, like you were saying before, on both the consumption side... more diesel fuel... If your nitrogen applications are large, you're probably also contributing to the large-scale... Those are very carbon intensive procedures: for example, to manufacture nitrogen fertilizer.

Brian O'Connor:

You've seen a lot of... You recently retired. You had decades of career with NRCS. Are we headed... as a country and from what you've seen or region... headed in the right direction in terms of no-till agriculture, conservation agriculture, that kind of thing?

Barry Fisher:

I think we are. I think the biggest change that's happened in the last three or four years is we have two new drivers for change. One is climate, of course. Climate is now... We're finally realizing that yes, climate change is real and climate mitigation as it relates to agriculture is worth something. So there's a driver there. You can push a rope only so far but now we've got people pulling the rope. Now we also have market drivers; the end consumer, they want to know. They want to see a label on everything that they buy in the store that says it was sustainably produced. That's going to be important to this new generation. They've got it on their phone. They're going to want to scan a barcode or they're going to want to see, "Where was it grown? And how was it grown? How was it produced?"

Barry Fisher:

The markets are seeing that, and as the markets demand from their suppliers that their products are being sustainably grown, that will trickle down too. That's another market force. That's a second driver that we've got. And now we have attention of almost all of the producers. Even the very large producers are coming to workshops like this. They're coming to advanced soil health training. They're coming... They're very willing to... "How can I do this? I've got to keep my market." They're very business-minded people and they know they have to keep this market active and they have to constantly be looking for new revenue streams. Both of those are very practical.

Brian O'Connor:

We'll get back to my discussion with Barry Fisher on the future of carbon in a minute. But I want to take time, once again, to thank our sponsor Yetter Farm Equipment for supporting today's episode. Yetter Farm Equipment has been providing farmers with solutions since 1930. Today, Yetter is your answer for finding the tools and equipment you need to face today's production agriculture demands. The Yetter lineup includes a wide range of planter attachments for different planting conditions, several equipment options for fertilizer placement, and products that meet harvest time challenges. Yetter delivers a return on investment and equipment that meets your needs and maximizes inputs. Visit them at yetterco.com. That's Y-E-T-T-E-R-C-O.com. Now here's Barry one more time.

Brian O'Connor:

We talked a lot and you mentioned marketing. It seems like the organic folks scored kind of a coup there. Do you feel like there's space for no-till in that sphere of where... Like, organic is now a brand. Everybody knows, or thinks they know, what you mean when you say organic. Is there room for no-till to be part of that same marketing dynamic? And how do we go about doing that?

Barry Fisher:

I don't know that there'll be a market for just no-till, but no-till as a part of a regenerative ag system, no-till as a part of an organic system, no-till as a part of a sustainable ag... There will be a lot of different definitions that are someplace between organic... maybe even go beyond organic. There's regenerative organic that is being talked about that uses no-till as often as possible but also still is very conscious of using as few chemicals as possible. In that space of market drivers, there's going to be brands and names and trademarks and everything that are going to at least provide that consumer some assurance that this product was sustainably grown or was grown in a regenerative manner or was grown with a climate smart manner. There will be a lot of hose names. I think if we take agriculture as a giant commercial operation, if you look at it as a whole, we can take regular commercial agriculture a long way toward this sustainable production model, if you will, and not have to give up a lot of our productivity. We'll still be able to produce a lot of food, we'll just be able to... We'll probably be producing healthier food. I think we'll get healthier as a nation. There's no question.

Brian O'Connor:

One of the things that came up during the tech talk... and I think a lot of us are familiar with the statistics. The world population's going to reach some astronomical figure by year... which projection event on which scientist you talk to. One of the things that constantly comes up is we need to grow more with less. I was at the tech talk segment of our program yesterday and there was a guy in the back who raised his hand and said, "Hold on. We have a huge amount of food that's wasted every year." Do you think that there is room for productions beyond the agricultural sector or efficiencies in the supply chain, for example, that could enhance our ability to not just grow more with less... because that's the watch word of conservation agriculture... but use more of what we grow effectively?

Barry Fisher:

Yes. I think if you take... On a global scale, the food is produced in too few places and it's too difficult to get it transported in a timely manner to those places that need the food. You think it's got to go across an ocean or something, but it can go from our rural farmland... It can be hard to get it to inner cities. So a better transportation system, a better distribution system, and more locally grown food where more farmers are marketing directly to the end consumer is going to be a trend you're going to see a lot more of. And that gives that consumer direct access. They can go to that farm and look and see how it's grown if they so choose: not just look at it on their phone but actually go to that farm and pick up some food. More locally grown, but that still won't answer all the demand, not at least immediately it won't. So we have to really work on our transportation methods and our delivery systems and get more of the food that is being produced where it's needed.

Brian O'Connor:

If I want to go out... and I have this farmer in my head. He may not be a real person. But somebody who has been traditional tillage agriculture their whole life, they come to this conference, they get super excited, and they go out and they throw out their plow and just start from scratch. Then they're really committed to no-till now. Can you recommend things for them? Like, what are the five things that you would say to somebody who's just starting this out for the first time? What do I do first?

Barry Fisher:

One, you educate yourself. But from a sheer management standpoint we talk about in the back of your mind keep soil health principles in mind because they're pretty universal to whatever your operation is. If you can grow that crop or manage that agriculture system with as little disturbance as possible, if you can keep the soil covered as much of the year as you possibly can, if you can keep living roots longer... Keep in mind, that's back to that "We want to use more sunlight energy more of the year, produce more roots, put more carbon in the soil." And then any chance along the way that you can add diversity to what you grow and protect the diversity of the other living organisms with your management... Don't have the unintended consequences of reducing your diversity... that's those living things in the soil... by some of your management tactics, some of your past management, or some of your other... You keep those four principles in the back of your mind with every operation that you are going to do, with every management decision if you have those, then you'll be well founded.

Barry Fisher:

Then educate yourself. Find another farmer in your neighborhood that has a like system that is very successful and see if you can get to talk to them. Most will share. This is not a typical business where they keep all their business secrets together. Farmers are very willing to share, as a general rule, with other farmers on how to get from point A to point B, because not every management change... When you throw away the plow not every management change is intuitive. Farmers are extremely intelligent. However, there are some things that will happen as that soil changes and the biology changes that aren't intuitive to the average person, so that farmer that has been doing this for a while has likely seen those mistakes. They've had those train wrecks. You don't have to make those same train wrecks or have those same issues if you talk to a person that's really successful.

Brian O'Connor:

Got it. If there's one thing that we need to do more of in the United States, or one thing that can help no-till farmers, one policy change, capital investment, any field... What is the thing that's most important right now? What's the one thing that if you were... if I handed you a blank check or a magic wand you would do to make things better for no-tillers?

Barry Fisher:

We have to be careful, as policy makers, not to continue to subsidize just the status quo. Tie subsidies to innovation. If you're going to subsidize... and we probably are... then subsidize innovation. Find ways to make sure that you're investing in research that helps that farmer make more money: helps that farmer be more innovative. If you're going to subsidize crop production, subsidize the crop production that is getting us the environmental gains that we need as a country, we need as a society. So I guess if our... Too many times, we're satisfied to continue subsidizing and paying for and incentivizing the status quo that... It's hard enough to change. Let's not continue to invest in non-change. Let's invest in innovation and invest in this thing called soil health, invest in this thing called regenerative ag. Reward those farmers at every chance you possibly can.

Brian O'Connor:

Do you see that as... Just in general terms, it seems like then you would have a baseline subsidy for people that are providing food and still serving a critical function in the agricultural industry. But you would then and have like another tier of incentives on top of that for people that maybe go out on a limb with their hundred acre back lot or whatever. Is that kind of what you have in mind when we talk about that?

Barry Fisher:

Yeah. It's a small step, but an example is getting a rebate on federal crop insurance if you include cover crops or include a soil health management system. You are technically... The evidence indicates that you are reducing risk, you are stabilizing the crop production, by adding carbon to the soil, to building carbon in the soil. So just like any other insurance, if you're doing good things you should get a rebate or a reduced premium for that. So that's one example. It's a very small step, but something like that. Yeah. Let's have a floor. You're going to have a floor to make sure we provide stable food supply. That's a national security issue. But have a bigger incentive to... for those innovators out there. Let's go ahead and... If we're going to do this, let's incentivize. Some would say, "Take away all subsidies and innovation will lead the way." I'm practical enough to know that that may not be the route we take as a country. We're kind of ingrained into a lot of our agriculture programs. But there's nothing that says we can't use those to really incentivize innovation toward regenerative agriculture.

Brian O'Connor:

Are there older programs? You mentioned crop insurance. As I understand it, that's an older program.

Barry Fisher:

Been around a long time.

Brian O'Connor:

Yeah. I think that's one of the New Deal programs originally. Are there older programs like that that could benefit from a refreshing of the metrics that are involved in calculations? And can you think of any in particular off the top of your head besides that one, I guess, where we could look at how we measure success?

Barry Fisher:

Well, most farmers, what they really want is just a safety net. If they can just say... There's a lot of risk to farming just from the weather, from everything else. Most of those original subsidies were just that they were safe safety nets. Now, they kept coming up, coming up, to the point where they began really incentivizing "Just keep doing what you're doing. Keep doing what you're doing." There's a lot of different programs but our conservation, our whole suite of conservation programs, are... they're available. If we could make those more efficient from a contracting standpoint, if we could make those with today's technology and computer...

Barry Fisher:

A farmer should be able to sign up for a good conservation plan, a good conservation system, as easily as they can go on Amazon and order a bunch of Christmas gifts. We should be able to get conservation program dollars to farmers who are wanting to do real conservation systems without being such a contractual trap. As a former employee, that was probably most of us. We would've said, "If we could just help these farmers without the entrapment of some of the contracting that are very..." It's the contracting that's very inflexible. Farming has to be flexible. Whatever we do in the way of subsidies, for innovation to take place, flexibility has to be in place. It's the contracting that is hardest to be flexible. We did a good job in the last farm bill of working on our conservation practice standards and making them more flexible. But it's the contracting that still remains very rigid and that's... I'll blame auditors for that or something. Accountants or auditors. I have to be careful. My daughter's an accountant.

Brian O'Connor:

But yeah, anytime there's money on the line, people want that rigid, line by line, till by syllable sometimes. Kind of flexibility... Anything that you're particularly looking forward to at today's... or any of the sessions today at the National No-Tillage Conference?

Barry Fisher:

I'm excited about the new technology. I think there's new technology that's going to let us track soil health improvement just using technology in the soil, in the... We've got devices now that can react very quickly to that. I like hearing about those. And new strategies for getting cover crops to all of our crop land. It's still hard in the northern corn belt to find that window to get cover crops, so hearing from the farmers that are making that work up in those areas... and any of the difficult areas, there's always somebody that's got something really figured out, got a strategy. That's what I always look for. And a lot of times that happens right here in the hallways. Somebody says something at a classroom session or at a general session and then the real discussion happens in the round table discussions or out in the hallways. That's why those of us that have been coming to this for years and years, that's why we just keep coming. We would come probably no matter who was on as the presenter just so we can get our heads together and share strategies and all those things in the hallway. That's always kind of the top highlight, is all those round table to sessions that are formalized or out in the hallway.

Brian O'Connor:

You've mentioned you've come to a couple of these. What's the neatest idea or most radical thing that you've heard in the time here? Can you think of one? Or is it...

Barry Fisher:

I think the idea that plants and the biology around them actually have a communication of sorts, that they are actually communicating, that a plant, when it feels stress, it actually sends out different chemicals into the... and the biology responds and reacts. That understanding of the microbiology and the soil is probably... That'll make people sit back in their chair and go, "What?" We're right on the edge of the newest understanding of the microbial population and the interaction, the symbiotic relationship, between plants and the biology that lives in the soil. That's probably the thing that makes people sit back, that caught people off guard, and said, "Wait a minute. That sounds like they're talking." And whether that's a conscious talking we don't... Probably not, but there are definitely chemical responses that trigger other populations to do recruiting of different biological communities that come to the aid of crops and of plants and things.

Barry Fisher:

So that communication, that's probably the... that was probably... For many years we were working on these equipment and the machinery and weed control. Then we did all those kinds of management things. Then somebody, one year, said, "Guess what? The plant's roots are putting out these exudates and that's recruiting different biology and the biology brings different resources back to the plant and they're actually infecting each other and they're communicating and sharing resources." And everybody was like, "Wow." That was probably 10 or 15 years ago now.

Brian O'Connor:

I think there's an exhibit about it in the museum down there. It's hard to... I guess now, especially because this is my first conference, to understand how big a deal that was at the time. I grew up in a world where we all knew that.

Barry Fisher:

Well, exactly. But we understood the chemistry side of the soil. We were very good at the chemistry. But we thought it was just a chemistry set for many years. As an agronomist, as a trained agronomist, it was just... the lowest hanging... the most limiting chemical in this soil, that's what you had to address and that's how you got yield. That's how you got... Now it's like, "What's the most limiting biological community that's missing from your total ecosystem?" It was like, "What?"

Brian O'Connor:

And that brings a biological... something that I've spent a lot of time researching lately. In 2019... A lot of people are kind of disputing that [Pivot Bio 00:44:23] got there, where everybody else was going first, with their gene edited bacteria specifically designed to replace nitrogen fixation, which is amazing. What do you make of that? Is that the arrival moment? Are we still a couple years out from the day when we can all go to biologically driven farming as opposed to chemistry?

Barry Fisher:

Well, we got the idea from nature. It's not like... Nature had it figured out a long time before we did. It's just, can we understand it well enough to manage it in a way that it compliments our crop production needs? The danger we have to always tread lightly is, "Be careful not to focus on a thing, because if you focus on a thing there can be unintended consequences to the rest of that ecosystem." So that'll be... The challenge will be can we integrate this new technology, this new understanding, while also keeping a balance in the ecosystem and making sure we don't upset that balance? That'll be the challenge. But if we can pull that off, then absolutely that's going to be the wave of the future.

Brian O'Connor:

That's kind of the cautionary tale of Frankenstein's Monster, to an extent, is we don't want to have that happen in this world.

Barry Fisher:

And we've seen it happen with some of our chemistries and some of... We have to be careful of unintended consequences. It's so hard to be predictive enough that we don't cause a problem down the road. And now that we know that the soil biome is so closely related to our own human biome, then we can't be messing up that too much for fear that we can mess up our own human health. We became cognizant of that in the chemistry side of things but we need to also be cognizant of that reality as we develop biologicals too.

Brian O'Connor:

So maybe a huge up upside but also a note of caution, it sounds like.

Barry Fisher:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brian O'Connor:

All right. That's pretty reasonable. A lot of people that I talked to basically said, "Well, we've had biologicals for years. We've been putting them out there. This isn't really anything new or different. It's just more of the same, basically." I don't know. I don't have the microbiologic background.

Barry Fisher:

I always tell people on biologicals, "If someone tells you need to add biologicals to your soil they're saying you don't have those biological communities in your soil and you have to ask yourself, 'Why don't I have them in my soil?'" So if I don't, then I probably don't have the habitat for those beneficial organisms in my soil, so if I just add the organisms without giving it the habitat, the beneficial habitat... That's why we focus on those four principles I talked about earlier, because those are all about providing a beneficial habitat for beneficial biology.

Brian O'Connor:

And goal selection, too, I've heard is really important. If you set out thinking in a chemistry mindset towards biology you've already lost because a lot of biologicals are very environmental specific. They're very sensitive to humidity, temperature, PH.

Barry Fisher:

Exactly. It's all about their habitat. Just like us. Look at us in here in this controlled environment. We're not doing this interview out in the 20 degrees outside. We like our environment. So do most biological organisms.

Brian O'Connor:

All right. Well, I think that's it. I think we got our talk. Anything else you want to add, circle back to? Anything you forgot to mention? Anything like that?

Barry Fisher:

I think the future is so bright for agriculture and this new wave of regenerative agriculture and understanding of soil health and what management it takes to achieve soil health is going to bring so many opportunities to so many farmers. I'm so excited for the young farmers that are out there. I've been around a long time. I just can't imagine what they're going to get to experience in their lifetime with this new understanding of how to regenerate carbon in the soil, how to regenerate the biology and the soil, and generate [inaudible 00:48:57].

Brian O'Connor:

Thanks to Barry Fisher for his take on the future of carbon and conservation agriculture. To listen to more podcasts about no-till topics and strategies, please visit notillfarmer.com/podcasts. Once again, we'd like to thank our sponsor, Yetter Farm Equipment, for helping to make this no-till podcast series possible. If you have any feedback on today's episode please feel free to email me B-O-C-O-N-N-O-R@lessitermedia.com, or call me at 262-777-2413. If you haven't done so already, you can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or Google Podcasts to get an alert as soon as future episodes are released. You can also keep up on the latest no-till farming news by registering online for our No-Till Insider Daily and weekly email updates and No-Tiller e-newsletter. And be sure to follow us on Twitter at notillfarmr, with farmer spelled F-A-R-M-R, and our No-Till Farmer Facebook page. For our entire staff here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Brian O'Connor. Thanks for listening.