Editor’s Note: Repeated searches (last attempted prior to the 2018 release of From Maverick to Mainstream: A History of No-Till Farming) for Frank Lessiter’s 1973 no-till testimony before Congress had us thinking it’d been lost to the ages. No-till’s 60th anniversary this year resumed the search and, believe it or not, it was the inclusion of Frank’s middle initial that turned up a discovery in federal databases. A testimony by the then 34-year-old editor did not exist, but one from Frank D. Lessiter did, and was found in a 501-page file. The testimony below appears unedited as it was entered into the permanent record.
Congress will be enduring plenty of testimonies as special interest groups and lobbyists march up the steps of the capitol in hopes of influencing the next Farm Bill, which will be reauthorized in 2023. Educating Washington about the realities of ag is critical, says Kentucky Ag Commissioner Ryan Quarles. “Ag needs a seat at the table because if you’re not at the table, you end up being on the menu.”
– Mike Lessiter, President
Statement of Frank D. Lessiter, Editor, No-Till Farmer, Milwaukee, Wis.:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
My name is Frank Lessiter and I am editor of No-Till Farmer magazine and the newly organized No-Till Farmer Association, which is headquartered in Milwaukee, Wis.
With your permission, I would like to have my entire written statement inserted in the committee’s record.
No-Till Farmer is a magazine that now circulates to over 60,000 farmers in the U.S. who are practicing no-tillage, plus farmers keenly interested in trying no-tillage in the future.
We are a new magazine that has been in existence since late 1972. The No-Till Farmer Association is currently being formed from subscribers to our magazine to advance the position of no-tillage and its resulting benefits.
Basically, no-tillage refers to the elimination of plowing and cultivating. It encompasses a variety of crop production systems employing reduced or limited amounts of tillage.
One USDA expert said recently that no-tillage will make us as big a contribution to agriculture as hybrid corn did several decades ago. While that statement may appear to be a mouthful, we feel no-tillage offers such a future for farmers that this is actually an understatement.
With no-tillage, it is possible to till only an area 2 inches wide instead of the whole seedbed in which to place seeds.
The protective mulch left on the ground has many important benefits. It conserves valuable moisture, holds soil in place and virtually eliminates runoff of farm chemicals and fertilizers, one of the major ecology problems facing farmers today. In other words, it keeps both the soil and the chemicals in place. So, no-tillage may be one way farmers can solve their ecological problems at low cost and without loss of productivity.
With no-tillage, many farmers are only making two trips across a field during a crop year. One trip is made for planting and application of fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides. The second trip is for harvesting. This is quite different from the 4 to 12 trips many farmers make across their fields during a crop year. Additional trips not only added to his time and costs, but further packed or pulverized his soils, reducing yields and income.
The practice of no-tillage has been growing every year since it started in the mid-1960s. State agronomists of the Soil Conservation Service estimate that 4.1 million acres of no-till crops will be planted in the U.S. during 1973. This will represent a 25% increase from the no-till acreage planted during 1972.
The phenomenal growth of no-tillage has probably been unequaled by any introduction of any new farming method, practice, or piece of technology. While extra profit is involved in the rapid change to no tillage crop production, conservation appears to be the primary reason for the change.
9 Reasons for No-Till
I’ll quickly summarize 9 reasons that conservation through no-tillage has become more important to farmers:
Conservation of water, less soil erosion, reduced out-of-pocket crop production expenses, less labor, saved time, less machinery cost, conservation of fuel, due to fewer trips across the field, more favorable harvesting conditions, and better use of land.
With no-tillage, steeply sloped land or light soils that could not previously have been planted to row crops are now back in production. No-tillage has enabled many farmers to move row crop production up the hills and mountains. In many cases, these farmers can expand production effectively without adding more acres.
The important role no-tillage can play in solving erosion problems was shown several years ago at a USDA facility near Coshocton, Ohio. During a storm that brought 5 inches of rainfall in 7 hours, there was a loss of 45,300 pounds of sediment per acre from a plowed and clean-tilled cornfield on a 6.6% slope.
On adjoining ground, no-till corn was planted on a 20.7% slope. Here, there was only a loss of 63 pounds of soil per acre. This represents 1 bushel basket of soil loss for no-till compared to a boxcar load for conventional tillage.
This reduction in soil runoff, due mainly to the protective killed vegetative mulch on the surface of no-tilled fields, results in less chemical and fertilizer runoff.
No-tilled land, with its increased ground cover and mulch, not only holds the soil in place and protects it from melting rains and the evaporating rays of the sun, but provides much more cover for wildlife. No-till farmers in Kentucky and Tennessee have noted that even urban hunters have wised up to this fact — they keep seeking out the no-till fields to enhance their chance for game.
Frank D. Lessiter’s testimony was found within the 501-page document “General Farm Program Hearings Before the Committee on Agriculture House of Representatives, 93rd Congress” that was entered into the record in the Spring of 1973.
Yields are just as good or better with no-till as with conventional tillage. Eleven years of work at Virginia Polytechnic Institute shows a 20% yield advantage for no-till corn compared with conventionally grown corn.
Double-cropping opportunities with no-till represent the biggest profit potential for many farmers. This is where two crops are planted in the same field each year, providing farmers with two paychecks. Double-cropping is being done with almost any crop you can think of.
We know of one Kentucky farmer who harvests 1.800 acres of wheat, barley, soybeans, and corn each year from just 1,200 acres of land. He plants barley and wheat in the fall, then harvests these crops in late May to mid-June. The same day he harvests these grain crops, he plants no-till soybeans directly into the straw stubble.
This concept has enabled him to spread out his workload. He does it with a machinery and labor investment that is only about two-thirds of what is needed for more conventional tillage practices.
This same farmer has been able to average 44 bushels of wheat and 34 bushels of soybeans per acre annually from the same fields with this double-cropping system. With wheat prices at $2.25 per bushel and soybean prices at $4 per bushel, he could earn a whopping gross farm income of $235 per acre. This is more than twice the per acre income earned by most farmers today.
If the USDA seems interested in promoting expansion of soybean acres this year, the double-cropping concept is one of the ways to get it done. Any farmer living in an area where he can harvest small grains prior to July 4 can cash in by raising a profitable double-crop of soybeans.
The double-cropping idea for getting more soybeans makes more sense than constantly juggling the set-aside acreage programs for farmers.
Advocating for No-Till
We support a continuation of the REAP program in any legislation that Congress adopts in extending the Agricultural Act of 1970. Granted that the REAP program has had some problems in the past and that some money has been wasted in its administration and in payments to farmers. But we firmly believe some parts of the REAP program are worthy of continuation. Modernization of this valuable conservation program is more valuable than its discontinuance to both farmers and the general public.
If President Nixon and Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz are convinced farmers will continue needed conservation practices with their own money, then they are certainly out of step with farmers across the nation. Farmers do not have the money available for such expenses in this day of high-priced equipment, feed, and livestock, even if today’s prices for farm-raised goods are very favorable.
One of the modernizations in the 1973 REAP program authorized by USDA was a no-till demonstration program. This would have allowed as many as 87,000 farmers to try no-tillage for the first time during 1973. It would have enabled up to 30 farmers per county to do so with 50% cost sharing.
Unlike virtually all other programs, the no-till demonstration portion of REAP does not keep tapping taxpayers year after year to renew the same desired benefits. Cost sharing would be provided only for the initial year to introduce the practice on a farm. The program is then perpetuated at the farmer’s expense — or rather his extra profit.
We feel this no-till demonstration feature of the REAP program deserves a try. It can turn out to be a much cheaper way of conserving our land resources than terraces, farm ponds, drainage projects, and other programs being financed through’ REAP.
As a specific example of what I am talking about, let me close by telling you about the comment made by a district agronomist of the Soil Conservation Service in Indiana last year. He said it would take 118 years at the present rate of progress to install all of the needed terraces on farms in his district of Indiana. He then added that the same amount of land conservation could be done in a 1-year period with adoption of no-tillage by these farmers.
When you multiply these savings by all of the conservation districts across the U.S., you have some idea of the potential cost savings no-tillage could bring.
But first, no-till needs to be shown to more farmers across the country. This is why our staff members were disappointed at discontinuance of the REAP program. We felt the no-till demonstration aspects would have helped sell the entire no-till concept to more farmers, thereby letting farmers help themselves to prosperity (through double-cropping, no-till, and better profits) rather than leaning on the Government for prosperity.
A program such as REAP is urgently needed to speed acceptance of the no-tillage practice and to hasten the end of the tradition of excessive tillage and all its resulting destruction. But some kind of promotion or incentive is needed to really get it established.
Many of the ecology problems facing farmers today — soil and water erosion, herbicide runoff, nitrogen runoff problems and other problems can be solved with wide adoption of no-tillage. This is why we feel a no-till demonstration program, whether funded through the REAP program or not, needs to be a part of any new agricultural law enacted by Congress.
This, we believe, is a fact: No-till can do more than any other single practice to solve the many problems facing farmers today. Thank you very much.
The Chairman: Thank you for a very interesting discussion on a subject that is intriguing at least.
The No-Till History Series, appearing throughout 2022, is supported by Montag Mfg. For more historical content, including video/multimedia, visit www.No-TillFarmer.com/historyseries.