While the “original” events in Hawaii were discontinued in 1980, we’d considered producing an event like the National No-Tillage Conference (NNTC) for years. But we always had more than we could handle in getting our magazines, newsletters and books out the door.

But when we heard Monsanto was going to hold regional no-till conferences the following winter, we knew we had to act now or get left behind. The late Howard Doster, a Purdue University ag economist, was concerned about us having to compete with the deep pockets of Monsanto. But he and others were ready to contribute to our vision of an unbiased educational format that was free of company lines, product-pushes or agendas. 

We quickly mailed our farm subscribers a survey in the summer of 1992 and received 659 YES votes to “make the conference happen.” So we moved forward on a plan for the NNTC in Indianapolis in January 1993, with a goal of attracting 150. 

The 8-page mailer immediately drew 400 registrants at a $169 fee (a far cry from the $15 extension meetings in those days). When we hit 600 sign-ups, we started a waiting list because of hotel ballroom capacities. By agreeing to split the group up for meals on two different floors, we squeezed in 200 more farmers (still turning away an almost equal amount). In the end, we drew a crowd of 814 from 21 states, as well as Canada, Brazil and Argentina. 

“In the early days of no-till, farmers needed a support team — somebody to help you fully understand no-till, to listen to you whine about the results and to challenge you to solve the problems. The NNTC was my support team…” – Illinois no-tiller Marion Calmer, who has attended 28 of 30 conferences

No-tillers had found “their people.” The formula worked because of the open farmer-to-farmer sharing that was fostered that first year and every year since.

Despite Monsanto’s plans for their own no-till events, the company supported the NNTC for the first 11 years. In the end, the NNTC outlasted Monsanto’s interest in running meetings on no-till.

Favorite Memories

Here are some reflections on the past 30 years:

  • A Michigan farmer at the first conference had never no-tilled a single acre. But he left the NNTC so convinced that he auctioned all his tillage tools and his high-horsepower tractors 8 weeks later and plunged whole-hog into no-till that spring on 1,200 acres. 
  • Two marriage proposals occurred at NNTCs. The first was a Minnesota couple that got engaged in St. Louis, and the second was in Des Moines. That year, a farmer flew in from Australia while his fiancé-to-be flew in from England. At least two more marriages resulted from first encounters at the NNTC.
  • And there was the no-tiller who made a 3-hour drive to the NNTC but couldn’t find the conference registration desk. He soon discovered he’d come a week early and notched 6-plus hours of windshield time that day. But he showed up again the following week.
  • One time, a speaker talked at length before advancing the slides in his 35mm carousel slide tray. What he didn’t realize when he turned on the projector before his talk was that he forgot to remove the plastic cap from the top of the slide tray. The heat from the projector melted the cap and ruined all 55 slides. He completed his presentation from memory but without any of the slides he’d prepared weeks before.
  • Before the internet was widely available in hotels, we panicked when we noticed our luncheon keynote speaker (a university meteorologist) rapidly modifying his PowerPoint slides as we read the last words of his bio. It turned out he was downloading up-to-the-minute weather maps for his talk and knew more about wireless internet than the rest of us did at the time.
  • A regular NNTC attendee sent two sons (both in their mid-20s) in his place one year. As the NNTC wrapped up, one of our staffers was in the elevator with the brothers, “So how are we going to tell Dad that we never went to any of the presentations?”
  • A very nervous and overwhelmed keynote presenter rushed down from his hotel room and was in a panic because he’d forgotten his belt. My son, Mike, who had 80 pounds on this speaker and a waist size 15 inches wider, lent him his belt behind the screen moments before he went on. The belt nearly wrapped around the speaker twice, but he calmed down and delivered a great talk to kick off the conference.
  • Our new media director in charge of the AV had taken our “everything must run on time” directive to heart. He flashed the stoplight sign to the speaker 10 minutes from the scheduled end. But since he was the final presenter of the night, the farmer argued and exclaimed that anyone who wanted to go to the bar should leave now. He shouted that he was “only getting started!” The offense turned into a tent-revival-type testimony about no-till, even getting “Amens” from the crowd. He handled it in stride but still remembers the experience 10 years later.
  • When COVID canceled our live event in 2021, our team transitioned everything to a virtual conference in a matter of weeks and kept 797 attendees. The farmers “rolled with the changes” like they always do, even in the virtual roundtables. There were also BYOB virtual happy hours and “meet and greets” to discuss the day’s highlights, providing a forum for my latest jokes. 

For more attendee memories, photos and more, visit no-tillfarmer.com/NNTChistory.    

The 2024 No-Till History Series is supported by Calmer Corn Heads. For more historical content, including video and multimedia, visit No-TillFarmer.com/HistorySeries.