While there’s increasing emphasis on “sustainable agriculture” and “soil health,” these four buzzwords tend to ruffle the feathers of veteran no-tillers and others like myself who have followed the no-till movement for nearly a half century. It’s because we recognize that earlier generations of no-tillers were the original true innovators behind these “not-so-new” concepts that go back to the 1960s.
Unfortunately, the terminology for some of the proven conservation and cropping ideas used successfully by no-tillers over the years appears to have suffered from overuse. Maybe we’ve reached the point where sound, important ag principles must be described with new names in an effort to stir up excitement and bring about further change.
One example is the steady decline that appears to be taking place with the principles of effective soil conservation. Today, the term “soil conservation” seems to have fallen out of favor among many folks in agriculture.
New Look Needed?
David Lobb, a soil scientist at the University of Manitoba, points out that maybe it’s time to come up with a new look and terminology for marketing some of our older, more successful farming practices, such as those that deal with soil erosion and conservation. He has seen a steady decline in public awareness and government support for soil conservation in Canada.
“There is a pervasive belief that we know all there is to know about soil erosion and soil conservation,” he says. “A sense of fatigue seems to have set in.”
Many western Canadian no-tillers tend to agree with Lobb. One is Robert Stevenson, a Manitoba farmer who was an early adopter of no-till back in the1980s. He says there’s a general perception in the farming community that soil erosion and soil degradation are a thing of the past.
“I think this perception is more than a bit misleading,” he says. “I think the biggest issues are ahead of us.” As an example, he says the erosion issues in the Red River Valley of southern Manitoba are immense.
Tom Bauman shares a similar story. The head of Agren, an ag consulting firm in Carroll, Iowa, recalls a time in the 1980s when the decision was made among government conservation agencies to change the popular “soil erosion” terminology and instead emphasize what they felt at the time was the more exciting “water quality” term. Working for NRSC in Iowa at the time, Bauman recalls voicing his frustrations since the U.S. was not even close to solving its soil erosion concerns.
“If you’re weary of talking about soil erosion, get over it…”
“A very wise conservationist, a mentor for many Iowa conservationists, reassured me,” Bauman says. “Lyle Asell always had a unique perspective and this time was no different.
“Programs run their life, Lyle told me very convincingly. At some point in time, he said it’s helpful to repackage the old problem, develop new policies and get new funding to continue to tackle the issue at hand.”
Bauman says we still deal with the same soil erosion and water quality concerns farmers were facing decades ago. Yet once again in the past few years. we’ve pivoted the terminology one more time, turning “soil health” into the latest buzzword.
Tell the Whole Story
Bauman understands why many conservation agency folks are tired of talking about soil erosion and understands why they dreamed up “soil health” as a replacement term. But he finds it disturbing that today’s so-called “soil health” experts are only telling half the story.
“They leave out the part about how important preserving soil, or reducing soil erosion, is to soil health,” he says. “It’s like they think we have solved the soil erosion problem and we are moving right onto building soil health.
“It can’t be done, as it would be like trying to stabilize climate change without addressing carbon emissions.”
Bauman is unwavering in his belief that soil erosion can’t be left out of the equation for dealing with soil health, water quality, carbon sequestration, national and global food production or long-term profitability.
“If you are weary of talking about soil erosion, get over it,” Bauman says. “Bundle the problem of soil erosion into a pretty package like soil health if you must. But don’t forget that the foundation of soil health is based on the condition that soil exists in place. No amount of repackaging will change that.”
No-Tillers Always Sustainable
When it comes to soil health, today’s message is the same one that the No-Till Farmer staff has advocated since our first issue arrived in mailboxes in 1972. Basically, the soil health message being touted today boils down almost totally to simply adopting no-till and cover crops.
All this talk about sustainable agriculture? It’s something no-tillers have been doing successfully for generations, without receiving enough credit from the ag community and environmentalists.
If you want proof of what I’m talking about, take a look at what has happened with cover crop adoption. Across the country, only 2% of all farmers seed cover crops, based on data from last year’s Conservation Technology Information Center report.
On the other hand, the results of our 2018 No-Till Benchmark Study indicate 83% of no-tillers are seeding cover crops, with an average of 451 acres of cover crops per farm.
This is proof that a combination of cover crops and no-till has made our No-Till Farmer readers the leaders among sustainable farmers and soil health advocates for many decades.