Why are mainstream farmers giving up the plough?

no till fields photo
CC BY 2.0 NRCS Soil Health

I recently interviewed Dr. Laura Lengnick for MNN about her new book, Resilient Agriculture.

Our conversation touched on a very interesting phenomenon: the growing cross-over of interest and influence between mainstream farming and what was once termed "sustainable," "alternative" or "organic" farming.

The fact is, said Dr. Lengnick, everyone is interested in soil health these days:

"There is definitely more cross-pollinization of ideas between industrial and sustainable agriculture than there once was. The full-on model of industrial agriculture — meaning replacement of ecosystem services with fossil fuels and other chemicals — has been degrading the landscape to a point where resilience has been undermined. As farmers have begun to experience climate change disturbances, they are seeing diminishing returns and they are looking for solutions."

One example of this cross-over is the growth in interest in no-till, conservation tillage and the use of cover crops, techniques which don't just reduce soil erosion or prevent nitrogen run-off, but actually help sequester carbon and slow global climate change too. Indeed, some argue that better soil management could not just slow, but actually reverse global climate change. As detailed in a New York Times piece about the dramatic spread of cover cropping, the basic idea behind these methods is to always have something growing in the soil, creating an ecosystem for soil microbes and adding organic matter and nutrients back to the soil when the cover crops are eventually killed.

Indeed, interest in the benefits in rethinking our use of the plough has grown so fast in recent years that the USDA hosted a national conversation on the use of cover crops last year. Part of that conversation included a series of videos by innovative farmers around the country. And they represented a diverse set of voices.

For any TreeHuggers who have assumed that big farmers don't care about soil health, they make for eye-opening viewing. For any TreeHuggers who are adamant that certified organic is the only way to go, they are probably not quite so encouraging.

What's intriguing to me is that this represents a shift in the conversation—this is no longer about competing ideologies, it's about exploring what works. And as evidenced from Jamie Scott's cover crop cocktails (and glyphosate use) through Clay Mitchell's Integrated Pest Management to Gabe Brown's transition toward eliminating chemical inputs all together, all farmers and all farms can benefit from an increased focus on soil health, and keeping nutrients, water and carbon in the soil.

As more and more acres across the world move away from intensive ploughing, we all get the benefit too.

And while many no-till fields do rely on herbicides to kill the cover crop before the planting season begins, organic farmers are getting in on the action too. Here's a video on how organic farms are exploring mechanical methods for killing back the cover crop.

Tags: Agriculture | Carbon Sequestration | Farming

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