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posted by janrinok on Thursday March 12 2015, @09:45PM   Printer-friendly
from the otherwise-known-as-how-we-used-to-do-it dept.

Erica Goode writes in the NYT that no-till soil-conservation farming, a movement that promotes leaving fields untilled, “green manures” and other soil-enhancing methods, is gaining converts as propnents say the technology mimics the biology of virgin land, to revive degenerated earth, minimize erosion, encourage plant growth and increase farmers’ profits, “It’s a massive paradigm shift,” says Ray Archuleta, an agronomist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the federal Agriculture Department, which endorses the soil-conservation approach. Neatly tilled fields have long been a hallmark of American agriculture and its farmers, by and large traditionalists who often distrust practices that diverge from time-honored methods. Tilling also helps mix in fertilizers and manure and loosens the top layer of the soil. But repeated plowing exacts a price. It degrades soil, killing off its biology, including beneficial fungi and earthworms, and leaving it, as Archuleta puts it, “naked, thirsty, hungry and running a fever.” Soil health proponents say that by leaving fields unplowed and using cover crops, which act as sinks for nitrogen and other nutrients, growers can increase the amount of organic matter in their soil, making it better able to absorb and retain water.

One recent study led by the Environmental Defense Fund suggested that the widespread use of cover crops and other soil-health practices could reduce nitrogen pollution in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River basins by 30 percent, helping to shrink the giant “dead zone” of oxygen-depleted water in the Gulf of Mexico. But the movement also has critics, who argue that no-tillage and other methods are impractical and too expensive for many growers. A farmer who wants to shift to no-tillage, for example, must purchase new equipment, like a no-till seeder. Even farmers who enthusiastically adopt no-till and other soil-conservation methods rarely do so for environmental reasons; their motivation is more pragmatic. “My goal is to improve my soil so I can grow a better crop so I can make more money,” says Terry McAlister, who farms 6,000 acres of drought-stricken cropland in North Texas. “If I can help the environment in the process, fine, but that’s not my goal.”

 
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  • (Score: 1) by pyg on Thursday March 12 2015, @09:53PM

    by pyg (4381) on Thursday March 12 2015, @09:53PM (#156943)

    Almost all no-till methods are heavily dependent on herbicides and usually gmos.

    Disclaimer: I'm mostly pro-gmo but down on 'cides even "organic" ones as I don't see them as being progressive in terms of agriculture.

    • (Score: 5, Insightful) by DeathMonkey on Thursday March 12 2015, @09:56PM

      by DeathMonkey (1380) on Thursday March 12 2015, @09:56PM (#156945) Journal

      Almost all no-till methods are heavily dependent on herbicides and usually gmos.

      Not necessarily. Living Mulch [wikipedia.org] is getting pretty popular these days for weed control.

      • (Score: 4, Interesting) by pyg on Thursday March 12 2015, @10:05PM

        by pyg (4381) on Thursday March 12 2015, @10:05PM (#156953)

        Yes, I did say almost. Interesting as I was involved in a living mulch research project circa 2004 that was not totally successful but failed in a way I see this failing for most modern farmers. It takes too much smarts. If we would have pushed it for another 10 years I think we could have figured out a system. Permaculture is something I used to claim to be a disciple of and I love the theory, but it takes so much knowledge and such dedication and persistence that here in 'murica we probably won't have a Fukoka class system for another 50 years or so although there are some folks pushing the edge.

        • (Score: 2) by art guerrilla on Thursday March 12 2015, @10:59PM

          by art guerrilla (3082) on Thursday March 12 2015, @10:59PM (#156993)

          @ pyg
          thank you for that perspective...

          once i get a trailer lined up, going to start getting a lot more of various neighbors composted/not horse output and spread around newly cleared garden area... very sandy soil, needs more poop...
          damn deer, rabbits and squirrels are the main enemy, plants hardly have a chance to be damaged by bugs, the rabbits eat them all as greens...
          wife said she just read that selenium smell is distasteful to deer and they avoid it, true/false/maybe ? ? ?
          kill da wabbit ! ! !

          • (Score: 2, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 12 2015, @11:16PM

            by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 12 2015, @11:16PM (#157000)

            You need to live in harmony with the rabbits. Plant some carrots for them around the food that you want for yourself. They will eat those carrots, and leave your food alone.

            • (Score: 5, Funny) by sigma on Friday March 13 2015, @02:51AM

              by sigma (1225) on Friday March 13 2015, @02:51AM (#157109)

              Then plant ghost chilies around the carrots, if only for the entertainment value.

            • (Score: 3, Informative) by art guerrilla on Friday March 13 2015, @02:33PM

              by art guerrilla (3082) on Friday March 13 2015, @02:33PM (#157281)

              ehhhh, what's up doc ? ? ?

              i *think* your comment was a bugs bunny joke, because if you believe the wascally wabbits will eat the carrots and leave everything else alone, you are seriously misguided by too many cartoons... (next, you'll be advising i simply drop an Acme anvil on them...)

              besides, the rabbits (bob-tailed, long-eared rats, really) are NOT going to wait 90 days for carrots they can't pluck out of the ground, they are going to eat ALL the greens that pop up, INCLUDING the carrot tops: there will be NO carrots...

              (nor anything: i've replanted a peanut patch 3 times, and each time they waited 5-7 days for them to sprout an inch or two, then mowed them down to the ground over night...)

              the 'final solution', is to learn how to make rabbit stew...
              except they breed like, well, like rabbits...

        • (Score: 4, Insightful) by frojack on Thursday March 12 2015, @11:09PM

          by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Thursday March 12 2015, @11:09PM (#156999) Journal

          Too much smarts?

          What century are you living in? Most large farmers are college educated, technology savvy, have their fields GIS-mapped, and soil-analysis done regularly. Its not 1935 any more.

          --
          No, you are mistaken. I've always had this sig.
          • (Score: 2) by Phoenix666 on Friday March 13 2015, @12:11AM

            by Phoenix666 (552) on Friday March 13 2015, @12:11AM (#157023) Journal

            Yes, I will second that. I never saw so many electronics and sensors in the most ostentatious tech-nerd castle as I did the first time I stepped inside a farmhouse in the northern Rockies. It looked like a broken-down, ramshackle hut from the outside, but on the inside it looked like a listening post in signals intelligence.

            I never pooh-poohed farmers again after that.

            --
            Washington DC delenda est.
          • (Score: 2) by DeathMonkey on Friday March 13 2015, @12:25AM

            by DeathMonkey (1380) on Friday March 13 2015, @12:25AM (#157039) Journal

            Too much smarts?
             
            I'm just a hobbyist gardener but I find it as scientifically challenging as any of my other projects...

          • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @02:05AM

            by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @02:05AM (#157098)

            Being college educated means nothing other than having a piece of paper.

            • (Score: 2) by Daiv on Friday March 13 2015, @02:30PM

              by Daiv (3940) on Friday March 13 2015, @02:30PM (#157279)

              Never underestimate how many people find getting that "piece of paper" the biggest challenge they've ever faced.

      • (Score: 2) by frojack on Thursday March 12 2015, @10:39PM

        by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Thursday March 12 2015, @10:39PM (#156977) Journal

        But even living mulches require plowing under every year, an they compete for nutrients and water with the main crop. (Your own link says as much).

        That being said, farmers are making an effort to traverse their fields less each year, tolerating some weeds rather than making another pass mid-summer to kill weeds between the rows.

        --
        No, you are mistaken. I've always had this sig.
    • (Score: 4, Interesting) by jcross on Friday March 13 2015, @02:35AM

      by jcross (4009) on Friday March 13 2015, @02:35AM (#157103)

      Also check out the roller-crimper from the Rodale Institute:

      http://www.croproller.com/ [croproller.com]

      IIRC it still requires occasional tillage, but basically you can grow a cover crop, crimp it down which simultaneously kills the cover crop and flattens it into mulch, and seed the crop right into it. And if you're growing rice there's always the amazing One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @11:51AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @11:51AM (#157225)

      I'm mostly pro-gmo but down on 'cides even "organic" ones

      You know that most genetic manipulations are either to cause the plant produce some 'cide itself, or to cause it to better resist one which then can be used to kill everything else on the field?

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 12 2015, @10:54PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 12 2015, @10:54PM (#156990)

    Can imply they put the till to the ground, not give it up.

  • (Score: -1, Troll) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 12 2015, @11:00PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 12 2015, @11:00PM (#156994)

    ... Jeremiah Cornelius.

    Jeremiah, upon these fallow fields you could spread your magnificent seed, bringing new life to desolate and dried up dirt.

    From this barren wasteland could spring forth glory, and turnips.

  • (Score: 5, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @12:29AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @12:29AM (#157045)

    If you want to have traditional farming, you have to realise that it was much less productive, on a bushel/(acre*season) level for many reasons.

    First was that pest control methods were more limited. Even today many farmers hunt, not because they think it's great sport, but because deer and feral hogs and nutria and all sorts of other beasts like to eat things which we like to eat. These days we have all sorts of [pest|insect|herb|fung]icides which are extracted from or produced with energy from fossil fuels, as well as rifles for killing more macroscopic hazards like aforementioned feral hogs.

    Second was that they used fallow periods as well as crop rotation and other approaches to reduce the overall level of any one pest taking over the environment. While crop rotation has not completely gone out of style, fallow periods mostly have because it makes more financial sense to plant another crop and douse the land with more better-living-through-chemistry.

    There's a huge list of sociopolitical reasons why the government has (quite deliberately, mind you) created this situation, but let's not pretend that it isn't fostered by deliberate government policies. From crop subsidies through to regulatory overhead, farmers are squeezed and persuaded to produce huge quantities of food even when the market for it doesn't exist.

    As for tillage, it's all very cool that we can get away with less tillage, but as of yet there is quite simply no proposed alternative which does not rely on either huge manpower (which isn't available) or huge chemical resources (which are). It's all very well to talk about intercropping, pasture cropping and defences based on what rabbits might eat first, but those strategies reduce yields, take land, increase effort and otherwise complicate things - they cost money.

    Some farmers can sometimes get away with some of these strategies, but in the real world they are not broadly feasible.

    It's also very easy to make fun of traditionalist, stick-in-the-mud farmers who are hard to persuade about things which they should or shouldn't be doing. However, these recommendations often come from people who barely understand the differences in the roles which different tillage implements play, how they relate to different soil types and biomes, and seeding cycles. If I followed every half-baked idea which everyone handed me, I'd have been broke long ago.

    There is a short list of people to whom I will seriously listen on any given day. The farmers around me. Veterinarians. Soil scientists. Meteorologists. Botanists. Serious people who have devoted their lives to these things.

    A bunch of hippies who tell me I shouldn't farm a hillside because all the nutrients will get leached out of it by rain and every time I do any digging the resulting erosion will leave me standing on bare rock, do not qualify. (Yes, I have been told these things, and no, there is more soil, and healthier soil on my land than when I arrived.)

    So, there are the reasons for your resistance: a tidal wave of ignorant yammering, and a bunch of people in Washington, D.C. who are about as knowledgeable as the hippies but have more money and power. I'm tired of them both. I think most of my brother and sister farmers are.

    But for anyone who's read this far, here's a juicy reward:

    I don't till. Never have, don't think I ever will. And it had absolutely nothing to do with self-congratulatory masturbation on the part of some morons who see farmland as a thing which zooms by their car windows. It had everything to do with a sober assessment of what works on a given piece of land, and doing that. If I were trying to get a crop of wheat out of land covered in weeds, you had better bet that I would soak it in herbicides, till it open like I did your mom last night, or both. Because otherwise seed in that land would be a pure waste of money.

    • (Score: 5, Informative) by Thexalon on Friday March 13 2015, @02:40AM

      by Thexalon (636) on Friday March 13 2015, @02:40AM (#157104)

      First off, thanks for your perspective.

      The primary concern of the hippie-types, in my experience, is about making sure that the land remains arable in the long-term. I understand that short-term financial pressures make that an extremely difficult issue to even consider dealing with, but when you see phenomena like soil depth depletion across the entire breadbasket of the US, that's a ticking time bomb that potentially affects everybody.

      So, with your farmer experience, what policy change would you want the hippie foodie types to lobby for that would actually give you the breathing room to consider all the options you just said were too expensive? I could imagine banking, price supports, trying to break the processor/distributor monopsony that controls prices of most crops in most areas, and a bunch of other measures that would make farming more profitable and leave you more able to invest in the future of your farm, but that's not the same as knowing what you need.

      --
      The inverse of "I told you so" is "Nobody could have predicted"
      • (Score: 1) by nitehawk214 on Friday March 13 2015, @03:02PM

        by nitehawk214 (1304) on Friday March 13 2015, @03:02PM (#157298)

        I would say the hippie-types should be concerned with long term soil quality. As should everybody, really. Even the agribuisness megacorps should have a vested interest in keeping soil in good shape for long term productivity. (though I am sure they are only interested in short-term profits and government subsidies)

        But the hippie-types I have met are more concerned is GMO. I doubt many of them care where their food comes from as long as it has the no-GMO sticker on it. Some have told me "I am so much healther now that I have gone organic!" I tell them, "Yeah, you are cooking your own food instead of eating at McDonalds, of course you are healthier."

        --
        "Don't you ever miss the days when you used to be nostalgic?" -Loiosh
        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @04:42PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @04:42PM (#157347)

          > But the hippie-types I have met are more concerned is GMO.

          It's kind of sad you turned this story about soil-conservation into an opportunity to rant about your completely unrelated pet peeve.
          Keyword matching is not a good method for contributing to a discussion.

          • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @10:20PM

            by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @10:20PM (#157532)

            next up: a plan by Monsanto to splice systemd into gmo so that farmers have to use it whether they like it or not.

            mhaw haw haw haw world domination is ours.

      • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @05:04PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @05:04PM (#157356)

        First off, thanks for your perspective.

        You're very welcome.

        The primary concern of the hippie-types, in my experience, is about making sure that the land remains arable in the long-term. I understand that short-term financial pressures make that an extremely difficult issue to even consider dealing with, but when you see phenomena like soil depth depletion across the entire breadbasket of the US, that's a ticking time bomb that potentially affects everybody.

        The funny thing is that I want the land to be arable (or at least healthy and productive, depending on its best use) in the long term as well. Why? Because if it isn't, I go broke. I would think that this would be obvious, but a lot of people assume that farmers are only out for a quick buck. If I wanted a quick buck I'd sell my land and move.

        As for soil depth, there are definitely problems there. However, the solution has to involve building soil and doing so is not broadly compatible with current farming practices for a whole list of reasons - but again, a lot of it comes down to government incentives. If your best financial shot is to plant the same rowcrop year after year after year and soak everything in artificial nutrients, then the fact that the ground is mostly an inactive growth medium is a sad side-effect, not an intended goal. However, that doesn't mean that every tilled acre is losing depth either. I know one farmer not far from where I am who tills once every year or three, and his soil is fantastic. What he does is to avoid killing the soil ecology, and he grazes cattle on it. His product is beef. The dung of the cattle and the roots of a varied pasture help foster the growth of his soil layer.

        So it is possible, but it depends on what you have to do to keep paying the bills.

        So, with your farmer experience, what policy change would you want the hippie foodie types to lobby for that would actually give you the breathing room to consider all the options you just said were too expensive? I could imagine banking, price supports, trying to break the processor/distributor monopsony that controls prices of most crops in most areas, and a bunch of other measures that would make farming more profitable and leave you more able to invest in the future of your farm, but that's not the same as knowing what you need.

        The first thing I would do is ditch the farm subsidies. Just stop them. Like, tomorrow. Is that too early? I like tomorrow. Because the subsidies largely go to big farmers or politically connected farmers or big, politically connected farmers. I would, in the same act if possible, remove or drastically reduce price floors. The reasoning behind this is that if we are going to have more involved stewardship of the land, we need more and smaller farmers doing more varied things. If nothing else, it reduces the monocrop catastrophe scenarios. Uniformity is a terrible weakness in a biological engineering sense (and modern farmers are just that: biological engineers - we just don't get to call ourselves engineers). I'm not too worried about the distribution monopsonies, but I would tear up a lot of the regulations which effectively create those monopsonies. An example is how difficult it is to get offal. It's perfectly good food, and people who raise their own livestock or live in other countries think the FDA and USDA are crazy to make it so hard to recover organ meats from healthy animals. Reduce and simplify the regulations, and cut the agencies down to size. The government is the real middle man here, when it is consumers who should be thinking about what they shove in their faces. (No, I'm not a big fan of the fast food franchises.)

        Another recommendation, and this one is a lot more radical, is to find a way of reducing the undue influence of urbanites on farming practices. With the best will and the most loving heart the majority of urbanites are ripe for recruitment, based on their natural, humane tendencies and bottomless ignorance of farming practices, for all sorts of crazy political schemes which end up screwing producers terribly. An example: the ban on farrowing crates.

        Yes, it looks terrible, doesn't it? A sow all trapped in that tiny pen, can't turn around, can barely roll over, for months at a time (although not her whole life). Do you know why? Because sows will often roll over onto, and crush their offspring who are tiny and vulnerable. They will also often indulge in some cannibalism because even pigs thinks pork is tasty. I guess the interests of the sows trump the interests of piglets in the minds of people who want to ban farrowing crates. From the farmer's perspective, each dead piglet is a drain on production, which is a drain on profit, which means either higher prices at the point of sale or commercial death. I predict that piglet production in California will drop like a rock, while instead they will buy piglets from out of state, ship them to California, feed them up and then sell them there - more CAFOs, more shipping costs, more oil burned, and for the farmers who still hang in there raising their own, more dead piglets crushed or eaten by their mothers.

        But a huge victory for animal rights, so ... yeah, woo. Or something.

        So my more radical idea would be to create city-states. Wyoming wouldn't need it, but Seattle can run itself along with Redmond and the other surrounding urban zones. San Francisco and Oakland likewise. Cut NYC out of NY. I don't want to tell city dwellers how to run their lives, and I'd appreciate it if they would return the compliment. Because every time you look at those regulations (all passed in the name of food safety, of course) you find a sort of shadowy, composite figure of a suburban mom wringing her hands about her precious little children without any real understanding of the unintended consequences of her/their policies.

        But yes, one of the worst things to happen was the deliberate consolidation of so many small farmers. More eyes on the land means more productive outcomes.

    • (Score: 5, Insightful) by bradley13 on Friday March 13 2015, @06:54AM

      by bradley13 (3053) Subscriber Badge on Friday March 13 2015, @06:54AM (#157172) Homepage Journal

      I am a generation removed from farming, although I have cousins who farm. From what I see, the best thing that could happen would be to get the federal government out of the business. In order to compete with the rest of the farmers, you have to participate in the federal programs. But these programs pressure farmers in weird directions. To name one example: the whole, ill-conceived corn/ethanol stuff that even the biofuel fans agree makes no sense.

      You also get farmers who dread having a "good year", because they make more money in bad years with crop insurance and the federal subsidies. Talk about perverse incentives...

      --
      Everyone is somebody else's weirdo.
      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @03:27PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @03:27PM (#157313)

        ill-conceived corn/ethanol stuff

        It is sad. It went from 'we will have less garbage and waste' to 'we will sell our food'. I remember the rotting piles of grain from the 70s/80s.

        We were throwing away the extra. So lets make something of it is a pretty good idea. But unfortunately it got perverted by money.

    • (Score: 2, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @02:06PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @02:06PM (#157270)

      > till it open like I did your mom last night

      If you have a serious point to make, this doesn't help. Until this point you sounded credible.

      • (Score: 1, Disagree) by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @04:34PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @04:34PM (#157344)

        Yes; your mom, specifically.

        I determined that the world needs more self-important little pricks like you.