Ag Policy Blog

Conservation Agriculture: Moon Shot or Forced Change is Coming

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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WINNIPEG, Canada --- Soil health, soil erosion, soil renaissance, soil degradation, soil sustainability, soil economics and soil mining were the terms that defined the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture that wrapped up Wednesday.

Soil erosion and degradation remain long-term problems that are underappreciated on the world stage. No-till practices are spreading globally, though. Roughly 380 million acres of farmland globally are considered no-till cropping and adoption rates are growing. North America accounts for about 133 million total acres of no-till farming.

David Montgomery, a University of Washington geologist and author of "Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations," cited USDA's tolerance rates for erosion, which range from .4 millimeters to 1 millimeter per year. Montgomery was familiar with lands losing an inch a year, which can translate into long-term devastation of the land. As a geologist, Montgomery also looks at a longer-term view of how long society might survive based on its erosion problems.

"Convention agriculture is simply not sustainable at current erosion rates," Montgomery said.

Yet, Montgomery noted that modern society also has the ability to build organic matter and restore soils in surprisingly quick fashion. That requires aggressive use of crop residue and cover cropping, but it can be done. Society will have to put carbon back into the soils.

Howard Buffett spoke at the congress on Tuesday. His foundation was a platinum sponsor of the event. Buffett tends to preach to the choir when it comes to conservation agriculture. It might be far better to see Buffett speaking at Commodity Classic or the American Farm Bureau Federation than at an event with a collection of people who largely agree with his perspective on no-till farming and cover crops. Nonetheless, Buffett said American farmers are not embracing no-till farming on the same level of farmers in other countries.

"We have not changed our thinking nearly as quickly as we have our adaption of technology," Buffett said.

Farmers too often will quit no-till farming after a year or two if it is not working out as perfectly as hoped, he said. Still, Buffett acknowledged every field is different and may require different practices or treatments from another.

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Buffett indicated farmers will eventually lose their water-quality battles in court or with the regulatory system if nutrient loads in rivers and lakes fail to decline. Until now, crop farmers have largely gotten a free ride in dealing with phosphorus polluting lakes or hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. EPA will eventually come in with prescriptive cropping practices and standards if farmers don't take dramatic steps on their own to improve conservation practices and reduce fertilizer loading. Noting Farm Bureau's litigation in the Chesapeake Bay, "They think they can fight it and win it where I don't think they can fight it."

Instead, farmers are on a collision course with regulators and urban America over both water quality and water usage. Buffett said USDA needs to be more forceful in pushing for higher levels of conservation agriculture. "If they can't advocate for the right practices then you are never going to win."

As Buffett was making these statements I was thinking about the Beltway mentality of farm-state lawmakers and EPA at complete odds over water quality rules and the interpretive battle over the waters of the U.S. rule. USDA seems to be the one player in the debate searching, somewhat unsuccessfully, for some middle ground. Everyone else is playing an all-or-nothing game that will play out badly for agriculture in the long-term if Buffett is right.

Once again, such talks from agricultural leaders such as Buffett should probably be directed to a different group of farmers and organizations.

Jerry Hatfield, a USDA soil physiologist in Ames, Iowa, -- and a key author in both the National Climate Assessment and IPCC reports -- summarized some conference takeaways from speakers and conversations at the congress:

Treat cover crops as a cash crop. If farmers want to be successful with conservation agriculture then they need to invest the same management efforts in their cover crops that they do in their commodities.

Every place has its own challenges. With that, we are all biased by our own experiences. Farmers in Minnesota or Manitoba have different water and cropping challenges from those Texas or California.

What is the economic value of carbon in the soil? How does that get monetized in the value of land or nutrients in the soil?

Science needs to be built for continuous improvement but realize there is not a single solution for every field.

Farmers are about finance, not romance. Everything has to fit together economically or farmers are not going to be interested in changing cropping practices. This was a theme raised repeatedly throughout the congress. More work is needed on the economics of conservation agriculture.

David Lobb, a soil science professor at the University of Manitoba, also cautioned against prescriptive definitions of what qualifies under conservation agriculture. After all, growers of potatoes, sugar beets or other root crops seem to be excluded from conservation agriculture under the strict definition of never disrupting the soil.

Dwayne Beck, who runs the Dakota Lakes Research Farm in South Dakota, said in the closing address that he did not think sustainability could be a bunch of metrics that tell us a farm is sustainable. It's akin to asking each person to define who is beautiful. We may not be able to define beauty, but we know beauty when we see it.

Beck said 80% of farm input costs are traced to the price of energy. He noted that 125 years ago farmers operated essentially free of fossil fuels and very well may have to do the same in 100 years. Dakota Lakes would be "fossil-fuel neutral" by 2026.

Beck believes the farm bill is a detriment to conservation agriculture. Farmers would be more willing to end tillage practices, diversify their crop rotations and integrate cover crops if they were not so able to reduce their crop risk through crop-insurance subsidies.

Beck said conservation agriculture needs a "moon shot." That would require the country to rally behind a determined push to reach a higher standard of overall conservation agricultural practices, much like John Kennedy declared the country would get to the moon by the end of the 1960s.

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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