– Murray Fulton
“You have technological things on
top of economics on top of policy on top of psychological factors and this is what creates innovation.”
When Prairie farmers think of conservation tillage, they think of things like economics, weed control and crop rotations.
When academics like the University of Saskatchewan’s Murray Fulton think of conservation tillage they ponder the mechanics behind such a transformative innovation.
“I am amazed at how this particular idea involved dozens of people doing different things coming together at one time – the right time – to make this all work,” said Fulton, launching a recent conference called Landscapes Transformed – the Quiet Triumph of Conservation Tillage and Direct Seeding.
As the principal investigator for the Knowledge Impact on Society (KIS) Project co-ordinated by the University of Saskatchewan, Fulton is tasked with understanding how knowledge interacts with society to become an instrument of change.
An agricultural economist by training, Fulton and some of his colleagues became fascinated with the combination of factors that contributed to the conservation tillage movement on the Canadian Prairies. They are hoping to turn the proceedings into a book.
“You have technological things on top of economics on top of policy on top of psychological factors and this is what creates innovation,” Fulton said in a later interview. It was an evolution in thinking that took more than 50 years from the early notions of a “plowless future” to direct seeding becoming a mainstream practice.
“I think we’ve fallen into the trap these days of thinking that innovation is simple and it happens after five years; you put somebody in charge and it is going to happen,” he said. “That is not how these big innovations happen.”
The two-day conference featured some of the key players behind zero tillage, direct seeding and conservation agriculture.
As speakers noted, the problem of soil erosion and declining soil fertility on the Prairies dates back more than a century. It grew from a combination of hastily hatched settlement policies, newcomers operating in survival mode, farming tools poorly adapted to this environment and the droughty Prairie climate.
Fulton said it created an environment in which farmers and their advisors were overly fixated on moisture, without comprehending the long-term effects of common farming practices.
Possible but not practical
Although the devastating consequences of soil erosion became too obvious to ignore, those who set about addressing them faced roadblocks at every turn.
The researchers who first explored the concept of using herbicides instead of tillage for weed control in the 1960s, concluded it was possible but not practical. The economics didn’t work.
The first no-till farmers were passionate about soil conservation, but found they were breaking a social code that dated back to the early settlements, when conformity with one’s neighbours was key to acceptance in the community – and quite possibly survival.
The dominant psyche of the day defined “good-looking field” as black and table-top smooth – a far cry from the fully respectable “trashy” fields of today.
Those renegade farmers formed their own peer support groups to learn from each other and press for extension support.
It was their conviction that was instrumental in convincing herbicide manufacturers that if the price dropped, the volume would more than compensate. Equipment manufacturers initially balked, but that opened the door for a Prairie-grown industry that developed new seeding and soil opener technology.
Fulton said the conference presentations left him wondering how innovation might take place in the future.
“There wasn’t much support among the professional class, and I think that’s really the important issue,” Fulton said. He noted that the federal government research infrastructure is one of the few institutions that can think long term.
But presenters at this conference said that capacity is diminishing as senior scientists retire and funding becomes tied to specific projects.
While the emphasis on tying federal support for research to matching industry investment might work for developing specific technologies, it could in fact stifle innovation that is driven by ideas.
Although zero tillage and the accompanying technologies were the instruments of change, farmers who attempted to make the transition soon learned it they needed a new mindset too. It spawned an integrated “farming-systems” approach to land management, Fulton said.
“Matching investment will never do this kind of thing. The equipment manufacturers weren’t interested, the fertilizer companies weren’t interested – there is nobody to match this kind of technology,” Fulton said. “Matching investments will not create this kind of breakthrough.”
Fulton said the story of conservation tillage could provide a framework for improving agriculture’s resiliency and adaptability in the face of challenges yet to come. [email protected]