Editor, Manitoba Co-operator
There are countless examples through history where conventional thinking has taken a well-intentioned, but ultimately wrong turn that sets in motion a series of unfortunate events.
Agriculture on the Canadian Prairies is no exception.
One of those wrong turns dates back to 1885. According to historical reports, the armed forces sent to fight Louis Riel in the Battle of Batoche pulled horses from the fields in the Fort Qu’Appelle area, forcing the farmers in those areas to leave their fields fallow for a year.
With the rebellion quashed, the farmers were back in their fields the next year – which turned out to be a dry one. The farmers whose land had lain fallow still harvested 25 bushels per acre while farmers who had been continously cropping their lands saw two or three.
Word spread faster than a prairie fire, prompting farm advisor Angus Mackay, soon to become the superintendent of the federal experimental farm at Indian Head, to take a closer look at a practice called “summer fallow” used by farmers in the American Midwest.
He concluded it was a good way to conserve moisture on the drought-prone Western Prairies. It also became the main form of weed control. Farmers would sow their crops on half of their land and then start plowing their fallow fields to kill the weeds and create what was known as a “dust mulch” cover, believed to prevent moisture from escaping.
Oops. Industry observers recognized long before the Dustbowl Thirties that soil erosion was a serious problem. But there was little comprehension of the long-term effects. And summerfallow and tillage were firmly entrenched in the farming psyche.
Although the equipment used to tear up the soil changed over time, it would be nearly a century before the practice of fallowing half of the farm and working it over and over and over again with tillage equipment fell out of favour.
And it would take another 30 years before practices such as direct seeding and zero tillage became mainstream.
Now recognized as one of the greatest innovations in 20th century agriculture, the evolution of conservation tillage was painfully slow and occurred only after a number of seemingly unrelated economic, cultural, and scientific components fell into place. Ultimately, it took committed people, good basic science and environmental pressure to make it a reality.
Researchers working for federal experimental farms conducted work in the 1960s to see whether the emerging lineup of herbicides could be used to replace tillage on fallow lands. It was considered a wacky idea at the time, but part of their mandate was to push the envelope. Their work concluded it was feasible but not practical due to the high cost of herbicides.
But in the late 1970s a small group of farmers coalesced around a soil conservation ethic. They took up the challenge of eliminating tillage on their farms in the absence of any support from the industry.
Herbicide manufacturers were reluctant to lower the cost of key herbicides such as glyphosate. Farm equipment manufacturers were heavily invested in the status quo and disinterested in developing direct seeding technology.
Much of the early equipment was designed by farmers themselves in their farm shops.
Harder still were the disapproving looks from their neighbours. When one of the early adopters was given an award for his efforts later in his career, he joked he had been transformed from “idiot to innovator.”
But they had support from publicly financed researchers and they formed their own extension networks through organizations such as Reduced Tillage Linkages and the Manitoba North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association.
It took a few years, but that commitment to caring for the soil was rewarded in the form of improved soil fertility and moisture retention. That created an opportunity to diversify into a wider range of crops, which brought about a host of advantages in the form of risk management, weed and disease control.
No-till farming not only changed the way people managed their soil, it changed how they farmed.
Eventually, the economics, by way of improved returns and reduced costs, became compelling enough for mainstream farmers to come on board. The amount of tillage and soil lost due to erosion has been significantly reduced – for now.
But as the threat of herbicide resistant weeds increases, ironically some weed control experts are recommending a return to tillage as part of the solution. New approaches and perhaps even new technology is desperately needed to avoid this scenario.
With public research funding increasingly tied to specific projects with a short-term focus, and with farmers living year to year, the question becomes where the capacity for future innovations will be found.
The battle that began in the shadow of Batoche is not over yet. [email protected]