Don Curlee: Farmers warming to rough tillage method
The Academy Awards, the Emmys, maybe, but ballyhoo for an agricultural practice — especially one dealing with dust, dirt and year-old stubble — is just not expected.
But persistent and vigorous promotion for the soil preparation technique called conservation tillage has brought the cost-saving, fuel-saving, time-saving, money-saving, equipment-saving features of this down-to-earth farming practice to the forefront for thousands of California's farmers.
Even more surprising for the attention it has received is the fact that the practice involves doing nothing, or at least doing less of the typical cultivation and soil preparation that has been traditional for thousands of farmers in California for years.
Instead of fine-tuning the soil preparation process each year for a forage or row crop, the no-till playbook calls for planting the new crop into the partially cultivated residue of last year's crop, stubble, clods, weeds, squirrel corpses and all.
Instead of a dozen or more passes through the field with a plow, a disc, a harrow, a clod-buster and who knows what else, rough disking is enough. The disc might be pulled north and south, then east and west, plus a diagonal path — as much as five passes — and still fall within the "conservation tillage" definition.
Midwest farmers have been staunch fans of conservation tillage for years, and why it had not caught on in California is anybody's guess. Once the University of California got behind it and began to push it through the Extension Service and its farm advisers, the practice gained adherents and acceptance.
The obvious beneficiaries are large-scale row crop and field crop farmers. For years, they seemed to think they had to manicure their acreage to look as smooth as AT&T Park's infield before the start of a game. By comparison, conservation tillage looks a little like housecleaning half-done.
The latest data show that the labor-saving practice results in yields equal to or exceeding crops grown in the old-fashioned way. Perhaps that's the most convincing evidence of all.
So far, the widest application of conservation tillage has been in cotton and tomato fields. Following cotton in a field with half-chopped stalks, unharvested bolls and a bird nest here and there for the first time takes some determination. Planting into a ragged-looking expanse takes even more.
But it works, and that's what UC Extension specialist Jeff Mitchell has been saying for years. One of his recent promotional events was a luncheon in Clovis for growers, crop specialists and other interested parties, where charts, graphs, photos and personal testimonies were presented to back up Mitchell's claims.
One of the most entertaining speakers at that event was Hanford-area dairyman Dino Giacomazzi, who had converted to the conservation tillage system for his alfalfa plantings years ago. His was a convincing story.
The experiences of other growers who have converted are also convincing as adherence to the practice widens. One large-acreage farmer who hasn't converted, but is well-acquainted with the technique, gave a sensible reason for not changing. "We've been pretty successful using conventional methods," he said, "and we didn't want to buy new equipment." And he has found that cotton seed seems to germinate best in a close-fitting blanket of soil, one not perforated by stalks from last year's crop.
He said conservation tillage requires a different style of planter for his crops than the traditional, plus some tillage equipment he chose not to buy. He said several neighboring growers are using conservation tillage, and are very happy with it.
So it appears the farming community is just like the rest of us. When something is presented that can make life easier or better, and its worth is proven, farmers are willing to change practices.
For all of us who enjoy eating, let's hope nobody comes along to ballyhoo a farming lifestyle that avoids planting altogether.
CONTACT Don Curlee at email@example.com