What re-reading books and zero-till have in common

(Kara Oosterhuis/RealAgriculture)

It’s no secret that I love to read. I read all different varieties of books, with certain types always being the go-to.

Genre aside, I also have a rotating list of my favourite books, which I try to re-read every couple of years. One of my favourites will always be The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.

You’re likely wondering where I’m going with this. Bear with me.

This week, I attended the National No-Till Conference, held at St. Louis, Missouri. The conference has been held for just over 30 years. This year, over 900 participants gathered to discuss the latest and greatest in no-till technology, to celebrate their achievements, and discuss the future and what it may hold, as policy and how we farm continues to change.

Here’s the thing: human beings as a whole are often resistant to change. We listen to new research and wonder how on earth that could actually fit in on our own operations. The saying “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” comes to mind — especially in agriculture.

Often times, we take a look at an article or a study, and take the NIMBY approach (not in my backyard!), but as I sat and listened to speakers at this conference, I got to thinking: how often do we actually go back and re-look at research?

The books I read every couple of years, specifically the Chbosky one, I have both loved and despised. Each time I read it, I come out with something new. I could be in a bad headspace when I read it, and I come away thinking it’s time this book gets used as kindling. A few years later, at a different point in my life, I finish it feeling whole and welcomed. The book didn’t change — but I did. The cycle continues.

We are continuously changing, and whether we like it or not, so are our operations, and how they fit into the world. When was the last time you took a look at research or ideas you passed over half a decade ago, decided it wouldn’t work, and never looked at it again? I’m willing to bet in some situations, if a person were to go back and revisit the idea, there would be more potential for it then there was originally.

It was less than 100 years ago that no-till started being promoted as a farming practice across the United States. Take a look at the Dirty 30s and the Great Depression — when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government decided to compensate farmers based on the idea of soil conservation (i.e., how can we get this darn topsoil to stop blowing across the Midwest and the Texas panhandle?).

Flash forward to 2023 — there’s a lot more direct seeding, minimum (and even zero) till that occurs. We are learning about the importance of crop residue. Cover crops are becoming more and more of a common practice, as we learn more about what soil needs and how to keep the proper nutrients available to grow the best crops possible.

15 years ago I’m not so sure this would’ve been the case. I know on our farm here in southern Alberta, even five years ago we responded to the idea of cover crops a lot differently than we do now. How do I know this? Because we revisited the idea. Same farm, same area, but Mother Nature created some changes (as she always does) and so, we had to adapt. We originally put the idea on hold, came back, and said, ‘OK, is this something that can be used now?’ Sure, sitting in The Palliser Triangle we currently don’t use cover crops the same way that our friends in central Ontario do, but again, we adjust for the situation.

Many conversations that I participated in at the No-Till Conference centred around the question of ‘how do I get the most out of my land and my crop, while keeping the legacy of the land for future generations?’ The answer I heard over and over is to be open to change, open to ideas, and to remember — if it doesn’t work on your farm now, it doesn’t mean it’s not an option in the future. No doesn’t have to mean no forever.

Long story short (TL;DR = too long, didn’t read), my advice is to keep an open mind and maybe don’t send all the ideas that come across your desk straight to the burn barrel. Instead, file ideas away to be revisited later. It could make a heck of an impact in a few years.


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