NTOTP considers no-till marketing
By Larry Dreiling
While No-Till On The Plains (NTOTP) held its 13th annual winter conference, the series of meetings on conservation tillage and crop residue management actually dates back to 1992, when officials from the Natural Resources Conservation Service were looking for ways for producers to become more involved with continuous no-till.
In the 18 conferences held, no-till has "grown-up," with more sophisticated producers looking to take steps beyond transition from conventional tillage to a near maintenance stage of behaviors in which there is a continuous flow of nitrogen, carbon and high residues. Greater available water in the soil and high nutrient cycling with increased nitrogen and phosphorus attainability is achieved.
Because so many producers have grown-up in no-till, this year's conference, again held for about 1,100 persons at Salina, Kan., took on a slightly different approach, with speakers taking more futuristic visions for innovation in agriculture.
Chief among the speakers was Kirk Gadzia, owner of Resource Management Services, a Bernalillo, N.M., training and consulting firm. Using the theme "What's Next for Innovators," Gadzia, whose consulting firm is involved in holistic approaches to agriculture and life, began by telling producers to consider the challenges NTOTP has had over the years in making no-till work better agronomically, by using better equipment, locations, and timings.
"We've had to think about getting it right economically, in terms of yields, costs of production. Keeping yields up and costs down equals profitability," Gadzia said. "We've also had to consider the social acceptance of no-till over the years. It continues to be an issue.
"There's also understanding and working with ecological principles, being aware of how nature works. It's also understanding and re-focusing on soil health, understanding the use of cover crops and possibly integrating livestock into an operation."
The new challenges are the same as the old ones, Gadzia said. Agronomics, economics, ecology and social issues will still matter to those who use a no-till system, but with a different twist.
"You have to ask yourself, what business are we in? We grow food for a profit. Profit is not a dirty word. It is important. Yet, we are different, because we grow soil, too," Gadzia said.
"That's important. Not enough people know that. We need to have people realize it and make that connection."
Gadzia quoted a manuscript by Dr. David Montgomery, a professor of earth sciences at Washington State University, that said: "Soil erosion is the least appreciated but most important environmental challenge we face. Every bit as important as global warming."
Gadzia told the producers about Montgomery's global study of how, while plowed land erodes at a global average of one millimeter per year, soil builds at an average of two millimeters per year.
"What Montgomery called direct seeding, or no-till, has average erosion rates very close to soil building rates. The conclusion: No-till provides a major foundation for sustainable agriculture," Gadzia said.
"Unlike so many other places in the world, we've still got our soil. We grow food and we grow soil, too."
In reiterating his position, Gadzia discussed taking no-till from the field to the table by developing a system where certain crops could be certified as coming from a no-till operation, much as they are certified organic today.
"Consider what you hear on the news these days. We hear about organic and local. We hear about food safety, food security. We hear about sustainability. We hear about farmer's markets and community sponsored agriculture," Gadzia said.
"Surveys have asked consumers if they want locally produced food and/or environmentally sound produced food. The responses have almost always come back with 'both, please.'"
Gadzia said this response stems from consumers in developed countries and their personal relationship with food. The trend toward consumers purchasing more organic production, which has grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $20 billion in 2007, is expected to increase an average of 18 percent a year in the next few years, according to the Organic Trade Association.
Gadzia showed covers from the books of noted organic boosters such as Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver as part of the popularity of these authors and their reach into the consumer market.
"A lot of people have picked up these books and have begun to challenge how they eat. It will affect the market. The issues of locally produced and environmentally sound food are having a big impact on people," Gadzia said.
Because of this movement, several organizations-from Oregon Tilth to the California Organic Food Association-have developed certification and labeling programs to assist consumers in their search for locally grown, environmentally sound food.
"We all want healthy land and healthy food. What's there to fight about?" Gadzia said. "From LocalHarvest in Kansas to Natural Certified Angus Beef nationwide, we can learn something from them. We are not at odds with any of these people. We have common goals. What are we fighting over-whether we use Roundup or not?"
Gadzia said no-tillers should be touting the higher level of organic matter in their soil compared with conventional till, along with higher levels of earthworms and beneficial insects in the soil and, generally, "more life."
He added: "Somehow that life in the soil is voting with its reproductive process saying the soil is healthy. People want organic but they want safe food. Give people choices."
Gadzia showed websites of products such as locally raised beef from Hawaii to a Montana bakery that uses wheat from a local farm to timber from a forest certified for its stewardship practices.
"People more and more are looking for certifying agencies to see if what they're getting will meet their desires," Gadzia said. "We already have a national organic program with a USDA Organic seal. Why can't we have a USDA No-Till Seal? I can see an ad saying 'Certified No-Till Wheat. Healing the land, keeping food safe, supporting family farms.''
"We have to make the connection with the consumer that no-till means healthy soils and healthy foods. It's a growing thing and we need to be a part of it. We have role models out there. We can fashion that future. We don't have to go it alone."
Gadzia suggested NTOTP seek federal grant money for marketing efforts as well as self-fund a marketing plan.
"The first step would be to develop a business plan that will work to create the future we want to see. Take our clues from successful sectors of organic, natural foods, and sustainably produced organizations so we don't have to reinvent the wheel. We can develop a certification program working in concert with others and set target dates for a labeled product and test marketing," Gadzia said.
"It won't happen, if we don't set a date."
He admitted there would be a long lag time between the effort to write a grant and receiving any funds, that funds likely would be restricted to a specific purpose, that the financial reporting process would be onerous and that there could be risks that NTOTP could become grant dependent or could lose existing grant money due to shifts in political or economic situations.
"For a long time, we've been ready for the big time. The next step includes no-till marketing to make the connection of healthy soils, healthy foods," Gadzia said. "We have a major breakthrough. People need to know this. Not everyone can do no-till certified, but everyone can produce something special."
NTOTP officials are gathering names of persons interested in a no-till crop marketing certification program. For more information, call 888-330-5142 or visit www.notill.org.
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.