The congress was attended by nearly 400 people (including 7 other Nuffield Scholars) from 40 countries. I guess I should start by defining what conservation agriculture(CA) is in case some of you are scratching your head and wondering what it is, even though you know what it means. The 3 principles of conservation agriculture are, as defined by the FAO, are :
1. Seeding with a no till system
2. Permanent ground cover, either as living crop or crop stubble/mulch
3. Minimum 3 crops in rotation.
It is estimated their is 155 million ha of CA in the world, approximately 11% of arable land with 51% in the developed world and 49% in the developing world. On top of this, there is an extra 20 million ha of no till in the world that isn't true CA (eg. rice in India).
The opening address was by David Montgomery, the author of 'Dirt - The Erosion of Civilisations', which looks at the extinction of civilisations due to the degradation of the soils that supported their existence. Most civilisations have lasted 800-2000 years and the development of the plough changed the balance between soils formation and soil erosion.
Soil loss is a problem not because we farm, but because of how we farm.
Areas of the Palouse region in Washington state which have loess soils on steep slopes lost 5' (1.5m) of soil from 1911-1961. World soil erosion losses was estimated in 1992 to be 23 billion ton/year, equivalent to 0.7% of total world soil. For the last 500 million years, soil loss has been estimated at 1" (25mm) every 1400 years, while it is presently estimated at 1" (25mm) every 500 years.
So the question is can we build soils quicker than nature? It has been done with the Plaggen soils in Europe, where soils have even established on reclaimed sea beds (saw that in the Netherlands last year) and the Terra Presta soils in the Amazon. This is the ultimate aim of any farming system one would hope and I believe that incorporating a production system that utilises no till, diverse rotations and cover crops will reach this goal over time, not just maintain the status quo.
The conference was a mix of panel and concurrent discussions and some of the key points I took from it were as follows.
Kristine Nichols, USDA soil microbiologist, presented on water use efficiency (WUE) in no till wheat in North Dakota. The WUE for a dynamic rotation was 16-17% better than 3 and 5 year set rotations, 19% better than continuous wheat and 62% better than the fallow-wheat rotation. Our natural inclination is that water or fertility is the limiting factor whereas really carbon is the limiting input, it is the driver of soil biology and health, which supplies nutrients on demand as opposed to artificial fertilisation which is trying to mimic this process.
The question is how much water does a plant need when comparing a monoculture versus a cover crop system.
Jill Clapperton spoke on the need to think of soil productivity as more than just yield, it includes the provision of nutrients for plant uptake which in turn are required for human nutrition (see Evan Ryan's Nuffield Scholarship report on fertilising with trace elements for human nutrition for more information). Soil C from roots retains and forms more stable aggregates than plant carbon.
Frederic Thomas, a farmer and no till/cover crop consultant from France, had two great quotes :
"Don't find excuses, find solutions", in respect to critics of cover crops, and
"Replace steel by roots, fuel by photosynthesis, and urea by nodules".
There has been a push in France and Switerland, in particular, to develop a system where cover crops are used to virtually eliminate the use of glyphosate. Easier said than done, but they are pursuing it.
Blake Vince, a fellow Nuffield Scholar studying cover crops, made the point that as farmers, we are after financial yield, not just production yield. Higher yield doesn't always mean higher profitability (I'll talk more about his later when I get to the farm tour).
Emit Roy, President and CEO of the International Fertilizer Development Centre, outlined the development of deep placement of urea in rice paddies in Bangladesh. A pressing machine is used to produce urea briquettes which were pushed in deep between 4 plants and resulted in less weed growth and better nitrogen uptake and reduced losses. The placement is hard physical work so an applicator was developed, which while not increasing the speed of application, makes it easier for whoever is doing it.
Nick Betts from Grain Farmers Ontario, which represents 28 000 farmers with $9 billion of sales from corn, soybeans and wheat, spoke of the different meanings of sustainability between farmers and consumers.
Lee Moats, a farmer and former chair of Pulse Canada, questioned what is sustainable sourcing, a term starting to be used by companies in their marketing programs. In terms of response to consumer demand, his mantra was "don't tell me what to do, tell me what you want".
Stephen Loss, an Australian working with the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Northern Iraq around Mosul is working with local farmers to adopt no till systems which has led to small scale manufacturing of a locally designed drill. Such is the state of unrest and violence around Mosul that the three farmers that were going to attend the conference couldn't leave their families. Martin also works in Syria where the use of no till continues for as much as anything that it is safer then ploughing - less time spent in the paddock reduces the chance of being shot. It really is a different world that we live in!
The only speaker that was able to fill every seat of the congress was Howard Buffet, farmer, philanthropist and son of Warren Buffet. Howard farms with his son on 1500 acres in Illinois, along with a number of research farms around the world. They have used no till for 20 years and cover crops for 6 years and Howard believes US farmers are being back by attitudes to CA and they have been given a free ride for a long time. This is in reference to the continuing problem over 20 years of nutrient runoff from farms that drain into the Mississippi River and end up in the Gulf of Mexico. Unless the problem is addressed by farmers, will the government regulate for control?
The political landscape in the US is changing with the numbers moving away from farmers, as it is in most countries, so a collision course on water issues needs to be averted by farmers or they will be defeated and regulated. In this respect, government needs to be an agent for change (the carrot rather than the stick).
In response to a question on whether subsidies to US farmers are preventing the adoption of CA, his response was that the majority of US farmers are "lazy" as a result of the subsidy programs. Generally, those countries with the poorest and/or least subsidised farmers are the most innovative and efficient, they can't afford to be anything but. I don't think Australian farmers would disagree!
I got a chance to ask him a question regarding how to address the growing divide between farmers and consumers. his first response was that is it's very hard to rebut correct information on social media and as farmers, we are often portrayed in a light that is far from what we do by all sorts of self interest groups. The problem with any accused is that even if you are innocent, the tarnish often never goes away, and the more you protest, the more people think you are guilty. We here it all the time, but agriculture does need its own spin doctors, and that includes each of us speaking up whenever we get a chance.
Not every day you get a photo with Warren Buffet and get to ask him a question!
With Amir Kassam, FAO, UK, Karen Scanlon, CTIC, Canada, Howard Buffet and Bill Crabtree, Australia.
We visited Kelburn Farm, a showcase farm and crop development centre established by the Richardson family after the Second World War when it was initially used to research cattle breeds. Caught up with Kay Meyer, whose farm I visited in 2010 on the Cross Slot tour of Washington state as her husband Tye was our guide for the tour - small world.
Dinner at Kelburn Farm with Seth Watkins, USA, Richard Heath, Australia, Kay Meyer, USA, Annieka Paridaen, Australia and Tracey
Four wheel drive track articulated tractor - North American Style (note the drive cog in the track)
The diversity of attendees that attended the conference was it's strength and I made contact with many people that I had little time to speak to but will be able to follow up when I get home - perhaps not straight away, I might have some work to do and a house to finish renovating.
Following the conference, we joined a 4 day tour of farms and research stations in North and South Dakota. More on that to come.