This article is part of our special report Innovation in agriculture: Europe at crossroads.
With soil health high on the EU policy agenda, EURACTIV spoke with US-based farmer Trey Hill, whose innovative approach to farming explores the potential of no-till agriculture, a practice that can contribute to the EU’s sustainability goals although some dismiss it as “technologically backward”.
Soil health is at the heart of the EU’s new Green Deal and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, both of which aim to tackle biodiversity loss, reverse climate change and support sustainable land use.
However, soil degradation is “prevalent and extensive in the context of the EU territory,” according to a recent report released by the EU Commission’s mission board for soil health and food in June this year.
It concluded that 25-30% of EU soils are currently “either losing organic carbon, eroding or are compacted, or have some combination” while 60-70% of EU soils were found to be “unhealthy”.
The report adds that these are all occurring on agricultural land.
One way in which farmers are working to address these issues is via ‘no-till agriculture’.
No-till, or reduced-till, agriculture is the practice of planting crops without tilling the soil, which is the conventional way of preparing the soil for planting by digging, stirring, and turning it over. No-till is a key component of ‘conservation agriculture’.
Tilling kills unwanted plants and allows for easier planting. But conventional tilling is costly and time-consuming and can lower the quality of the soil, causing soil compaction and erosion.
Although no-till agriculture is practised in the EU, its uptake is slower than elsewhere. Although some farmers groups or associations have already implemented this practice with some success, it is currently not applied at a large scale.
But no-tillage farming, in conjunction with other conservation agricultural practises, has been shown as a cost-effective way to successfully control erosion and improve the efficiency of the use of water and fertilisers in the EU.
For Trey Hill, a farmer in the USA who produces corn, wheat and soybean, his no-till system allows him to “save money, fuel and labour costs” while also maintaining yields.
Hill is at the forefront of innovation in cover crops, plants grown alongside crops which are designed to cover and enrich soils, and is the initiator of numerous programmes and associations to promote soil health and conservation agriculture.
He told EURACTIV that he works to “instil a mix of traditional practice with innovation and creativity to uncover novel solutions that move the industry forward,” stressing that no-till systems hold enormous potential for protecting soils, improving biodiversity, reducing chemical inputs and run-off and sequestering carbon.
Resilience to shocks
Hill maintains that his innovative system is more resilient to unexpected shocks.
“On a good year, I can’t say that my yields are much higher than my neighbours, they might even be slightly lower,” he said but added that this difference in yield usually amounts to less than he would have spent on tilling his fields.
“But you really start to see the difference in the systems when the conditions are bad. If there’s a drought, you can see that areas under no-till farming are more productive than conventional farms in the surrounding areas. The temperature of the soil is cooler, it conserves water, pollinators prefer the cooler conditions,” he said, stressing that this will become increasingly important with climate change.
Traditionally considered a “fringe” movement, the practice, Hill said, is increasingly gaining recognition as a mainstream practice that can be “feasible, effective and economically advantageous,” although he admitted that more research is required to determine the best no-till methods.
“At the moment, farmers are shooting from their hip, but what we need is quantifiable numbers and scientific research to help push these techniques forward,” said Hill, who is working with a number of university research projects.
No-till is often associated with smaller-scale farms but Hill, who farms 5,000-hectares, insists that it is not a question of size, but of management and the intelligent application of enabling tools and technologies.
“What is relevant is having the belief and conviction in what you are doing, and being able to learn from observation,” he said, adding that precision farming technologies such as yield monitors and satellite imagery are key to the success of his farm.
Something old, something new
While no-till is sometimes associated with being technologically backward, Hill stresses that it is important to “embrace all technology that can help farmers make a living while being part of the solution”.
As such, he makes the most of modern genomic, chemical and technological innovations, combining these with conservation agricultural methods to create a hybrid system for the “best of all worlds”.
Cover cropping is strongly incentivised via subsidies in his region, something he says is a key motivation for many new no-till farmers as it offers a safety net in the first few years of conversion.
“More and more of my neighbours are looking to integrate cover crops to their farms, thanks to a combination of strong subsidy programmes and the ability to follow others examples,” he said but stressed that the end game was to ensure this kind of agriculture was sustained beyond subsidies.
“If farmers are able to get a premium for sequestering carbon, and if consumers can see value in this, then this will encourage the uptake of no-till, which is in everyone’s interest,” he said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]