A small team from Groundswell went over to Kansas in January to attend the 21st 'No-till on the Plains' Winter Conference. No-till on the Plains (www.notill.org ) is a farmer run organisation that promotes the use of no-till techniques, specifically in the Great Plains in the middle of the USA. This might seem an odd place to look for ideas that would be applicable to farmers in the UK, but we chose this conference over those of several other no-till organisations in America, as it has more of an emphasis on regenerating soils and working in harmony with nature than the others and this is in tune with what we are keen to promote at Groundswell.
Before we got to this, we had a quick tour around the Land Institute, (www.landinstitute.org ) a wonderful organisation set up by Wes Jackson in the 1970's to find an antidote to tillage agriculture, which Jackson identified as one of the great destroyers of soil around the world. In the fragile landscape of the Great Plains, tillage is even more harmful than for us in the UK, but still many farmers practise it and dust storms and erosion are still happening. We saw the scientists at work trying to breed perennial varieties of common cereals and other agricultural crops in the hope that one day we'll be able to grow perennial wheat (or whatever) without having to plant it every year. Strangely, although this institute is located only a few miles from where the No-till Conference has been these last 21 years, there is next to no interaction between the two organisations, although we did bump into one of the scientists again at the Conference. He wore a frown.
The Conference stretched over four days, day one was for those thinking of going over to no-till and was attended by 80 or so beginners. On days two and three, 800 delegates shuttled between talks that took place simultaneously in six rooms dotted about the building. On the last day 150 hardcore delegates sat together and discussed how to increase their soil and system resilience.
So, you want to know what we learned? The overall message I picked up was the benefits of getting grazing animals back onto arable land, something our great grandfathers well knew. Jay Fuhrer feels so strongly about this that he has addedtwo extra principles of no-till/conservation agriculture to the three standard ones; minimal disturbance of the soil, continuous cover and diversity. The two extras are: keeping continuous living roots in the soil (with either cover crops or perennials) and integrating livestock into your system.
We will be bringing some of these ideas to Groundswell this year. We will be having an extra Livestock Groundswell day on the 28th June and the No-till day, as advertised, on the 29th. There will be camping available or local hotels for people who want to come to both shows. It is going to be fantastic, you really don't want to miss this. Details will follow, but mark your diaries now!