As most of you know, no-tillage is experiencing its 60th corn harvest this fall. This milestone, and the 50th year of my dad’s No-Till Farmer magazine, brought a history deep dive in 2022. As a result, my year-long history series has since expanded into a traveling museum display, a special commemorative issue and myriad online pieces, including videos, slideshows and even songs (“I Farm Ugly”).
Recognizing these milestone was Forbes writer Steve Savage, who covers no-till in several writings. In a podcast with our editors, Savage maintains the no-till success story is not trivial. He argues that ag — if not the world — needs to know its history to understand how change can still occur even in well-entrenched traditions like farming. Equipment was a key part of the revolution.
The newest article in the series is titled “Shortlines Filled Equipment Gaps for No-Tillers”. For Farm Equipment’s “Shortline Equipment Edition,” there’s no better example of shortline innovation than conservation tillage.
Numerous interviews examined the outcome had farmers just continued on the well-worn path of their granddads. Plenty of stories exist about how doing more with less via no-till helped farmers survive the 1980s, but the most impactful voices came from Kentucky and Tennessee. Farming itself was in jeopardy, as farms were losing 30-40 tons of soil per acre per year in the 1960s and ‘70s.
In an interview on the recent return of the University of Tennessee’s Milan No-Till Field Day, Dr. Blake Brown startled even me with his answers. Walking me through the math convinced me he wasn’t exaggerating. “Traditional farming was losing as much topsoil in just 4 years as it took 1,000 years to create. When the soil’s gone, it’s gone. Around here when you drill for a well, you’ll see right below the subsoil that it’s white beach sand. Without the move to no-till, this part of Tennessee would be an ‘inland’ beach.”
And yet to make the change to a new farming practice, farmers needed specialized equipment, attachments and kits. And save for Allis-Chalmers’ no-till planter, innovation didn’t come from the majors; it arrived from the shops of small entrepreneurs, several of whose ads appear in this magazine. Meanwhile, my dad recalls, “Case, International Harvester, John Deere, New Holland, Massey Ferguson and Ford bad-mouthed the practice for years.”
Just 40 Seasons
Not only did equipment innovations come, but at a impressive pace. “There aren’t many things you can do in life that made such an impact in just a few decades,” recalls Dr. John Bradley, who preceded Brown at the UT Milan Ag Research Center. “We did a complete agricultural revolution — from plowing to virtually no plowing — in 3 decades,” Bradley says, also sharing stories of a contentious equipment manufacturers meeting and a local dealer who thought Bradley was the devil incarnate.
The average farmer’s career is often counted as “40 seasons, or 40 harvests.” In 1972, no-till was practiced on 3.3 million U.S. acres. Forty harvests later, it was practiced on 96.4 million acres. That’s profound change in a conservative industry in just one generation. But a 300-fold increase doesn’t occur without the tools for residue management, seeding, fertilizer placement, spraying and harvesting — all of which were unique to this new way of farming.
The majors will continue to pursue the one-size-fits-all designs that can be mass-produced, marketed and sold (by you). The riskier, envelope-pushing practices that need customization and configurations will continue to be served by the independents; at least until popular enough for the major to invest or buys its way in.
But as long as the dealer’s mission is to equip the farmer with the best technology to make the most of their 40 seasons, the independent innovation will remain in the conversation.