Recent legislation supported by President Obama is a threat to farmers across the U.S., but none more so than grain and cotton growers in the upper Southeast.
Obama’s proposed budget would cut hundreds of millions of dollars from conservation programs that was promised under the 2008 farm bill. The President’s budget would cut $30 million in funding in 2010, and $175 million over the next three years.
Another program under-the-gun from the President’s proposed cuts is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, which is earmarked for a $250 million cut.
Farm leaders contend all the conservation measures, including buffer strips between fields and streams and fencing livestock out of waterways are critical to the long-term sustainability and profitability of agriculture in the upper Southeast.
The concept of no-till farming has caught on in North Carolina and Virginia as much as any part of the country. No-till, combined with Roundup Ready and subsequent gene transfer technology, has been the impetus for growth of countless upper Southeast farms.
Randolph Aigner, who farms grain crops near Richmond, Va., says no-till farming and the whole concept of conservation agriculture has been a life-saver for his small farming operation.
Now moving toward 20 years of no-till farming, Aigner says there is no way to go back to the old method of farming.
He points to a field across a highway from his home. “Any significant rainfall would turn that field into a lake — with standing water for days,” he says. Now, a heavy downpour only keeps him out of the field a day or two and the crops benefit from the moisture rather than being destroyed by it, he says.
No-till, which in some parts of Virginia has grown into ‘never-till’, has become an integral part of the farm plan for a growing number of farmers. Losing the impetus for continued technological advancement of no-till farming systems would slow the growth of grain farming in particular in the upper Southeast, according to a number of area experts.
Long-time never-till supporter and Area Extension Specialist Paul Davis says going back to conventional-tillage methods would be difficult for any no-till farmers, but many simply wouldn’t survive the switch.
Davis, who also helps operate a small family farm along the Pawmunky River near West Point, Va.,, says conservation-tillage is the key to unlocking improved yields, lower cost fertility and more efficient and profitable overall production of crops in Virginia’s Middle Peninsula.
Mocksville, N.C., farmer Henry Walker says no-till has been a salvation for his farm. Though a long-time farmer, Walker continues to develop his own philosophies about no-till farming. Losing the initiative of conservation farming would be a big step backwards, he contends.
Among Walker’s latest conservation-tillage challenges has been proper establishment of winter cover crops. A challenge, he says, he has finally gotten under control.
“I am a life-time farmer using no-till starting in the middle 1970s. Most of our land has been no-tilled, or as we like to say never-tilled, 20 plus years.
“I am very much interested in finding new research information using vetch as a cover crop. I think I have the answer for getting the stand started without having to wait until after harvesting the soybeans which makes it too late to get the early growth needed to get corn in on time the following spring.
“I have been thinking about this for over five years, and have talked about putting a grass seed box on my 750 John Deere drill. This past year we mounted a grass seed box on the drill and dropped vetch seed on top of the soil as we drilled soybeans with the hope the seed would lay and not come up until after we had completed over-the-top spraying of the soybeans.
“This was in a rye cover crop we had broadcast into corn stubble the previous fall and bush-hogged down, getting a good stand of rye. The rye was 4-5 feet tall when burned down in late April. We were very dry so the soybeans didn't get planted until June after some rain. It continued dry making us late spraying over-the-top of the soybeans.
“By this time a lot of the vetch had come up and I figured we would lose it to the Roundup. Much to my surprise most of the vetch made it though the spraying and more came up. At that point, the vetch was 2 to 6 inches tall (Aug. 19) which gave it the head start needed to make a good cover crop,” Walker says.
Losing funding for conservation-tillage, he contends, would limit the amount of work done on the use and benefits of cover crops and make it more difficult to find the information he needs to continue to expand the benefits he receives from no-till farming.
In addition to limiting advantages to no-till farming and reducing productivity of farm land, the president’s proposed budget cuts would also contribute to the continued dependency by agriculture on fossil-fuel based products.
Long-time Virginia Tech Soil Scientist Mark Alley was an early skeptic of the merits of no-till farming of grain crops. In more recent years Alley has become a proponent of no-till and is an avid leader in developing never-till systems into even more sophisticated systems in which growers are able to grow their own nitrogen and more carefully manage the use of expensive fertilizers.
The volatility of fertilizer prices in recent years has made farmers more aware of the need to reduce over-use of these materials. Finding new ways to use fertilizers more efficiently is critical to the whole arena of cost-effective, sustainable agriculture, Alley says.
“The one bright spot in the budget is funding for the Conservation Loan Guarantee Program,” says Dennis Nuxoll, AFT Senior Director of Government Relations. “This is a program AFT proposed in the 2008 farm bill that would provide a supplemental tool in our nation’s conservation toolbox.”
“Farmers and ranchers have repeatedly indicated conservation system costs limit their ability to apply suitable measures to their land. While the 2008 farm bill increased the amount of cost-share funding for conservation, we know not every project that every producer wants to apply onto his land will be funded,” added Nuxoll.
“Producers in the past that wanted to upgrade an irrigation system in order to reduce water use might not be able to do so due to a lack of cost-share assistance. Now with a conservation loan program, producers who want to apply conservation practices can do so with low- or no-interest government and government-backed loans.
In the upper Southeast two major technological advances — glyphosate tolerant crops and reduced-tillage have made it possible for small farms to get much bigger and subsequently be more productive and profitable.
It is ironic that resistance problems now make the wide-scale use of glyphosate herbicides less productive and government cutbacks threaten to derail the progress of no-till and never-till technology.