Randall Reeder from Columbus, Ohio, of all places, spoke at a conservation tillage conference at Richmond recently. He is retired as an ag engineer at Ohio State University, but still works on various projects, typically to promote no-till or the use of cover crops. He asked the audience a question that seemed whimsical on the surface, but was very thought-provoking if you actually stopped to consider it.
"What if John Deere had been a chemist instead of a blacksmith?" he asked. "How would it have affected agriculture?"
He was inferring, of course, that perhaps he would have discovered glyphosate, and someone would have invented a no-till planter more than 100 years before it actually happened. It spurred me to think about another question I've heard posed before, often quietly so as not to spark real debate. But what the heck … let's have a debate!
What would have happened if John Purdue had lived at Bloomington and donated land for a land-grant college in Monroe County instead of Tippecanoe County? What if Indiana University was the land grant college?
Ok, for those still reading and not totally offended, truth is there were some rumblings, according to history, about establishing the land grant college elsewhere until John Purdue stepped forward. He did, and history is history.
The question, of course, invites more questions. Would have past researchers spent more time working on systems to save soil, including no-till when it came along, if they saw steep slopes outside their classroom windows instead of fertile, black soil? Would more people going into ag research have been interested in finding ways to farm without letting all the good soil wash out, a bit sooner? As it was, a good portion of southern Indiana suffered severe erosion problems until around mid-century, when the soil conservation movement took hold in the form of the Soil Conservation Service, now the natural Resources Conservation Service, and soil and water conservation district.
To be sure, Purdue specialists and Purdue Extension has joined in the fight, and provided excellent support as farmers have healed many of the sever problems that existed there years ago. They have also supported and continue to support no-till, and now are working with other soil conservation partners to tackle the new frontier, soil health and cover crops.
Actually, cover crops aren't new at all. But the idea of using them in a new system to build soil health without plowing is a modern idea, and many people with large, successful operations are already making it work.
Would a Purdue ag chemist have found a solution for johnsongrass 30 years before anyone did if the land-grant college was the University of Evansville? Merrill Ross, the retired Purdue researcher who devoted much of his career to helping farmers fight johnsongrass – aformidable foe before the days of Roundup Ready crops – probably would have welcomed the help.
None of this is to say that Purdue hasn't done its job, or that the land-grant college should have been somewhere else. A dedicated Purdue ag alumni wouldn't say that. The Purdue College of Agriculture, overall, is second to none in the world.
If you're still reading, this dialogue is just to say that sometimes history is shaped by circumstances. If you're letting your circumstance – like tradition or 'what dad did' or soil type – dictate how you farm today, maybe you need to take another look. You can find help from Purdue folk and soil and water people in Lafayette, Bloomington, Evansville and a host of other places. You can make any system work if you want it to work today, because the help is there. The choice is up to you.