Barry Fisher is used to encountering people who don't believe no-till farming can deliver on many of its promises. One that often raises skepticism is that soils improve over time in continuous no-till systems. Improvements often show up in the form of better tilth. Some claim organic matter also improves, although that one may be harder to demonstrate.
Fisher, director of the Indiana Conservation Tillage Initiative (ICTI) shines whenever he can get someone into the field and 'show them the money,' so to speak. Last summer, he took a group of farmers and others, including Indiana Prairie Farmer's Tom J. Bechman, into a field that had been no-tilled for about 10 years.
"When they started, this field wasn't in very good shape," Fisher observed. "But they've worked on it, and look at it now."
Indeed, the surface soil was mellow. Fisher easily dug up a shovel full, and the crumbly nature of the dark brown soil said all that needed to be said. Doubters were encouraged to look for earthworm holes. Earthworms that do the tillage in no-till systems, Fisher stresses.
Today, Fisher is finding it easier to locate fields where he can demonstrate the success of treating soils as they should be treated. In many areas of the state, he can find no-till fields that were once enrolled in the conservation reserve program (CRP). Often, these are sloping fields that were qualified as highly erodible land (HEL).
In certain pockets of Indiana, considerable acreage was enrolled in this program, beginning in the 1980s. Since it was a 10-year signup, contracts came up again in the 1990s. While some farmers re-enrolled the same field, others couldn't or didn't do that. Instead, they returned the land to farming. Fortunately, many who brought those acres back into production opted to do so using no-till farming techniques. After all, many of the fields entered the program because soil erosion was a potential threat and a limiting factor to improving crop productivity.
Many of those fields are exemplary examples of what increased residue and no-till can do, Fisher says. "They were the worst of the worst when they were enrolled in the program," he says. "Now many of those same fields are the best of the best when it comes to productivity."
Fisher is convinced that no-till holds at least a good portion of the secret. That kind of improvement in productivity can only occur given enough time for change to take place.