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Seeing is Believing: How no-till farming transformed the landscape

Location: Wasco County, Oregon
By Garrett Duyck, Soil Conservationist, NRCS Oregon

If you need proof that no-till farming works, look no further than the rolling hills of north-central Oregon.

For decades, this region was dominated by winter wheat farms that used extensive tillage to control weeds during fallow years. It was the conventional way of farming in the area, from the early 1900’s through the 1980’s.

But over time, soil erosion became a serious threat. That’s because the Columbia Plateau terrain is characterized by rolling hills of wind-blown silt called loess. In some areas, like Wasco County, these hills became very steep. This loess on steep slopes is very susceptible to water and wind erosion, resulting in many of the soils being classified as “highly erodible land.”

Many people living in the region recall stories of roads, houses, and other buildings being buried in silt mud after major rain events. Evidence of severe soil erosion can still be witnessed today in the large gullies that were once roadside ditches.

Enter the Soil Conservation Service (SCS)—now named the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Beginning in 1935, SCS staff helped countless farmers in the region install structures that would reduce soil erosion and prevent sediment from leaving crop fields. Practices included diversions, sediment basins, grassed waterways, and terraces.


This work continued as Congress passed the 1985 Farm Bill and Highly Erodible Land Compliance became law. The Farm Bill spurred wider-scale adoption of soil conservation practices.

In the 1990’s, NRCS and Wasco County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) assisted farmers to adopt a new conservation tillage system called direct seed, or no-till. This system minimizes disturbance on the soil and preserves crop residues over the entire fallow period from harvest to planting—dramatically reducing soil erosion.

The direct seed tillage system was made possible by new technologies including planting equipment and herbicides that would control plant growth during the fallow period, now referred to as chemical fallow.

Today, more than 95 percent of the dryland grain cropland in Wasco County is in direct seed, thanks in part to NRCS and Wasco County SWCD. In fact, many farmers in the area have said that if they had to return to conventional tillage, they would rather stop farming because it’s so taxing on themselves and the land.


And now, decades later in 2016, the landscape has transformed across Wasco County. Terraces installed back in the mid 1900’s are barely visible anymore, and soil erosion has curbed significantly.

It’s an incredible story of the evolution of cropping systems in this influential region, and the great success that farmers and conservation agents have achieved.

NRCS continues to help farmers and ranchers bolster the health, productivity and vigor of their soils. Nationwide, NRCS offers science-based guidance, resources, and financial assistance programs to help farmers install soil conservation practices on private lands. To find out what kinds of opportunities are available in your area, contact a local USDA Service Center near you.