Skip Navigation

No-till farmer ‘feeds the world’ through partnership with NRCS

201123 No Till Farmer 'feeds the world'

By Nate Gallahan
NRCS Public Affairs Specialist

PROSSER, Wash. – Feeding the world is a tough job, but according to one farmer, it’s much easier and more fruitful if you do so without destroying the soil through harsh cultivation techniques.

“We just had the best yield of my 44 years [of farming] this year,” said Greg Smith, owner of the 4,000-acre Triple-S Farm. “Although I have had much wetter years cultivating. I attribute the yields to going from red wheat to white wheat, which generally produces a little bit more than red wheat, But also the cumulative effects of no-till farming, that had a big impact on having the best yield ever for the farm.”

For a vast majority of Greg’s life on his farm, he was a cultivation-based farmer. He acknowledged never believing in no-till methods for his area because it was too dry there. “I was 180 degrees wrong about that,” he said. Then, in 2005 he started on his first contract with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and he started down the path of better conservation practices, which led to his first no-till contract in 2013.

Cultivation-based farming requires farmers to break the surface of the earth in order to prevent weed growth and plant seeds in the overturned soil. This has traditionally been the farming method of choice since agricultural mechanization post-World War II. The problem with cultivation, though, is it destroys the soil and the very habitat microorganisms call home.

For the Natural Resources Conservation Service, leveraging techniques such as no-till, cover-cropping, and diverse rotations, increases the organic matter and microbial activity in the soil. In other words, they increase soil health and production, which according to the “Unlock the Secrets of the Soil” webpage, is of “paramount importance” because the world population and food production demands are rising.

“Soil is a living organism,” said Claire Techella, NRCS resource conservationist. “Soils are minerals and biology. Microorganisms are important because they decompose organic matter, such as the residue from last year’s crop yield, cycle nutrients, and fertilize the soil. They also open up pore spaces for water and air to infiltrate the soil.”

Cultivation destroys all of that, and as Greg said, “turns healthy soil into dirt.”

No-till farming, on the other hand, supports the natural cycle of the earth. It is a method where farmers leave the “residue” or “stubble” left after the harvest of one crop, to decompose, protect, and fuel future crops. Then, when they plant their seeds, they slice into the earth with a double-disk no-till drill, with very minimal disruption to the surface, and slip the seed beneath the surface through that slice. In Greg’s case, he splits his 7,000 acres in half. One year he grows wheat on half, the next year the other half. In the “fallow” year (the year the field is untouched), he leaves the wheat stubble to decompose and protect his land.

Greg described the wheat stubble as the new wheat’s “big brothers and sisters.” He described how the wheat stubble not only protected the new growth from wind, but how it would even cast little shadows across the land.

“[The stubble] may only be a 16th of an inch in diameter, but if you have a million of them, they are holding in more moisture because of all that shade,” he said. “It also prevents your soil from eroding and blowing away due to the wind, which is our number one enemy.”

With all the benefits of the no-till method, many farmers have not adopted it. Greg attributes this to a few reasons. “Number one – its’ the cost of all the machines it takes to retool,” he said. “Second, their not seeing the soil samples. They’re not rushing over here too see these numbers because they’re busy doing their own thing.”

The numbers Greg is referring to include things like the level of nitrogen in the soil.

“Nitrogen is important because it’s one of the building blocks of living organisms within the soil, because it is the key element in DNA,” Claire said.

Many traditional, cultivation-based farmers are reliant on fertilizers to enhance nitrogen levels in their soil because their farming techniques strips key elements from the soil required to replenish the nutrients. The level of nitrogen in Greg’s soil has increased from year to year.

“We’re not wearing the soil out, but it’s getting healthier as we use it,” Greg said. That’s the byproduct of this no-till, the biological activity is actually producing nitrogen.”

As for affording the re-tooling for no-till farming, that’s where the NRCS steps in. Through programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program, Greg has been able to make these key purchases and steps toward becoming a no-till farmer. Both programs offer financial and technical assistance to assist producers like Greg to take on conservation practices that address natural resource concerns, like damaging cultivation practices.

“Throughout his relationship with NRCS, Greg has continued to increase the amount of conservation he implements on his operations,” Claire said. “He has grown from utilizing EQIP for no-till conversion to CSP for improving nutrient uptake efficiency and reducing risks to air quality. As intended, Greg has used NRCS's financial assistance to reinvest in the infrastructure of his operations including purchasing no-till drills, and sprayers.

“Long-term relationships between the NRCS and producers like Greg, have a cumulative conservation benefit for the country,” she continued.

Being a good steward of the land through no-till techniques is more than helping the country for Greg though. “Progressing through these stages to be a no-till farmer required retooling to different machinery,” he said. “These NRCS programs have not only helped me finance that change, but I’ve also got better at the inputs, chemically wise, to be a better farmer, and as you accumulate these years of no-till farming, we use it to feed the world - that's where this wheat goes.”