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No-till on the Plains’ evolution has been inspiring

Twenty years ago I admired no-till innovators; today, I’m awed by them.

About 20 years ago when I was a reporter for the Wichita Eagle, I made the decision to attend my first No-till on the Plains Winter Conference. I’d been hearing a lot about the relatively new movement in agriculture and I figured if I dedicated a couple of days to the conference I could learn what it was all about.

In the back of my mind, I was thinking that I’d probably only need to attend one time, because after all, it was pretty much the same year after year. Boy, was I wrong about that.

At the end of this January, I attended the 23rd annual No-till on the Plains Winter Conference, which included a strong emphasis on the soil microbiome; the connection between soil health and human health; and the surprising discovery that, yes, you can improve depleted soil and restore it to high productivity. And you can do it faster than anybody could have imagined just a few short decades ago.

Back at my first No-till on the Plains, there were plenty of people who were dubious. They liked the look of a “nice clean seedbed,” and I heard a lot of talk about “yield drag” and how it would never be as productive as conventional till.

There were, however, some very committed and innovative people among the presenters at my first conference. I already knew Sedgwick County no-tiller Terry May. In fact, it was May who encouraged me to attend the conference.

He told me that some of his neighbors were scornful of “all the trash” he left on the surface of his fields, but that a neighbor became a lot more interested after a summer drought left him cutting corn for silage in July while May harvested grain in the fall. The only difference — May had been no-tilling for 10 years or more while the neighbor was a conventional tillage operator.

I came away from that conference intrigued by all that I had learned. And I was pretty much hooked on No-till on the Plains. There was no way to “learn everything about it,” I discovered. Through the years, I have been amazed at how the movement has grown, expanded and advanced.

It was about 10 years ago that cover crops, regenerative agriculture and the soil microbiome began to be discussed, and words like “diversity” and “mixed cover crops” were added to the public lexicon. Speakers such as Chuck Rice from Kansas State University talked about how the untouched prairie with its mixture of grasses and forbs was nature’s model for healthy life below the surface.

This year, there was a major emphasis on soil health, with more sessions on cover crops, livestock integration, the connection between soil health and human health, and even regenerating depleted soils.

One thing hasn’t changed — the number of speakers and attendees talking about neighbors who think they are crazy even as they commit to keep pushing the envelope.

I admired these innovators 20 years ago. Today, I am in awe of how far we’ve come and inspired by what we’re learned and what is still out there waiting to be learned. One thing I’ve got down beyond a doubt — there’s not going to be a time when we’ve learned it all.

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