Agriculture Sustainability in A Water-Challenged Year
Apr 19, 2018
By Roberto Peiretti: Rosario, Argentina
I strive for excellence on my farm in Argentina—but this year, I’m delighted to be average.
As we bring in our corn and soybeans this month—remember, our seasons are reversed here in the southern hemisphere—we have no right to expect much of a harvest. This cropping season, our rainfall was far below regular levels. Our plants didn’t receive as much water as they need to flourish as well as they can.
Rather than suffering a catastrophe, however, we’re doing just fine: We’ll enjoy an ordinary harvest.
That’s because right now, our soil never has been healthier. We owe it all to a vision of sustainable farming that is astonishing in its simplicity even as it depends on agriculture’s latest technologies.
I began to experiment with no-till system management in the late 1970s and have expanded it ever since, as innovations have allowed me to take full advantage of its benefits.
Annual plowing is one of the oldest traditions in farming. Turning over the soil loosens the ground and prepares it for seeding. It also kills weeds and breaks down the remains of older crops.
Plowing presents a challenge to farmers as it allows moisture to escape from the soil through evaporation. It also makes our fields more vulnerable to soil erosion.
Throughout most of human history, the positives of plowing have outweighed the negatives. With no-till system management, however, we can benefit from the positives without enduring the negatives.
My first major expansion of no-till took place in the middle of the 1980s, as machinery such as planters and drillers adapted to the new techniques and allowed us to push seeds into the soil without the major disruptions of plowing. From here, no-till spread across our entire farm, especially as revolutionary methods of weed control, such as GMOs, became commercially available. Today, we use no-till on a vast scale.
Cover crops also have helped. The main purpose of these plants is not to produce food, but rather to protect the soil so that when our food crops sprout, they can truly thrive. Right after we harvest our corn, for example, we seed our fields with Avena strigosa, a species of grass popularly known as “black oats.” This stubble of growth defends against the erosion of wind and water and further enriches the soil with carbon.
Sometimes I can even benefit from a second cash crop, such as field peas, or wheat when I decide to plant it. In addition to producing food, they serve as cover crops.
With these approaches, our soil is in the best condition imaginable. Our fields are full of organic matter, from a more active microbiology to a robust population of earthworms. What’s more, we’ve minimized and eventually wiped out the threat of soil erosion.
Best of all may be our water management. Plowing, as we have done historically, used to cause at least half an inch and sometimes more than an inch of water to evaporate from our soil profile. During a season of generous rainfall, that’s an acceptable loss. During the kind of season we’ve just finished, however, we need every drop of water that comes our way—and so no-till system management guards against the disaster of drought.
Over the last 15 years, farmers around the world have followed Argentina and some other countries example in the adoption of no-till. They’ve watched the progress of this approach, studied the advantages, and adapted the strategy to local conditions. What works on my farm in a temperate region of Argentina won’t necessarily work in Iowa, with its heavy snowfall. In time, however, we may see the general principles of no-till system management achieve something like universal applicability.
If we’re going to feed a world with a booming population as well as care for our environment, we’ll need to promote advances such as no-till. It represents a sustainable technology in every sense, allowing us to grow more food on less land while also helping farmers make a profit. Let’s remember that a key feature of sustainability is for agriculture to remain economically viable.
So this year, I’ll gladly take average—and look ahead to even better times.
Roberto Peiretti produces corn, soybeans, sorghum, wheat and sunflowers in the Central Pampas region of Argentina. Trained as an agronomy engineer, Mr. Peiretti was one of the developers of the no-till system that is widely used in Argentina and several other countries. Mr. Peiretti volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org).
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