It was 1956, and Bob Klein was a young teenage farm boy growing up on the High Plains near David City, Nebraska. It was a prolonged drought, and Klein can still recall seeing dust clouds from his second story window.
"When I grew up, seeing those dust storms and those crops that amounted to nothing because of all that tillage, it really increased my interest in what we could do to start conserving soil and water and still raise good crops," he told me last week at Husker Harvest Days in Grand Island, Neb. "It seemed to me that we had to do a better job."
Klein (above) has made it a lifelong pursuit to do just that. He's one of the silent drivers behind the full-tilt movement toward more sustainable, smarter farming systems, focusing on no-till, water retention and improved irrigation methods.
Earlier this month he was recognized for his 50 years of work at the University of Nebraska extension service.
Klein spent 20 years as an extension agent in wind-swept Red Willow County before joining UN as a crop specialist in western Nebraska. Since 1983 he and many others have sought to change how water is used for crop production in this resource-vulnerable part of the world. His duties include monitoring more than 1,700 acres of crop operations, including a water test area near Brule.
"We want to develop sustainable water systems so we don’t lower the aquifer, and there's something there for our grandkids," he says. "We want to make crop production as efficient as possible for both dry land and irrigated producers."
Nebraska sits atop the Ogallala aquifer, a shallow, vast water table that feeds about 27% of the irrigated cropland in the United States – much of it here in the state. The aquifer has dropped about 10% since groundwater irrigation began in the mid '50s.
Over the past four decades, Klein has worked mostly on crop variety testing and educating farmers about crop residue. He's also a key figure in developing crop budgets for Nebraska farmers.
To keep more water for future generations, more and more Nebraska farmers have adopted complete no till systems that employ crop residues to preserve soil moisture. The percentage of no-till planted wheat has expanded from 4% in 2004 to 29% in 2008. Fifty-three percent of the soybeans in 2008 were planted with no-till compared to just 37% in 2004. In 2008, 42% of the corn was planted using no-till, up from 34% in 2004.
"We make the soil better - with no-till we see more organic matter," Klein says. "It's so critical to get that organic matter growth."
Agriculture uses 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals for irrigation, and 60% of the food supply is produced by rain-fed agriculture. No-till is one way to conserve this resource.
People like Klein understand we must grow more food using less water. It's a mindset that would benefit everyone involved in agriculture.
The health of the soil is improved by limiting disturbances, Ray Archuleta, NRCS researcher, told attendees of a training event on no-till and cover crops in Greensburg, Ind.
Cover crops are important not only for providing cover and protection to the topsoil, but also for creating diversity that creates a support network to hold soil particles together, Archuleta says. That enables soils to better hold nutrients and moisture.
Archuleta says soil disturbances needs to be minimized in farming. No-till and well-chosen cover crops create a network of microorganisms and roots to hold soil together, reducing erosion and the need for applied fertilizers. Specific cover crops and practices can be prescribed for any soil concern, he explains.
There are biological means to address the needs of the land that work better in the long run to promote conservation and maintain yield, he says. By avoiding unnecessary tillage, the diversity both above and below the soil will improve, better mimicking nature.
Healthier soil, he told field day attendees, enables a producer to use less inputs while also keeping water clean.
"We have to wean ourselves off of tillage mentally, and we have to wean the soil of tilling, too," Archuleta says. "Tillage begets tillage."
Barry Fisher, Indiana NRCS agronomist, notes that cool-weather plants can do a lot for producers by providing a higher functioning, more productive soil.
learning about the benefits of no-till farming.
Speakers at the conference, which was hosted by No Till on The Plains, included Jill Clapperton, Francis Yeatman, Paul Jasa, Kristine Nichols and Kenneth Miller, who are all involved in some aspect of farming. Presenters came as far away as South Africa. The event featured a morning of speakers and an afternoon on-site on the land of Gail Fuller north of Emporia. Fuller said he farms about 2,000 acres in Lyon and Wabaunsee Counties. Fuller started farming using the no-till method, which leaves the crop residue on the ground rather than tilling it under, in 1995.
One of the benefits to not tilling the land is prevention of erosion.
“Erosion is not acceptable,” Fuller said.
Fuller said he is starting to see differences in yields because the crop residue left on top of the ground helps to maintain nutrients in the soil. Other benefits include less labor and fuel costs, Fuller added.
Jasa, extension engineer, UNL Extension, Lincoln, Neb., said no-till practices are not only good for the crops, but the practice also is good for the environment. Crop residue left on the field prevents chemical run-off to nearby waterways, blowing dirt and erosion.
“It keeps the sun and the wind off the soil surface,” Jasa said. “The key is to hold the soil in.”
The residue also feeds the crops continuously rather than just when the residue is tilled under, Jasa said. Crop residue left on top of the soil breaks down, continuously feeds the soil.
“It’s a time-released form of nutrition,” Jasa said. “When you till, the feeding only lasts a week or two.”
Microbes also help hold the soil together, Jasa added.
“You’ve got Mother Nature’s glue,” he said.
Jasa said while no-till has many benefits, it isn’t always easy to get people to buy into the practice.
“Tradition is hard to break,” he said.
When the large group of people arrived to Fuller’s farm, Jasa demonstrated the benefits gained from leaving residue on the soil using a rainfall simulator he has been using since 1990. Jasa had several pans of soil, no-till soil without residue on top, no-till soil with residue on top, tilled soil without residue and tilled soil with some cover on top and tilled soil with a greater covering of residue on top. The device simulated an inch of rain. Under each pan was jars to collect any runoff. After a period of time, the jars under the uncovered soil filled with water that had run off the soil. The jars under the soil with covering had significantly less runoff and the water was clearer.
“You need residue to make the system work,” Jasa said. “Leave the residue there.”
Jasa further illustrated the benefit of residue covering by turning the pans of soil over. The pans that had soil with no covering had dry soil on the bottom. The pans with covering had soil that was saturated all the way through. And the more the residue on top, the more water was retained in the soil – even the tilled soil that was just covered with residue.
“That’s not no-till,” Jasa said pointing to the pan of tilled soil with straw residue on top. “That is simply residue. Leave the residue there.”
For more information on no-till farming, go to the No-Till on the Plains’ web site at http://www.notill.org/.
New Delhi (IANS) - India, looking to launch a second green revolution to boost its food security, has begun looking at distant South America where countries have been able to ramp up food production with new technology and farming methods. And to take lessons first-hand, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar will visit Argentina, Brazil and Mexico this month.
"India has much to learn from the best practices of South America, especially Brazil and Argentina," R. Viswanathan, Indian Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, told IANS during a visit here.
The South American countries have overtaken the United States in soya production, accounting for 50 percent of global production, and significantly denting the American domination in the agri-business sector.
With large swathes of land in a sparsely populated region, which accounts for 26 percent of global freshwater reserves, South American nations have the highest yields per hectare.
For Indian companies, which have been looking at farmlands for their agri-business, there is another attraction-- the technologies that have been indigenously developed in these countries and applied in farming.
A revolutionary method is "no-till farming", which is applied in 80 percent of the land cultivated in the Mercosur countries (a trading bloc comprising Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay,). In this kind of farming, land is not ploughed. Instead, the agricultural residue of the last plant is allowed to enrich the soil. The seed is then injected into the soil through special machines.
Another technology which Pawar is likely to see in Argentina is the Silobag-- a polyeutherane bag that can store up to 200 tonnes of foodgrains on the field itself - that saves costs on building concrete storage units.
"We have brought this to the notice of the agriculture ministry," said Viswanathan.
India faces a shortage of 15 million tonnes in storage capacity, one of the main reasons why hundreds of tonnes of food grains are wasted every year in the country. The technology figured at a meeting between Pawar and his Argentine counterpart, Julian Andres Dominguez here earlier last month.
Moreover, India can look to replicate the success of Argentina in turning agriculture into a high-technology sector.
Viswanathan referred to the Argentine group Los Grobos, which has brought the outsourcing model to agriculture. Los Grobos cultivates 270,000 hectares in Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina, without owning a single plot of land.
It uses "precision farming", which employs software to determine the input distribution and monitors by satellite the location of the seeds and sprayer machines. At the same time, soil monitors give real-time information, helping the group head office to decide on the nutritional and other parameters.
All this could be brought to India for trial.
Also, Indian companies can move to the continent to take advantage of the available technology and expertise for business in the agricultural sector.
Viswanathan said Indian entrepreneurs should vigorously explore the region "since South America has an agri-business ecosystem like the IT ecosystem in India - export-oriented with competent human resources and service providers that allow investors to focus on output and returns."
South America is a major source of oilseeds. It exports soya and sunflower oil worth $1 billion to India annually. It is learnt that the Indian delegation led by Pawar would explore increasing the supply of edible oil and pulses to the subcontinent as domestic output has not been able to meet galloping demand.
In the Financial Times, Javier Blas gives us the back-story to the attempt by the world’s largest mining company, BHP Billiton, to buy its largest fertiliser company, PotashCorp. Suddenly fertiliser is big business: in the first eight months of the year, deals valued at $61bn have been announced by companies in the industry, a high that more than doubles the peak hit in 2008.
Why? “Countries are starting to see potash much as they see crude oil: as a hunted, strategic commodity. But, as with oil, potash deposits are not evenly spread. A handful of nations – led by Canada, Russia, Belarus and Israel – command the bulk of the reserves. Eight companies control more than 80 per cent of global supply. Two marketing groups – Canpotex for North American producers and BPC for the Russian and Belarusian groups – dominate the global trade.”
And just as with oil, China is getting worried: “[It] has to import about half of its needs, a dependency that “may become a major threat to China’s fast-developing national economy and long-term strategic needs”, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a think-tank that advises the government. Little surprise, then, that its primary importer of the mineral, Sinochem, says it is paying “close attention” to the PotashCorp battle, suggesting the group could launch a counterbid.”
And Blas thinks this is just the start. “The bid for PotashCorp is a litmus test for how companies – and nations – view the prospect of a world with tighter food supplies. In the past century, anguish over who will feed the world has always been answered with breakthroughs that have more than compensated for growing populations. But if a Chinese state-owned company should plant its flag on the potash industry, it could indicate the introduction of a more cut-throat edge to the geopolitics of agriculture.”
Funds seek assurances on land ownership
By SLINDILE KHANYILE
THE AGRICULTURAL sector in Africa has caught the eyes of wealthy global investors. There are about 45 new private equity funds that are planning to invest an estimated $2 billion (R14.7bn) in the sector across the continent, in the next three to five years.
This is according to Angela Hansen, an associate partner at Dalberg, a strategic advisory firm that has been speaking to the potential investors.
Of these 45 firms, 17 would invest directly in agriculture and agribusiness. Some of the countries that will benefit from this are South Africa, Zambia, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Mozambique.
Hansen said yesterday that it was the increased demand for agricultural products and biofuels that was drawing attention to Africa.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Africainvestor Agribusiness Project Summit, Hansen said the world was looking for a new place to secure agricultural productivity.
“Africa has the largest untapped and underdeveloped land. There is specifically a huge amount of arable land in Africa and the world is scrambling to increase production,” Hansen said.
The summit, which brought together government ministers, private investors and farmers, is looking at highlighting opportunities that exist within the continent to grow the sector.
Hansen said that despite the availability of land, the sector had not grown much in Africa.
“There is also the issue of land ownership because in most areas the land is tribally owned and farmers cannot, for example, use it as collateral. There are other challenges like access to fertilisers and quality seeds. The yields in Africa are lower,” Hansen said.
Chayton Africa is one of the private equity firms that intends investing in agriculture. Neil Crowder, the managing partner, said it was looking at producing basic food crops that would be sold within the continent and not for export.
Crowder said it would invest between $200 million and $300m in six countries. It has signed an investor protection and promotion agreement with the Zambian government, which spells out a clear framework for investing and investor rights. It hopes to have these agreements in place in other countries.
“South Africa is a more mature country for agriculture, with better infrastructure, and there is access to market which eliminates some of the risks we see in other countries. But we are looking at creative ways of investing in South Africa and we are watching land reform, trying to determine the impact it might have,” said Crowder.
Crowder said it was important to have certainty over access to land, even if Chayton would not be able to acquire it.
Izak Strauss, the chief investment officer of private equity firm Agri-Vie, said the firm had about $100m to invest over the next three years in southern and east Africa.