Answer to drought? Build the soil
Farming can be a full partner in stabilizing the climate. Soil-building practices such as no-till help make agriculture and food production more resilient in the face of the extreme dry spells and increased heat emerging with climate change.
By Patrick Mazza
There’s a farmer in Eastern Washington who can do what most farmers wouldn’t believe possible – he grows corn on non-irrigated dryland. The reason he is able to says something very important about growing food in a warming world. With much of the Midwest corn and soybean crop distressed by drought and heat, this farmer’s story deserves a lot more attention.
His name is John Aeschliman. John uses a method known as
direct seed, or no-till. Instead of plowing up ground to plant new crops, John drills
seeds into his Palouse fields. He is a pioneer, direct seeding for over 25
years. By leaving the surface intact, he has built a thick layer of soils rich
in organic matter. This rich soil
absorbs and holds moisture much better than soils disturbed with conventional
plowing, which is why John can grow corn in dryland.
That organic matter is a product of plant growth which draws carbon from the atmosphere, reducing greenhouse gases which drive global warming. By building healthy soils no-till reduces global warming and helps agriculture adapt to climate change impacts such as drought. Advancing such win-win solutions in farming, forestry and urban development is the goal of the Northwest Biocarbon Initiative.
No-till has another huge benefit for farmers, one which only grows more attractive in a time of high fuel costs. It reduces the number of times farmers must drive their equipment across fields. That represents savings of $7-$10/acre on diesel plus reduced labor costs, notes Harold Crose, conservation with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Ephrata, Washington. “On a 3,000 acre farm that adds up quickly,” he adds.
Less diesel means fewer carbon emissions, another plus for climate. The energy savings are driving a special NRCS program called the EQIP Energy Initiative. EQIP, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, pays part of the cost of new equipment such as no-till seed drills. Crose is lead on the initiative in Washington state.
The effort is a stand-out nationally, with $6 million coming to the state – close to half the program funding for the entire nation -- for a range of actions including energy saving irrigation pumps, energy assessments for dairies and no-till equipment purchases. Crose estimates the program will add somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 acres to Washington’s no-till croplands. Firm figures will be available in September.
Washington is “way out in the lead nationally,” Crose says. Which is good, because some early tries at no-till in the state did not work out. Now with more growing experience Washington is poised for major growth of no-till. In fact, if funding were available for all farmers who applied for the Energy EQIP program, Washington would add closer to 500,000 acres. Crose is seeking $10 million for next year’s effort.
Soil-building practices such as no-till help make agriculture and food production more resilient in the face of the extreme dry spells and increased heat emerging with climate change. At the same time these practices build long-term soil fertility while reducing carbon emissions and soaking carbon from the atmosphere. Farming can be a full partner in stabilizing the climate, and direct seeders like John Aeschliman are showing one important way.