- Author: Jeffrey P Mitchell
Members of Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation center participated in four national conferences in January and February, 2014. Following are summaries of the events and take-home messages most relevant to improving California farming systems.
CASI member Jesse Sanchez of Sano Farms in Firebaugh, Calif., interacted with about 100 vegetable farmers in New York as part of the 2014 Empire State Producers Expo in Syracuse. Jesse was invited to travel to this event, but due to the snow storm that hit the region the day before the conference, he was obliged to conduct his discussion on reduced tillage tomatoes and cover crops in California via SKYPE. According to Carol McNeil, the Cornell University organizer of the event, Jesse's involvement in this session was much appreciated by the New York audience. Congratulations to Jesse Sanchez on this very nice honor!
18th Annual Winter Conference of No-till on the Plains and 2014 AIM (Agriculture's Innovative Minds) Symposium
Back to the Basics – Managing Water and Nutrients
Jan. 28-30, 2014
CASI chair Jeff Mitchell participated in the 18th Annual Winter Conference of No-till on the Plains and 2014 AIM (Agriculture's Innovative Minds) Symposium, which brought together more than 1,400 farmers from states stretching from Colorado in the West to Ohio in the East. No-till on the Plains, Inc. is a 501.c3 non-profit educational organization that works to educate farmers and others on the benefits of continuous no-till farming and other practices that lead to profitable and regenerative farming operations. The association prides itself as a top-notch farmer-to-farmer exchange for practical, reliable information. The learning opportunities afforded by the conference were unparalleled in their effectiveness and quality. Innovative no-till farmers, researchers and leaders from around the U.S. and Canada were on the program. CASI received several quite gracious offers from participating farmers. I heartily encourage CASI members to consider taking part in the annual winter conferences of No-till on the Plains in coming years. For more information, see the conference website at http://www.notill.org.
High Residue Farming Systems in the Irrigated West Conference
Salt Lake City, Utah
February 6-7, 2014
CASI members Michael Crowell, a dairy farmer in Turlock; Dennis Chessman, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Services state agronomist for California; and Jeff Mitchell of UC Davis, were invited to participate in a meeting in early February in Salt Lake City, Utah, on high-residue farming systems. The event included groups of farmers, NRCS conservationists and university representatives from Washington, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico and California. There was a lively exchange of information on high-residue farming activities used throughout the irrigated western states. Presentations were made by farmers, NRCS and university teams for each state. Joint planning discussions on how to do more to increase education about innovative farming systems were also held. In addition, Marilyn Lockhart of Montana State University gave a seminar on adult learning strategies. Our three CASI representatives at this event will now be working to set up a network of farm demonstration evaluations on high-residue farming systems in California.
National Cover Crops and Soil Health Conference
February 18-19, 2014
More than 300 farmers, agri-business representatives, USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Services staff, university and government agency people came together in Omaha, Neb., and about 600 connected online to plan how the group can work together to increase cover crop use around the nation from about 2 million acres today to 20 million or more by 2020. The group acknowledged that the many obstacles in the way of reaching the goal – less land available for production, increasingly variable weather, and the need to produce more crops – will require wide adoption new farming practices. Implementation of better soil management will be crucial. Cover cropping is the next most important means to achieving improved, more efficient, biologically active soils. During the conference, a number of very innovative cover crop systems and farmers from around the country were showcased. By any measure, little exists in California's Central Valley today that approaches the level of soil care that these cover crop farming champions are achieving. The valley's soils are not immune to soil degradation and could be improved by paying more attention to the core principles of soil health being promoted by the USDA-NRCS.
The four fundamental principles of this initiative are:
- Minimizing soil disturbance
- Maximizing the diversity of plants in the rotation and using cover crops
- Keeping living roots in the soil as much as possible
- Keeping the soil covered with plants and plant residues at all times
These principles provide a platform for achieving more resilient, more efficient and biologically active soils. While conference participants generally agreed that more research is needed, they also agreed that we now have sufficient information and experience to move forward with practices that improve soil health and resiliency. As Pennsylvania cover crop and no-till farmer Steve Groff put it in his concluding comments at the end of the conference, “It is about economics, but it is more than economics. It is the right thing to do.” That encouragement to move forward in working to improve the health of our soils was a clear, inspiring mandate that came out of the conference. But so was the sober realization that without changing behaviors and having soil health principles more widely adopted, soil improvement will not be achieved. Thus, several sessions during the second day of discussions were dedicated to developing regional action plans for how best to address the challenges of adoption.
Compared to the number of shining examples of the cover crop and soil health farmer champions who were given opportunities to share their innovations at the conference, it is only fair and accurate to say that California has far to go in increasing momentum in soil health. The challenge will be to develop suitable adaptations of the basic principles for California's diverse production environments.
Additional information about the conference is available at the conference website: