Conservation tillage jumps in Central Valley
January 17, 2012
• Annual survey finds major switch
• ‘Conservation tillage isn’t just talk. It’s the real deal’
Central Valley farmers, especially those in the San Joaquin portion of the Valley, are switching to conservation tillage at a furious pace an annual survey of farmers finds.
The increase is good news for the Central Valley, as the region continues to struggle with a sluggish economy and some of the dirtiest air in the countrym says the organization Sustainable Conservation.
Between 2008-2010, Central Valley farmers switched to conservation tillage on nearly 1 million acres used to grow row crops like corn and wheat silage according to a new study published Tuesday by an alliance of university, farming and environmental leaders.
That’s more than 1,500 square miles and represents nearly 15 percent of all row-crop acreage in California.
Conservation tillage is more than making a furrow in the ground. It includes a suite of low-impact cultivation practices such as leaving crop residue (like corn stalks) in fields and planting new crops on top.
It significantly decreases the number of tractor passes needed to prepare fields for planting, resulting in lower fuel, labor and maintenance costs for farmers – and less dust and diesel pollution in the air.
Statewide, the amount of farmland under conservation tillage in 2010 grew by nearly 20 percent compared to a similar survey conducted in 2008, and by nearly 50 percent since surveying began in 2004, says Sustainable Conservation.
Nearly half of all row-crop acreage in the San Joaquin Valley, the nation’s most productive agricultural region, is farmed using conservation tillage.
“There’s a lot of talk these days about ‘win-win solutions’ -- those that are good for ag and the environment,” says Hanford dairy farmer Brian Bergman. “I’m here to say to my fellow farmers that conservation tillage isn’t just talk. It’s the real deal.”
Farmers using conservation tillage report reductions in operating costs between 30 percent and 40 percent each year, says Sustainable Conservation. In 2010 alone, the practice saved farmers $35 million, it says. Since 2004, farmers have saved more than $75 million.
Conservation tillage also produces beneficial organic material which improves the soil’s ability to retain water and increases its quality. It also protects soil from being blown into the air after planting, the organization says.
“With the Central Valley and its citizens hard hit year after year by some of the nation’s worst air quality, the growth of conservation tillage is very encouraging,” says Ashley Boren, executive director of Sustainable Conservation, which co-authored the study. “We hope more California farmers adopt the practice to not only boost their bottom lines, but to help strike the Central Valley from the bad-air list.”
Statewide, conservation tillage could cut dust and diesel pollution from agriculture in half, the Modesto-based organization says.
“Breathing in particle pollution increases the risk of early death, heart attacks, strokes and emergency-room visits for asthma and cardiovascular disease,” says Bonnie Holmes-Gen, executive director of air quality and public health at the American Lung Association in California. “Particle pollution also may affect how children’s lungs grow and function.”
The popular Best Management Practices (BMP) Challenge has helped drive the growth of conservation tillage in California. Co-sponsored by Sustainable Conservation, American Farmland Trust and AgFlex, the BMP Challenge rewards farmers for trying conservation tillage by reimbursing them for potential crop and income loses. That way, farmers have nothing to lose in promoting clean air. In 2011, 16 farmers in five counties enrolled nearly 1,200 acres in the program – with many farmers experiencing increases in crop yields. Enrollment in the 2012 BMP Challenge is underway, says Sustainable Conservation.
The 2010 survey, led by Sustainable Conservation and the Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup, was conducted as an ongoing comparison of annual row-crop acreage farmed under a variety of tillage methods in nine Central Valley counties – including Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Tulare and Yolo counties. Crops surveyed included silage, grains, tomatoes, cotton, dry beans and melons.
The survey received input from area farmers, agricultural specialists from the University of California and experts from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which supports landowners in natural resource conservation and enhancement. Results were based on acreage totals from 2010 County Agricultural Commissioner assessments, and were compared with similar surveys conducted in 2004, 2006 and 2008.