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Some of the ManDak board members from the first 10 years the organization was active. (Abbey Wick / NDSU Extension Soil Health Specialist)

Soil Health Minute: Words of wisdom from long-term no-tillers

I was recently part of a reunion of board members from the first 10 years of the ManDak Zero Tillage Farmers Association. What this means is that all of the people attending have been involved with no-till for 40 plus years. These are the original farmers and equipment developers that started the soil health movement!

If you're not familiar with ManDak, it was an organization built by farmers in North Dakota and Manitoba so that they could share ideas about reducing tillage. They say in the first couple years (late 1970's), the group was so small that they could meet in a phone booth.But as there was more interest, they were soon holding meetings with more than 1,000 in attendance.

ManDak recently disbanded, but the concepts and camaraderie around the management approaches of no-till and other soil health building practices continues.

There were several quotes I heard during this three-day meeting that I want to share and expand upon:

"You're an interesting guy to farm next to."

This quote encompasses step 1 of the transition in a system — OBSERVE. Farmers using soil health building practices are doing something different in their fields — whether it's keeping residue on the surface, incorporating cover crops or diversifying rotations.

They typically are thinking out of the box. This can be really interesting if we are open to learning new things and seeing how fields can be managed differently.

We should continue to observe, learn from and alongside those "interesting guys" so that we can all tweak and advance our practices to protect the soil resource and achieve on-farm goals.

"Here was this adult farmer (using no-till), talking to this punk kid — and he had all day for me."

This is the second step — TALK ABOUT IT. This quote was about a conversation farmer who was just getting into no-till had with another farmer who had already started no-till on his farm. Remember, this was early on in the adoption of no-till (late 1970's) so everyone was new at modifying and tweaking the system.

Every conversation offers an opportunity to learn. Farmers using soil health building practices are very open about what they are doing, both successes and mistakes. Have those conversations with each other that not only give information on how to fine-tune practices, but also build a relationship. This is exactly where the NDSU Soil Health Café Talks fit in to help make connections.

"We hid what we were doing in the middle of a section that we could go visit as a family."

This is the third step — TRY IT. Most farmers have a field tucked way back behind the tree rows or the shop where they are trying something new. Using some of these practices on a small field first, go step-by-step, getting experience, continuing conversations and then trying it on other fields is a good idea.

It's a learning process, so keep it simple so that different variables that worked and didn't work can be identified.

"Once you have faith that it will work, you have the confidence to continue."

This is the fourth step — BUILD CONFIDENCE. Faith in how soil health building practices will work comes from seeing it being done on other farms. This is a great idea and so important!

As a scientist, this idea of "faith in a practice through observation" has been a little tough for me because I typically collect and follow the data, that's how I was trained. However, I fully understand and appreciate this aspect of soil health. A mix of on-farm observation alongside university collected data is a good thing — it adds diversity. It helps us check our biases with practices that we "want" to work with data on how it actually worked. This combination makes for better decisions and it's available to us now.

I learned so much from this amazing group of no-tillers. Part of me wishes that I was there to be part of this movement 40 years ago, but being born in 1979 means that I'm a little late to the party. I see tremendous value though in being here now to carry forward their efforts and continue to advance the "system.".

Join us at the Conservation Tillage Conference in December (digthectc.com) or one of our many café talks in January/February to learn more and make connections.

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