It’s over, and I’m ready to go home. 4 weeks is really too long for me to be away, so I am happy to be sitting in Minneapolis waiting for my flight.It’s been a fun trip, but what have I learnt? I think the answer is “a lot, but also not very much”, which probably makes me sound like a bit of a prat. Of course, I have seen loads of people who are thinking about soil health, and trying to improve their farms. Some in a small way, and some going crazy [“so far out of the box they can’t see it any more”]. Compared to NZ, there seems to be more people here who are trying to break out of the mould.
I think the reason for this is that in the US the trend has been towards slimming down farm operations to growing only maize and soybeans. Most people seem to be happy doing this, it’s certainly where the $$$ is found. But there are some who value rotations, and try to take the long term view, even if it may be less profitable to begin with. This does not appear to be such a problem in NZ, as they are able to grow a more diverse rotation whilst making good money, and they utilise livestock much more frequently as well.What it comes down to is local conditions. It is a fine line between realising this, and falling into the “that’s great, but it won’t work on my farm” trap. The climate over here is so incredibly different, at least in the centre where I have been, that it is really very difficult to take any specific and directly relevant ideas home with me. They get VERY cold in winter and VERY hot in summer, which has pluses and minuses, but it is undeniably different. This is why I said I haven’t learnt a lot.On this note I have been a bit disappointed with the attitude of some people who consider their way to be gospel, and everyone else has to do it like that as well. I’ve heard Americans telling Europeans they are wrong, Australians telling Americans they are wrong, and Europeans telling Indians they are wrong. All without any concessions that things may be a bit different over there; it’s a bit sad really in my opinion.
But that’s enough of the negative. I really valued getting into some of the theory about how and why increased soil biology can help to improve crops, and ultimately profits. Admittedly, hard data is hard to come by, but there is good anecdotal evidence. And besides, any scientific data would be fairly irrelevant to us; in the same way the decades of research showing no-till to be better is totally inapplicable to our climate. It would be good if we had the same long term experiments in the UK, but it’s too late. Do we really want to wait 10 years to find out something we can do ourselves much quicker?
Something that has been reinforced in my mind is that diverse cover crops are a real benefit, and it was interesting to hear that soil improvement can be boosted by grazing them. I do believe that we can generate significant amount of plant available nitrogen like this, but it will not be a quick fix.
The big unanswered question is how do we increase soil organic matter, when we need 185t/ha to gain a solitary 1%? Even 0.1% per year seems like a hell of a lot, and there are guys claiming to get a lot more that than. Is it because of soil stratification, and sampling technique ? Seeing Gabe Brown’s and David Brandt’s soils, I don’t think so. They don’t look layered to the eye, but that could of course be deceptive. Does it really matter? If it’s there who cares where it came from?! Something to ponder over the Atlantic.
Here are the trip stats:
- Distance driven – 4,588 miles
- States/provinces visited – 10 (that’s a bit disappointing, I was very close to some more, does that count?)
- Farms visited – 31
- Number of sheep seen – 0
- Number of cows seen – ~12,000, almost all in a 48hr period
- Proportion of meals that involved frying – >75%
- Proportion of meals including vegetables not in a burger – <10%
- Level of addiction to mobile data now I’ve discovered local sim cards – 100%