California farmers have proven repeatedly they can be quick to adopt new technology.
GPS tractor guidance systems and the compatible variable rate technology along with drip irrigation are two cases in point.
Conservation tillage advocates contend CT offers much the same advancement as satellite directed tractors and micro irrigation systems.
CT consumes less energy and labor, thereby reduces costs, reduces environmental impacts, increases soil carbon content and improves soil tilth, fertility and overall organic matter, according to CT apostles.
However, after more than a decade of one of the most intensive research efforts, coupled with a media blitz, California farmers are proving slow-to-reluctant to adopt Midwest-style conservation tillage (CT) farming practices.
Despite the accolades from a handful of progressive growers who have adopted CT technology, many believe true no-dirt-moving conservation tillage still represents only roughly 1 percent of row crop acreage in the state, even though it can at least maintain and often surpass yields of so-called conventional tillage.
Jeff Mitchell, University of California cropping systems specialist, is the driving force behind the California conservation tillage thrust and recently spearheaded a media gathering in Clovis, Calif., to promote California’s Conservation Agriculture Systems Institute (CASI).
Formed in 1998, CASI has been the promoter of conservation tillage and of late pivot and linear irrigation systems as part of the conservation tillage mantra.
Since it was formed, CASI has brought together more than 1,500 farmers, the private sector, universities, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, other public agencies and environmental groups to “solve economic and environmental quality challenges” in California’s central valley farming.
One of Mitchell’s early converts was Dino Giacomazzi, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Hanford, Calif.
Giacomazzi, who began his CT journey in 2003, was the keynote speaker at the Clovis event. He farms 900 acres, all of it for feed for his 950-head dairy. He double crops wheat and corn using strip-till. He also grows alfalfa for his family dairy.
Conservation tillage discovery
Giacomazzi took a circuitous route back to the farm after graduating from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He became a music promoter after college. He turned 30 on the road as a manager of a rock band. In 1998, he started a software company in San Francisco in the midst of the dot.com boom.
Thirteen years after he left the farm, he returned when his father became ill.
He said he had to “re-learn” and discover farming technology. One discovery was conservation tillage.
This season represents his eighth year of using strip-till. He has reduced tillage to one dirt moving pass from more than a dozen in conventional tillage, a major cost savings. He has increased his silage yields by more than 15 percent. However, he says he is the only CT farmer in Kings County and among the rare 1 percent statewide.
“If you can save money and get more yield, what is the hold up?” he questioned.
“The last conversation I had with my dad was on a Sunday morning before he died the next day,” said an emotional Giacomazzi. “He tore into me — he hated the way I farmed” even though conservation tillage yielded 5 tons per acre more silage than with conventional tillage, which took as many as 12 dirt-moving passes compared to just one farming strip-till.
“And that one pass with a disk is to incorporate manure from the dairy,” said the young Giacomazzi.
What the young Giacomazzi encountered with his father, he believes, is why most farmers are reluctant to change. Most California farmers see no need to change because the system that has been in place for decades has been very productive.
He said traditional farming methods are ingrained, and it is difficult to change what has been successful. “I had undone what my father had done for years,” he said.
It was not easy getting to where Giacomazzi is today with CT. “When other farmers ask me about conservation tillage, my answer is always the same; understand every step of the process before you start; getting water off the field, handling weeds, irrigating — understand the whole process. Strip till does not work in a conventional tillage system. It failed with me.”
The last couple of farm bills have raised the political priority bar on conservation and conservation tillage. Direct payments are expected to be eliminated in the next farm bill, in favor of more financial support for conservation.
This federal emphasis on conservation has farmers fearful the government will “start telling them how to farm.”
Productivity drives sustainability
Giacomazzi said he has encountered that from neighbors who have asked him if the research being done on his farm and the conservation grants will eventually result in the government telling him how to farm.
Dino’s dad was furious when he went to the NRCS office to seek a $30 per acre grant to develop a CT program.
“My father despised government welfare and his son was collecting welfare from the government,” he explained.
However, the growing scarcity of labor, $3.39 per gallon diesel fuel that once cost 80 cents per gallon, a dwindling farm water supply and growing government regulations covering air and water quality will force change on the farm, believes Giacomazzi.
Farmers are also facing a public that does not understand farming, yet wants to dictate how food is produced.
“There is a different attitude among people about food; where it comes from and how it is produced,” he said. People who shape public policy want to do things like banning commercial animal production and genetically modified crops.
“We have problems with the public’s perception of farming because 98 percent of public are not farmers,” yet what the more radical elements say takes roots and creates public opinion that becomes public policy.
Farmers must take control of this discussion and espouse the freedom to farm at all levels. Farmers must drive home the idea that “productivity drives sustainability — not the other way around.”
The future of farming will be driven by coexistence between small farmers providing locally grown food to preserve rural America and large farms to feed a hungry world; higher technology versus traditional farming; biotech versus organic. “We need all segments of farming,” he emphasized.
To change public perception of farming, farmers must scientifically verify the tools they use to farm and communicate it.
Giacomazzi believes most Americans share the same values as farmers, and farmers need to connect that with good information. “We need to take charge of the farming discussion,” he said.
Giacomazzi believes CASI is one way for that to succeed.