SHOWING BEATS telling, anytime. That could be why the Georgia Conservation Tillage Alliance rang up such success during the past decade, just when no-till boomed in the state.
The Alliance founders in 1993 decided it would take more than tooting the horn for conservation tillage to make the practice widespread. They wanted to show farmers how to do it.
“A lot of field days. Lots and lots of field days with farmers participating,” sparked many farmers to switch to conservation tillage, says Lamar Black, Millen, Ga., farmer and president of the Alliance.
“We wanted to set it up so farmers could see first-hand what's going on. We wanted to make it so if a farmer wants to try it he won't have to reinvent the wheel. He won't have to make the same mistakes we did because we'll tell him how to avoid them.”
The Alliance now has more than 200 members. Four regional conservation tillage alliances have started in the state, as well. Can it be coincidental that no-till cotton in the state, just 800 acres in 1988, last year included 270,000 acres?
“It's been an outstanding effort by the Alliance. I couldn't be happier,” says Jimmy Dean, Natural Resources Conservation Service state agronomist who originated the idea for the group and served on its initial steering committee.
“It's a classic case of farmers helping farmers,” says Dean. “Soil erosion is probably the number one reason farmers change to conservation tillage. Soil quality is also a big issue in Georgia, building organic matter. Studies show that 17 percent to 20 percent of the water we get is lost to runoff in conventional tillage fields.
“But in conservation tillage fields, there's healthier, more productive soil and water is available to the crop longer. Conservation tillage farmers are also saving time, fuel, labor and wear on machinery. The time factor is most important to some. They're doing it to save their family. Now they have time to see the wife and kids.”
Current Alliance board member Glen Harris, Georgia Extension soil fertility agronomist, says the farmer-to-farmer approach works very well. “When it comes from a fellow farmer they really take notice. There's been a lot of cooperation on conservation tillage among groups here. I feel Extension has more of a support role,” he says.
About 25 percent of Georgia's total row crop acreage is now under conservation tillage, Harris says. “The big increase in peanut acreage kind of surprised me. After we found that spotted wilt is not as severe on conservation tillage peanuts, that was the big factor. And Roundup Ready® technology had a huge effect on cotton acreage,” he says.
Monsanto provided support from the Alliance's beginning. Tom Sanders and Steve Woodham, both Monsanto retail sales managers, were on the original steering committee. “The Alliance has done pretty much what it can do through its members' capabilities. Conservation tillage acres have increased and the Alliance is one of the reasons for that, because not only was the university giving them reasons to use it, now they could see what their neighbors were doing,” Sanders says.
At its annual meeting this year, the Alliance presented achievement awards to Sanders, Woodham and their fellow Monsanto retail sales managers, Randy Barwick and Jackie Jenkins. “We recognized them for all they've done to create awareness for conservation tillage,” Black says.
It's all for a good cause, Sanders says. “If you really put the pencil to it, there's no question conservation tillage can save some money. Even if it's just $4 or $5 an acre, and that's the minimum savings in most studies, you're better off making that up than running around trying to save 5 cents a gallon on a chemical,” he says.
Alliance members point to Coffee County in south Georgia as the top success story in the state. About 40 percent of the county's row crops are now grown using conservation tillage, says Bo Bannister, NRCS district conservationist.
“We've seen tremendous growth in cotton and peanuts. Most of our farmers are going to conservation tillage with everything they have, corn and even some vegetables. The number one reason is economics. But water quality is right up there with that as a reason to switch. There are a lot of concerns here about water quality. Conservation tillage solves a lot of those problems,” Bannister says.
Coffee County now has its own 80-member local tillage alliance, complete with an Internet Website. “We're hosting a lot of tours, demonstrations and meetings. The big thing, though, is taking that one-on-one look with fellow farmers. There's also been tremendous cooperation between NRCS, Extension, the Department of Natural Resources and other agencies. It's people helping people.”