The no-till tango

ONE THING we ought to know by now: what seems impossible, laughable, out-and-out weird, has a way of becoming commonplace.

Max Carter says folks thought it was a hoot when he started no-tilling soybeans after wheat on his Douglas, Ga., farm 27 years ago. But Max was sick of seeing his topsoil blow away on the wind or wash down the ditch during rainstorms. No-till sounded intriguing.

“It was a whole new farming theory, a way to grow crops and not disturb the environment,” he recalls. He was tired of blowing smoke from wasted fuel in tillage operations, of burning crop residues after harvest, of watching topsoil disappear, headed who-knows-where.

Soon he was double-cropping everything, cotton, peanuts, corn, soybeans, with wheat. The change was dramatic, he says.

“There was a cost savings. And after the third year, I noticed less water was required to grow a crop because the soil retains moisture. You find that the fertility improves. The organic matter improves. Beneficial insects have a place to live, so you don't use as much insecticide. I began to see changes I didn't expect when I started no-tilling,” Carter says.

Then he made the most dramatic step of all. He removed the irrigation rigs from his fields. Originally, he began irrigating for tobacco, which he no longer grows.

“We had ponds built for holding water. Then I began to see the results of no-till and how we were building the organic matter with wheat straw. I sold the irrigation equipment because I had no desire to irrigate any more. Over the last three years now we've had a drought, so I guess you could say I'm not normal, not wanting to irrigate. It has been extremely dry, but sometimes I've harvested peanuts when neighbors didn't. And I don't have the input cost of irrigating,” he says.

That isn't so surprising, says Bo Bannister, a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Max is seeing a lot of the long-term effects of conservation tillage. If you build up that soil organic matter, it's going to hold moisture better. Even without irrigation, Max has been consistently making fairly good crops,” he says.

Along the way, Max Carter's image changed, as well. No longer was he the local oddball farmer. Somehow he became the guy other farmers wanted to emulate.

Active with the Georgia Conservation Tillage Alliance since it started in 1993, he began to host field days and tours. Film crews and foreign groups began showing up on the farm. He got invited to speak at meetings, farm and non-farm alike. The University of California recently asked him to head west to talk conservation tillage with farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Somebody called me the grandfather of conservation tillage in Georgia. I don't know how true that is, but it sounded good,” he says.

After farming this same ground for 50 years, he's making a living off 200 acres of land. “It seems everybody wants to get big. They like big rigs and big tractors. You do more damage to the soil in a few hours with a big tractor and a big disk than can be rebuilt in years and years,” he says.

“So, yes, I'm 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weigh 300 pounds. But I tell everybody I'm a small farmer, and that's the way I like it. The only way I can do this is with no-till and double-cropping.”

He's glad he paid little mind to all that talk years ago. “People talked about me being an ugly, trashy farmer. Down at the store they were thinking I'd lost whatever sense I had. But we've learned a lot of things through the years. You can't leave land bare through winter, exposed to wind and rain. You have to put a cover crop out there. Now I'm using about half wheat and half rye for cover, and harvest the wheat and graze the rye. I plant cotton about June 1 after harvesting wheat. That's another thing that's supposed to be against the conventional theory. But I'm finding the later the cotton is planted, the less cutting out it does. It's in the right stage when we get rain,” he says.

“Agriculture is always changing. You can never stand still. If you never retool, you just get behind. Industry always retools in order to stay competitive. Some are trying to manage with the same techniques they've always used. You just can't survive that way, and survival is really what we're talking about.”

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