Saturday, 15 July 2006

Change without Stick or Carrot: Adoption of Improved Soil Management Practices in Pennsylvania.

Sjoerd Duiker, Penn State Univ, 116 ASI Building, University Park, PA 16802-3504

Soil degradation is a major threat to the sustainability of our civilization, as is recognized by many policy makers and scientists. Because it still occupies 46 percent of the land surface of the conterminous United States, agriculture has been a major focus of attention. Soil erosion, compaction, nitrate leaching, phosphorus runoff, and organic matter losses are some of the major sources of agricultural soil degradation in the Chesapeake Bay, in the northeastern United States. Some 50% of the freshwater flowing into the Bay originates in Pennsylvania. The average rate of soil erosion on cropland in Pennsylvania was 5.1 T/A/yr (11 Mg/ha/yr) in 1997 (the date of the most recent National Resource Inventory). Gauging stations show that the Susquehanna River deposits approximately 1 million tonnes of soil a year in the Chesapeake Bay. Additionally, elevated nitrate and phosphorus levels in rivers and Bay water cause eutrophication, which results in periodic depletion of oxygen in surface water bodies and death of aquatic organisms. Intensive soil tillage is a major contributor to soil degradation, as it exposes the soil to erosion and increased losses of soil organic matter. Tillage is also the major cause of phosphorus losses from cropland: most phosphorus moves from land attached to eroded sediments. Although tillage changes nitrogen dynamics, it does not usually lead to changes in annual nitrate leaching in Pennsylvania. Cover crops grown after main crops, however, can be major contributors to improved nitrate retention in agricultural soils, whereas they also help to increase soil organic matter contents and keep soil protected. No-tillage and cover crops therefore appear to be ideal candidates for improved soil management in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, no-tillage was used on only 24% of Pennsylvania cropland in 2004, despite evidence from research trials that crop yields are at least the same with no-till as with tillage. Cover crop area is not monitored systematically, but has traditionally been small. Policy makers and scientists normally react by calling for policies to stimulate or force farmers to use no-tillage and cover crops. These mechanisms, however, always have unexpected side-effects that may limit the management freedom of farmers. In Pennsylvania, therefore, we are attempting to stimulate the adoption of improved soil management practices without the use of carrots or sticks. This is made possible through the existence of vital relationships between farmers, the land-grant university, and private and public service agencies. The Pennsylvania State University has a strong commitment to assist farmers be successful land managers. Its county-based extension service has strong relationships with farmers and agricultural service companies whereas a team of campus-based soil and crop management specialists keeps extension educators up-to-date with recent research results. The extension service also has strong ties with the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS), Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and county-based Soil Conservation Districts (CDs). No-till is increasingly recognized by these agencies as a very effective soil conservation practice. These relationships have enabled a multitude of collaborative efforts, including: annually held conservation tillage workshops for farmers in different regions of Pennsylvania; annual no-till workshops to train agency personnel in successful no-till and cover cropping strategies; no-till publications, and annual no-till field days for Amish farmers in southeastern Pennsylvania (organized in collaboration with an Amish planter dealer). In the spring of 2005, no-till efforts culminated in the formation of the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance, an organization with a board composed only of leading no-till farmers, with an advisory group consisting of personnel working in supporting organizations. The aim of this organization is to enable fellow-farmers be successful no-tillers themselves. So the method of the soil management program in Pennsylvania has been an interactive exchange among practicioners and service personnel on successful soil management practices and create a level of enthusiasm about these practices. There is preliminary evidence that these efforts start to pay off in increased adoption of no-till and cover crops in Pennsylvania. This change has found place mostly without the use of legal instruments or payments to farmers. Ingredients to success in the adoption of more sustainable soil management practices include: a strong vision of the potential of no-tillage and cover crops for sustainable and profitable soil management; a critical mass of supportive farmers, university personnel, and private and public employees; successful farmer role models; expertise; and excellent collaborative relationships.

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