Friday, 27 March 2015

Needles in Potatoes: The Costs Keep Rising

As a reporter I always admired people who fought for what they believe in, even those who worked around the edges of the law.  I wasn't sure what to think when I first heard about needles found in potatoes.  The "how" was kind of interesting to think through, the "who" had a few candidates, and the "why"  had some logic, but when I had the chance to talk to some of the people directly involved I found it way more troubling (and making potato industry people upset and worried was obviously just what was wanted). I did write this column back in January, and this week I noticed a poster that reminded me this is still an outstanding issue. More than that it's now costing potato packers millions as they gear up to protect their markets. If enriching German and American security machine manufacturers was the goal of this campaign, it's succeeded, but I'm not sure what else it's done.

Needles Not the Answer

It was a pretty good year for people concerned with the environmental footprint of the potato industry.  Horace Carver listened to those who want to retain landownership regulations, and not increase the current limits for land that can be cropped. Just over a year ago the government was ready to end a decade long moratorium on new high capacity irrigation wells, but public outcry, an avalanche of newspaper opinion pieces, and dozens of presentations to a legislative committee put the brakes on. The government has promised a comprehensive process including public hearings, and new research to develop a Water Act before considering new permits again.  And there’s more: the new ability of major municipalities to outlaw cosmetic pesticide use (more restrictive than some wanted),  the closure of the McCain French Fry Plant, west prince farmer Warren Ellis’s steep fine for a series of fish kills in Barclay Brook, the purchase of Ellis’s land by the province and Cavendish Farms and handing it over to the Trout River Watershed group, continued growth in the organic food sector, the ongoing research by Steve Watts showing that farmers can cut back on fertilizer use and produce the same or better quality and size in their crop and cut down on nitrate pollution. Yes there was a serious fish kill in the North River, but it wasn’t caused by a potato grower. So it’s fair to say that the “green team” made some gains.  And sticking needles into potatoes had nothing to do with any of this. 

This isn’t going to be an easy  year for potato growers, but it’s not because of the widespread publicity of a dozen or so discoveries of needles in PEI potatoes.  There is simply an oversupply in North America.  The only “needle” victims are the Linkletter family, and their employees. Half the staff has been laid off for monthes in what would normally be a very busy time leading up to American Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Liability insurance may cover some of this, but the Linkletters are facing huge costs recalling thousands of pounds of potatoes, and will now spend more than two hundred thousand as well on metal detecting  equipment. “Link” potatoes has an excellent reputation for quality and has had it for decades, but the Linkletters know that another round of needles found in potato bags could easily kill their fresh market business for good.  There are simply too many other good suppliers out there to take their place.

If the person or group behind the needles wants to hurt the Linkletters directly for whatever reason, he/she/they are succeeding, but don’t forget to include the dozens of packing plant workers and their families punished by this as well. If the idea is to intimidate the potato industry by taking on the most high profile grower in the province (Gary Linkletter,  now past-chair of the PEI Potato Board) it hasn’t succeeded. The industry is simply too big, and market forces too powerful for this to have much impact. If anything it’s brought the industry closer together by the joint effort to raise reward money.  If the action is to get the government to work harder to protect natural resources, again it’s failed. It’s the efforts by many individuals and community groups to push the government to improve and properly enforce regulations that has created some momentum, not sabotaging a handful of potatoes.

It’s been interesting watching the national media pick up on this story. The contrast between the bucolic nature of PEI, its natural beauty, and heavy pesticide use and dead fish is just too tempting for journalists from away to ignore. It took a National Post reporter to finally state what was being talked about in the coffee shops: could this be direct action by a committed environmentalist or environmental group? The usual suspects were spoken to. They denied it, and I believe them, but this certainly would explain the considerable resources and time the RCMP has thrown at the case.   It may seem like overkill, but federal agencies like the RCMP, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency must be seen as aggressively overseeing food production to keep the Americans happy.  Potato growers and packers in Maine are always on the lookout for trouble in PEI and New Brunswick in the hopes of slowing down Canadian imports. It doesn’t end there. After 9-11, the new Department of Homeland Security played hardball with anyone shipping food into the United States. Line workers and truck drivers had to be screened,   food tracing protocols had to be implemented.  All of  this is now the cost of doing business, costs that can’t be passed on to consumers.  And now checking for needles in potatoes has become a new cost of doing business for at least one big packing operation.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

If You Don't Read Anything Else Today...

Everyone should have to read this once a year.. just to remind ourselves what's important:

and tonight (Mar 26th)  Dirt:The Movie is being shown at the Farm Centre on University Avenue in Charlottetown.. beginning at 7PM.. donations for the Food Security Network requested at the door

We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, because all human life depends on it | George Monbiot

Imagine a wonderful world, a planet on which there was no threat of climate breakdown, no loss of freshwater, no antibiotic resistance, no obesity crisis, no terrorism, no war. Surely, then, we would be out of major danger? Sorry. Even if everything else were miraculously fixed, we’re finished if we don’t address an issue considered so marginal and irrelevant that you can go for months without seeing it in a newspaper.
It’s literally and – it seems – metaphorically, beneath us. To judge by its absence from the media, most journalists consider it unworthy of consideration. But all human life depends on it. We knew this long ago, but somehow it has been forgotten. As a Sanskrit text written in about 1500BC noted: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”
The issue hasn’t changed, but we have. Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction so intense that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Even in Britain, which is spared the tropical downpours that so quickly strip exposed soil from the land, Farmers Weekly reports, we have “only 100 harvests left”.

To keep up with global food demand, the UN estimates, 6m hectares (14.8m acres) of new farmland will be needed every year. Instead, 12m hectares a year are lost through soil degradation. We wreck it, then move on, trashing rainforests and other precious habitats as we go. Soil is an almost magical substance, a living system that transforms the materials it encounters, making them available to plants. That handful the Vedic master showed his disciples contains more micro-organisms than all the people who have ever lived on Earth. Yet we treat it like, well, dirt.
The techniques that were supposed to feed the world threaten us with starvation. A paper just published in the journal Anthropocene analyses the undisturbed sediments in an 11th-century French lake. It reveals that the intensification of farming over the past century has increased the rate of soil erosion sixtyfold.
Another paper, by researchers in the UK, shows that soil in allotments – the small patches in towns and cities that people cultivate by hand – contains a third more organic carbon than agricultural soil and 25% more nitrogen. This is one of the reasons why allotment holders produce between four and 11 times more food per hectare than do farmers.
Whenever I mention this issue, people ask: “But surely farmers have an interest in looking after their soil?” They do, and there are many excellent cultivators who seek to keep their soil on the land. There are also some terrible farmers, often absentees, who allow contractors to rip their fields to shreds for the sake of a quick profit. Even the good ones are hampered by an economic and political system that could scarcely be better designed to frustrate them.

This is the International Year of Soils, but you wouldn’t know it. In January, the Westminster government published a new set of soil standards, marginally better than those they replaced, but wholly unmatched to the scale of the problem. There are no penalities for compromising our survival except a partial withholding of public subsidies. Yet even this pathetic guidance is considered intolerable by the National Farmers’ Union, which greeted them with bitter complaints. Sometimes the NFU seems to me to exist to champion bad practice and block any possibility of positive change.
Few sights are as gruesome as the glee with which the NFU celebrated the death last year of the European soil framework directive, the only measure with the potential to arrest our soil-erosion crisis. The NFU, supported by successive British governments, fought for eight years to destroy it, then crowed like a shedful of cockerels when it won. Looking back on this episode, we will see it as a parable of our times.
Soon after that, the business minister, Matthew Hancock, announced that he was putting “business in charge of driving reform”: trade associations would be able “to review enforcement of regulation in their sectors.” The NFU was one the first two bodies granted this privilege. Hancock explained that this “is all part of our unambiguously pro-business agenda to increase the financial security of the British people.” But it doesn’t increase our security, financial or otherwise. It undermines it.
The government’s deregulation bill, which has now almost completed its passage through parliament, will force regulators – including those charged with protecting the fabric of the land – to “have regard to the desirability of promoting economic growth”. But short-term growth at the expense of public protection compromises long-term survival. This “unambiguously pro-business agenda” is deregulating us to death.
There’s no longer even an appetite for studying the problem. Just oneuniversity – Aberdeen – now offers a degree in soil science. All the rest have been closed down.
This is what topples civilisations. War and pestilence might kill large numbers of people, but in most cases the population recovers. But lose the soil and everything goes with it.
Now, globalisation ensures that this disaster is reproduced everywhere. In its early stages, globalisation enhances resilience: people are no longer dependent on the vagaries of local production. But as it proceeds, spreading the same destructive processes to all corners of the Earth, it undermines resilience, as it threatens to bring down systems everywhere.

Almost all other issues are superficial by comparison. What appear to be great crises are slight and evanescent when held up against the steady trickling away of our subsistence.
The avoidance of this issue is perhaps the greatest social silence of all. Our insulation from the forces of nature has encouraged a belief in the dematerialisation of our lives, as if we no longer subsist on food and water, but on bits and bytes. This is a belief that can be entertained only by people who have never experienced serious hardship, and who are therefore unaware of the contingency of existence.
It’s not as if we are short of solutions. While it now seems that ploughing of any kind is incompatible with the protection of the soil, there are plenty of means of farming without it. Independently, in several parts of the world, farmers have been experimenting with zero-tillage (also known as conservation agriculture), often with extraordinary results.
There are dozens of ways of doing it: we need never see bare soil again. But in the UK, as in most rich nations, we have scarcely begun to experiment with the technique, despite the best efforts of the magazine Practical Farm Ideas.
Even better are some of the methods that fall under the heading ofpermaculture – working with complex natural systems rather than seeking to simplify or replace them. Pioneers such as Sepp Holzer and Geoff Lawtonhave achieved remarkable yields of fruit and vegetables in places that seemed unfarmable: 1,100m above sea level in the Austrian alps, for example, or in the salt-shrivelled Jordanian desert.
But, though every year our government spends £450m on agricultural research and development – much of it on techniques that wreck our soils – there is no mention of permaculture either on the websites of the two main funding bodies (NERC and BBSRC) or in any other department.
The macho commitment to destructive short-termism appears to resist all evidence and all logic. Never mind life on Earth; we’ll plough on regardless.

Monday, 16 March 2015

A Silk Purse From a Horse's Ass

Maybe I'm just getting old and cranky but I find this really troubling.  I remember doing a series of stories with colleague Erin Moore on problems in the Fall lobster fishery. One of the Fisheries and Oceans biologists made a pretty compelling case that the Fall fishery should be cancelled, and all lobster fishing done in the Spring or Winter. He made two arguments, both related to the unusual physical transformation that lobsters go through in the summer, and early Autumn, the shedding of their shell or molting. Unlike mammals with growing skin on the outside, lobsters have a shell. As lobsters grow they eventually fill the space under the shell. The solution: the shell comes off, and the lobster then slowly develop a new one, starting as a soft jelly like coating which hardens up over time. It's also when reproductive activity takes place. This is how a friend described information from a wonderful book called the Secret Life of Lobsters:

"Before shedding, the female lobster looks around for a protector male friend who will ensconce her in a dugout or cave or crevasse or other hidey hole where he can stand guard over her softness. She looks around the neighbourhood to inspect the nests and picks one fella and then sets up to shed. The only time the male lobster can fertilize the female is when she is soft, and he does over and over as she hardens over a week or 2....and he keeps other males away too and anything else that might chew on her tender bits.Then , the female stores the sperm in a sac for as long as TWO YEARS and it is she who decides when to put the eggs outside on her tail after passing thru the sperm sac. 

The eggs stay on the tail (berried) until she decides to let them go."

The biologist said this is when lobsters should be left alone to go through this important part of their life cycle. He warned that lobsters with soft shells are vulnerable to attack and death from predators and even other lobsters in holding facilities  He also said that consumers are not well served because the lobsters are not full of meat the way they are in the Spring.  For all these reasons he insisted that lobsters themselves, and lobster consumers would benefit from catches only in the Spring, and then the winter fishery in South West Nova Scotia. Buyers and knowledgeable consumers  are well aware that the Fall Fishery as its called is not the best time to be buying lobster. Fishermen do the best they can to leave soft-shell lobster or "shedders" in the water, fishermen in the Maritimes that is.

It's a different situation in Maine. There many fishermen view lobster fishing as a part-time job, using smaller boats. They're allowed to fish year around (in Canada there are very distinct seasons), but they tend to catch lobster through the heat of the summer when lobsters move closer to shore.  Consequently a large portion of their catch are these soft-shelled, molting lobsters that Maritime fishermen try to avoid.  The Maine industry is now trying to make a virtue of this by rebranding them as "new shell" lobster, and I worry that they will get away with this, and discredit Canadian lobster in the process. Yikes.

Maine lobster industry gets cracking on 'new shell' marketing campaign 

Maine’s lobster industry is launching an ambitious marketing campaign to boost prices by convincing consumers that Maine lobsters are sweeter and tastier than those caught in Canadian waters.
Not surprisingly, Canadian lobster officials scoff at the notion, saying the lobsters are the same species and the effort is just a public relations stunt.
But the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative intends to prove them wrong by spending nearly $6 million over the next three years on the industry’s first-ever comprehensive marketing effort. The group has hired a global public relations firm, Weber Shandwick, to craft and deliver the message; this year the focus is on reaching out to chefs in upscale casual restaurants in the Northeast, the top market for Maine lobsters.
The goal: convince restaurants that Maine’s soft-shell lobsters are a seasonal delicacy with a story.
The level of spending – funded by a surcharge on licenses issued to lobstermen, processors and dealers – is unprecedented. The marketing collaborative will spend $1.5 million this year and $2.2 million each of the next two years. The campaign is “groundbreaking” because it’s the first time there’s been an industrywide effort to build a brand for Maine’s lobsters, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. The effort was kicked off this year with a menu survey of more than 6,600 restaurants to show how lobsters are described and prepared for diners.
Maine’s efforts have caught the nervous attention of the Canadian lobster industry, which has been unable to marshal a similar marketing effort because the federal government regulates the fishery and trade groups lack the political clout of Maine’s lobstermen.
Maine fishermen for the most part harvest soft-shell lobsters during the summer. Fishermen in Canada’s Atlantic provinces target hard-shell lobsters, which fetch a premium price – as much as $3 more per pound – because they’re stuffed with meat and survive in greater numbers when shipped long distances. The Canadians fish in deeper waters in the late fall, winter and spring when the lobster shells are hard.
Geoff Irving, executive director of the Canadian Lobster Council, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said he doesn’t see how the lobsters caught by Maine fishermen can taste better.
“It’s the same species. Maine lobster is no different than Nova Scotia lobster,” he said. “We all have got the same beast, and everyone is trying to market it in a different way.”
The push to ramp up Maine’s lobster marketing began in 2012 after fishermen saw the average price for their catch sink to $2.69 per pound, its lowest level in nearly two decades. The Legislature established the marketing cooperative the following year. The lobster harvest last year brought in $456 million to fishermen, making it by far Maine’s most valuable fishery.
There are only two ways to boost prices: limit supply – a tactic fraught with political peril – or increase demand, so fishermen are willing to support the higher lobster trap fees to boost marketing efforts, said David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
“People are coming to the realization that more marketing of the product means more value in your product,” he said.
Despite its iconic status in the state, Maine lobster has become a commodity in the marketplace, according to the group’s market research.
For example, in China – a growing market for lobsters – buyers classify Canadian lobsters as “No. 1″ lobsters while soft-shell lobsters from New England are stuck with “No. 2″ status. More than 80 percent of the lobsters in the United States are harvested in Maine.
The Maine lobster industry for too long has allowed lobsters to be graded by their ability to be shipped long distances rather than how they taste, said Matt Jacobson, executive director of the collaborative.
“You don’t eat the shell,” he said. “If you talk to the chefs and the people who eat lobsters, they prefer soft-shell lobsters. It tastes better,” he said.
The lobsters caught by Maine fishermen and Canadian fishermen are the same species, Homarus americanus. The difference is the time of year they’re caught.
Maine fishermen are permitted to catch lobsters in state waters year-round but mainly harvest them in the summer and early fall after the crustaceans move to inshore waters and crawl out of their tight-fitting shells. They then grow new shells that take months to harden. The lobsters in the summer are easier to catch because they’re in state waters closer to shore, hungrier and move around more.
Canadian lobstermen avoid lobsters that have shed their shells because they contain less meat, said Irving of the Canadian Lobster Council.
“We try to avoid lobsters when they are molting,” Irving said. “That’s because they are empty and don’t yield well.”
The Maine and Canadian seasons are sequential, so there’s a steady supply of fresh lobsters for the dealers and processors on both sides of the border. The year-round supply of fresh lobster also sustains the market among consumers. About 70 percent of Maine lobsters are exported to Canada, where they are processed. Many of them are re-exported to consumers in the United States but without the “Maine” label.
For the most part, the fisheries in Canada and Maine work as one industry to the benefit of everyone. When it comes to price, though, the arrangement doesn’t work as well for Maine fishermen.
In 2014, for example, Maine lobster landings peaked in August, but the price per pound that month was the lowest of the year at $3.21 per pound, according to preliminary state data.
The price peaked in March and April, at $6.70 a pound. That’s the time of year, though, when Canadians are catching hard-shell lobsters and Maine fishermen are still sitting at home or working on their boats.
About 20 percent of Maine lobstermen hold federal permits that allow them to catch hard-shell lobsters in offshore waters in the winter, but the number of permits is limited. In addition, fishing offshore requires going greater distances and fishing in deeper waters, which call for a bigger investment to pay for larger vessels and engines, more rope and a larger crew.
Despite the current price edge enjoyed by the Canadians, Maine’s lobster industry is well-positioned to take advantage of growing interest among American consumers who value seasonal foods harvested sustainably, said Patty Stone, an executive vice president at Weber Shandwick.
Many consumers today are shunning industrialized food production and paying more for food that can be sourced to a particular farm or fishing port, she said. The marketing group hopes to take advantage of the boat-to-table food trend by marketing Maine’s lobsters as a seasonal delicacy that is “fished the hard way – one trap at a time,” according to its marketing materials. The group also plans to market Maine lobsters as “protein with provenance,” borrowing a phrase used by museum curators to indicate the place of origin for an artifact.
“There is nothing more important now than the story you can tell around the food,” Stone said.
The marketing collaborative wants fishermen and dealers and even Maine residents to get on-board with the campaign and start talking about Maine lobsters differently. Forget the terms “soft shell” and “shedders, ” the group says. Instead, call them “new shell” lobsters, a name the marketers believe connotes freshness and seasonality – attributes that are increasingly desirable in the marketplace.
“I want everyone in Maine to think about lobsters a little differently and realize it’s a special product that comes at a special time,” Stone said. “It has been taken for granted. It’s the sweetest, the most tender and ‘lobster-y’ meat, and we should be celebrating that.”
The group hangs this claim of Maine lobster superiority on a blind taste test conducted by serious, one of the nation’s most well-known food blogs.
The test is based on overall preference, lobster aroma, sweetness and brininess.
The results: Tasters almost unanimously preferred the soft-shell lobsters to the hard-shell, citing its “tenderness, sweetness, and ‘lobster-y’ flavor,” according to the writer, J. Kenji L√≥pez-Alt, a restaurant-trained chef and former editor at Cook’s Illustrated magazine.
Stephanie Nadeau, a lobster dealer in Arundel who sells lobsters from Canada and Maine, said meat from soft-shell lobsters is more translucent while the meat from hard-shell lobsters is more chalky.
“I don’t eat nasty hard-shells,” she said.
Nadeau said she likes the marketing plan because there is strong consumer demand for food that is seasonable and sustainable.
People in Maine are so accustomed to seeing lobstermen at work that they take the fishery for granted and don’t realize that consumers in the rest of the country crave this kind of intimate connection with a wild food source, said Nick Branchina, director of marketing for Portland-based Browne Trading Co., which sells seafood to high-end restaurants.
“For people from away, this is wonderful stuff,” he says. “From a marketing standpoint, you tell the story. You capitalize on that.”
Stone said the campaign will focus on telling the story to star chefs in the Northeast because they influence the entire restaurant scene. Weber Shandwick will bring chefs and food bloggers to Maine this summer to see how lobsters are harvested and experiment with new recipes. While Mainers like their lobsters to be prepared simply and served as the center of the plate, as in a traditional lobster bake, chefs elsewhere see lobster meat as an ingredient for exotic dishes, according to a survey of menus from more than 6,600 restaurants conducted by the research firm Technomic. One restaurant in New York, Oceana Restaurant, for example, serves a lobster in a spicy sweet-and-sour sauce in a dish it calls “General Tsao’s Lobster.”
In addition, Weber Shandwick will conduct a head-to-head taste test between soft-shell and hard-shell lobsters with chefs and also try to get the taste test on television shows, like “Today” and “Good Morning America.”
Cousens, who is a lobsterman in South Thomaston, said he and many other fishermen will do their part and start calling lobsters by the name preferred by the marketing people.
“As far as taste, the shedders” – Cousens interrupted himself – “the new shells win every time.”
He laughed. “I am not supposed to call them shedders. I’m supposed to call them new shells. I am trainable.”

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Nothing More Important in Farming

Farmers Put Down the Plow for More Productive Soil

FORT WORTH — Gabe Brown is in such demand as a speaker that for every invitation he accepts, he turns down 10 more. At conferences, like the one held here at a Best Western hotel recently, people line up to seek his advice.
“The greatest roadblock to solving a problem is the human mind,” he tells audiences.
Mr. Brown, a balding North Dakota farmer who favors baseball caps and red-striped polo shirts, is not talking about disruptive technology start-ups, political causes, or the latest self-help fad.
He is talking about farming, specifically soil-conservation farming, a movement that promotes leaving fields untilled, “green manures” and other soil-enhancing methods with an almost evangelistic fervor.
Such farming methods, which mimic the biology of virgin land, can revive degenerated earth, minimize erosion, encourage plant growth and increase farmers’ profits, their proponents say. And by using them, Mr. Brown told more than 250 farmers and ranchers who gathered at the hotel for the first Southern Soil Health Conference, he has produced crops that thrive on his 5,000-acre farm outside of Bismarck, N.D., even during droughts or flooding.
“My goal is to improve my soil so I can grow a better crop so I can make more money,” said Mr. McAlister, who farms 6,000 acres of drought-stricken cropland.
He no longer needs to use nitrogen fertilizer or fungicide, he said, and he produces yields that are above the county average with less labor and lower costs. “Nature can heal if we give her the chance,” Mr. Brown said.
Neatly tilled fields have long been a hallmark of American agriculture and its farmers, by and large traditionalists who often distrust practices that diverge from time-honored methods.
But soil-conservation farming is gaining converts as growers increasingly face extreme weather, high production costs, a shortage of labor and the threat of government regulation of agricultural pollution.
Farmers like Mr. Brown travel the country telling their stories, and organizations like No-Till on the Plains — a Kansas-based nonprofit devoted to educating growers about “agricultural production systems that model nature” — attract thousands.
“It’s a massive paradigm shift,” said Ray Archuleta, an agronomist at theNatural Resources Conservation Service, part of the federal Agriculture Department, which endorses the soil-conservation approach.
Government surveys suggest that the use of no-tillage farming has grown sharply over the last decade, accounting for about 35 percent of cropland in the United States.
For some crops, no-tillage acreage has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. For soybeans, for example, it rose to 30 million acres in 2012 from 16.5 million acres in 1996. The planting of cover crops — legumes and other species that are rotated with cash crops to blanket the soil year-round and act as green manure — has also risen in acreage about 30 percent a year, according to surveys, though the total remains small.
Farmers till the land to ready it for sowing and to churn weeds and crop residue back into the earth. Tilling also helps mix in fertilizers and manure and loosens the top layer of the soil.
But repeated plowing exacts a price. It degrades soil, killing off its biology, including beneficial fungi and earthworms, and leaving it, as Mr. Archuleta puts it, “naked, thirsty, hungry and running a fever.”
Degraded soil requires heavy applications of synthetic fertilizer to produce high yields. And because its structure has broken down, the soil washes away easily in heavy rain, taking nitrogen and other pollutants with it into rivers and streams.
Soil health proponents say that by leaving fields unplowed and using cover crops, which act as sinks for nitrogen and other nutrients, growers can increase the amount of organic matter in their soil, making it better able to absorb and retain water.
Mr. McAlister uses cover crops, like this white turnip, to preserve water and prevent erosion on his farm.
“Each 1 percent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre,” said Claire O’Connor, a staff lawyer and agriculture specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In turn, more absorbent soil is less vulnerable to runoff and more resistant to droughts and floods. Cover crops also help suppress weeds. Environmental groups like the Defense Council have long been fans of soil-conservation techniques because they help protect waterways and increase the ability of soil to store carbon dioxide, rather than releasing it into the air, where it contributes to climate change.
One recent study led by the Environmental Defense Fund suggested that the widespread use of cover crops and other soil-health practices could reduce nitrogen pollution in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River basins by 30 percent, helping to shrink the giant “dead zone” of oxygen-depleted water in the Gulf of Mexico. The Defense Council, Ms. O’Connor said, has proposed that the government offer a “good driver” discount on federal crop insurance for growers who incorporate the practices.
But the movement also has critics, who argue that no-tillage and other methods are impractical and too expensive for many growers. A farmer who wants to shift to no-tillage, for example, must purchase new equipment, like a no-till seeder.
Tony J. Vyn, a professor of agronomy at Purdue, said the reasons growers cite for preferring to fully till their fields vary depending on geography, the types of crops they grow and the conditions of their soil. But they include the perception that weed control is harder using no-tillage; that the method, which reduces water evaporation, places limits on how early in the year crops can be planted; and that the residue left by no-tilling is too difficult to deal with, especially when corn is the primary cash crop.
Even farmers who enthusiastically adopt no-till and other soil-conservation methods rarely do so for environmental reasons; their motivation is more pragmatic.
“My goal is to improve my soil so I can grow a better crop so I can make more money,” said Terry McAlister, who farms 6,000 acres of drought-stricken cropland in North Texas. “If I can help the environment in the process, fine, but that’s not my goal.”
For years, Mr. McAlister plowed his fields, working with his father, who began farming outside the town of Electra in the 1950s. But he began having doubts about the effects of constant tilling on the soil.
“We were farming cotton like the West Texas guys were, just plow, plow, plow,” he said. “And if you got a rain, it just washed it and eroded it.
“It made me sick,” he said. “You’re asking yourself, ‘Is there not a better way?’ But at the time, we didn’t know.”
Mr. McAlister said that he switched to no-tillage in 2005, when an agricultural economist calculated that the method offered a $15-per-acre advantage over full tilling.
Mr. McAlister with bags of seed he will be planting on his farm.
Now he is a convert. Standing in a field of winter wheat, he pointed proudly at the thick blanket of stubble sprinkled with decaying radishes and turnips.
“One of the toughest things about learning to do no-till is having to unlearn all the things that you thought were true,” he said.
Mr. McAlister grows cotton, wheat, hay, grain sorghum and some canola as cash crops, using a GPS-guided no-till seeder that drills through residue, allowing him to plant precisely and effectively.
He credits no-tillage for one of his biggest wheat crops, in 2012, when extreme drought left farmers throughout the region struggling to salvage any harvest. His healthier soil, he believes, made better use of the tiny amount of rain that fell than did the fully tilled fields of other farmers.
But few growers go as far as Mr. Brown in North Dakota, who produces grass-fed beef and has given up most agricultural chemicals. Mr. McAlister, for example, still uses nitrogen fertilizer. He plants seeds that are genetically modified for drought or herbicide resistance. And he depends on herbicides like Roundup to kill off his cover crops before sowing the crops he grows for cash.
The philanthropist Howard G. Buffett, a proponent of soil-conservation practices, said that the drought and flooding that have plagued much of the country in recent years have drawn more farmers to no-till.
“When you get into a drought, that gets everybody’s attention,” said Mr. Buffett, the middle son of Warren E. Buffett, the billionaire investor. “Farmers don’t really change their behavior until they see that they have to, which is pretty much human nature.”
The Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay under the Clean Water Act in 2010, Mr. Buffett said, should also be “a wake-up call that the E.P.A. is coming soon” and if farmers do not address fertilizer runoff, the government will do it for them.
Still, he said, reaping the benefits of no-tillage farming demands patience, given that it may take several years for deadened soil to recover. Some farmers try no-tilling for one season and then get discouraged. And there is no one-size-fits-all solution: Farmers must adapt what they have learned to their own land and crops.
Mr. McAlister and other no-till farmers said that perhaps the biggest barrier to the spread of no-till is the mind-set that farmers must do things the same way as earlier generations did them.
“We have a saying in our area: ‘You can’t no-till because you haven’t buried your father yet,’” Mr. McAlister said.
“You can’t take on an endeavor like this with someone leaning over your shoulder every day telling you you’re wrong and it’s not going to work,” he said.