FARGO, N.D. — Farmers packed a two-day conference in Fargo to learn about innovative ways to keep their fields healthy, as a new focus in the soil health movement encourages farmers to stop tilling the soil and plant cover crops after harvest.
Most Minnesota farmers still till their fields, but University of Minnesota Extension educator Jodi DeJong-Hughes said a growing number of farmers recognize that tilling isn't sustainable and they are talking about planting cover crops.
DeJong-Hughes, who has helped organize conservation conferences for 14 years, told Minnesota Public Radio News that this year's conference, which took place Tuesday and Wednesday, was so popular that she had to turn away people. She said this shows the growing interest in changing farming practices.
"It was surprising," she said. "I mean, we've had growing interest, but this year it really took off."
Steve Groff, a Pennsylvania farmer who was the conference's opening speaker, said he's been preaching the benefits of using cover crops and not tilling for years. He told attendees that changing the way they farm won't be easy but it will be necessary, "because we live in a rapidly changing society, and farmers will be impacted by that," he said. "They better stay up to date on what's going on, so that they don't become obsolete."
Groff said there is growing pressure to produce food more sustainably, and most farmers understand they need to do more to protect the environment.
"I think farmers kind of intuitively know that, at some point, they're going to have to justify every pound of nitrogen that they use on their farm," he said. Excess nitrogen that runs off farm fields can pollute streams and drinking-water wells.
Minnesota's buffer law, which protects streams from farm pollution, is a symptom of current farming practices, DeJong-Hughes said. She said she believes farmers can save money and improve water quality by planting cover crops, and the practice can reduce the need for costly nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides.
"Putting a buffer at the end of the field traps what came off that field," she said. "That's great, but what I want is that soil never to move to begin with, but keep it where we can use it and keep all those nutrients where the farmer put his money."