VIEW FROM THE HILL

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN PAUL PENNER
In every coffee shop where farmers meet lurks an individual who is the local expert in all matters. His sole purpose in life is to set the record straight about which crop is better, who got a better market price on any given day or which brand of tractor is better.

In this particular crowd, Albert Schmidt fit the description of local expert. Folks would call him “Alphabet” because it did not matter whether the topic was on aphids, zebras or anything in-between, he knew all there was to know about the subject.

In fact, on one occasion, an anonymous observer said this fellow was more knowledgeable than God himself.

Milo Leadbetter, Marcel’s stepbrother on his father’s side, showed up at Mickey D’s the other day. The usual groups of farmers were present, drinking coffee like there was no tomorrow.

When Milo sat in the booth with Albert and two other farmers, these two fellows knew they had ringside seats for the best verbal slugfest in the county since the Nixon and Kennedy debate back in the ’60s.

Milo loved to till the soil. He was the most particular farmer around. He mowed his lawn so evenly, not one blade of grass looked out of place. Weeds never stood a chance if they germinated on his farm.

When the latest craze hit the local farm country, called “no-till,” Albert decided this was the right way to go.

Convinced he could spend more time doing what he enjoyed-which, to some people, was setting the record straight-he sold all his tillage tools and became an expert of no-till farming practices.

The temptation to lob a few verbal jabs at Milo was too much for Albert to resist.

“Hey, Milo,” he said.

“How’s it going’ Albert?” Milo replied.

Albert was grinning from ear to ear. “I’m doing fine. I have all the time in the world to do what I want-unlike yourself. I see you’re dragging machinery around the field again. Does the soil need more iron?”

Albert faced the gathering crowd of onlookers, expecting howls of laughter. But you could have heard a pin drop in that joint. Nobody wanted to miss what would happen next.

Milo took another sip of his coffee. He never looked up. The steam from the hot brew formed two swirls by his nostrils as he exhaled. Taking a deep breath, he spoke in a slow drawl, “Alphie, I admire your commitment to see if weeds can actually grow in a natural environment. Seems like you proved the nay-sayers wrong this time.”

After the laughter subsided, Milo tipped his hat to Albert and slowly made his exit through the throng of well-wishers.

* * *

OK, perhaps I lost a couple of diehard no-till fans with this bit of fiction. Who knows, I might even get an angry letter or two. My desire is that my friends on either side of the aisle will not only laugh, but listen to the message and seriously consider its meaning.

A story like this often contains bits of truth mixed with satire, and is exaggerated to make a point. This one about Milo and Alphabet is no exception.

They represent the direct opposites of each other, with the exception of Alphie’s “know-it-all” frame of mind. That was thrown in to make it interesting.

In the “conventional versus no-till” debate in our central Kansas region, neither farming practice is superior to the other, as some promoters of the no-till gospel want you to believe.

Cost-and-benefits studies from K-State indicate there are negligible differences in total costs when comparing conventional tillage versus no-till systems. Yields have been found to be comparable as well.

Other factors-interest rates, prices of fertilizer and herbicides, machinery and land costs-have a greater impact on profitability than any other cost, including fuel, using either tillage system.

To sum up, no-till farming is anything but cheap, not to mention no-till equipment. Have you priced new no-till equipment recently? It never ceases to amaze me how simple machines can cost as much or more than a moderately priced house.

Throw in a GPS guidance system, like the Outback, Ag Leader or Trimble, plus new computerized gizmos that will steer the tractor by itself-compatible on new models only, of course-be prepared to mortgage a quarter section of land, and more, for the opportunity to be “up to date,” tillage-wise.

Finally, there is one more important issue: the cost associated with a good-neighbor policy.

When rotating out of wheat to another crop, volunteer wheat is the most common control problem. Viruses harmful to newly planted wheat flourish in volunteer wheat. Controlling it costs money. The challenge for the dedicated no-till farmer is to control the spread of the virus to neighboring fields, or assume the risk of causing financial harm to the neighbors who farm nearby.

In the final analysis, being a good neighbor to those who farm differently will largely determine if no-till farming practices truly are worthy of other farmer’s acceptance in their own fields.

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