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n a way, it was a tropical storm that blew conservation agri- culture into South America. In October 1971, when heavy rains


and wind hit Herbert Bartz’s farm in Rolândia, Brazil, they washed away not only his crop, but also the soil it was growing in. Bartz had heard about a more sustainable way of farm- ing known as no-till—that is, farming without plowing—and he decided to travel to the United Kingdom and the United States to learn more.


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, farmers plowed up the prairies of the US and Canadian plains, leaving little or no organic matter, not even crop residue, to hold the soil together and con- serve moisture. As a result, when drought hit in the early 1930s, the soil was blown away in destructive dust storms. After the Dust Bowl, farmers returned to farming—but instead of plowing, some innova- tors dropped seeds into narrow slots cut into the soil, leaving the surrounding vegetation untouched. Teir farms became both more pro- ductive and more sustainable, and the method became widespread.


Tis is the type of farming Bartz saw on his visit. He immediately put in an order for a no-till planter of his own and in 1972 began cultivat- ing his land without tilling it. His neighbors called him crazy—until


they saw the results. Gradually, they started to emulate him. Now, 40 years later, 75 percent of Brazil’s cropland is grown without tillage, benefiting farmers’ yields and profits and enhancing the health of the country’s soils and water.


Today no-till cultivation is a key ele- ment in conservation agriculture and is one of many practices designed by farmers, extension agents, and scientists to make agriculture more sustainable. While these practices are increasingly used by large-scale and commercial farmers in developed and developing countries, adapting them for small-scale and poor farmers has been a harder sell.


“Tese are great technologies. But how do you make them work for farmers where markets are thin— where the services, inputs, and technologies aren’t always available— and where farmers don’t know much about them?” says IFPRI Senior Research Fellow David Spielman.


SOILS & WATER TAPPED OUT Globally, an estimated 15 percent of land—and 40 percent of agricultural land—is degraded. Tat is, the land suffers from a range of natural- and human-caused problems including soil erosion, loss of nutrients, deserti- fication, salinization, and waterlog- ging. As soil quality declines, crop yields take a hit.


In Brazil, 75 percent of cropland is grown without tillage. © 2005 J. Banning/Panos 1919


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