The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently released its 2018 Climate Action Plan, a comprehensive plan to cut emissions and protect the environment across a variety of industries by 2050. For the agricultural industry, the plan encourages farmers to embrace no-till farming.
“Agriculture communities will benefit from the recommended actions in this plan because no-till farming saves soil cover and agricultural best practices will allow farmers to maintain or increase productivity while accounting for expected climate changes,” Elizabeth Rementer, DEP press secretary, told The Daily News in an email.
No-till farming is the practice of planting seeds without tilling the soil first, which means the seeds are planted by drilling the ground and placing them in the soil rather than planting after plowing. For many farmers, this practice is a benefit both environmentally and economically.
Bill Hoover, who operates the B&D Acres farm in Tyrone, uses a no-till planting system.
“We started using no-till in the 1970s when my dad still owned the farm,” Hoover said. “Like most farmers, the change in crop production methods took place over the years as the planting equipment was replaced with newer planters that were capable of planting in soil that was not tilled.”
Hoover explained there are many benefits to a no-till system.
“The first benefit from planting no-till it there are no rocks to pick,” Hoover said. “That normally needs done when the soil is tilled. Many folks can remember the time-consuming job of picking rocks each year. More important long-term benefits of no-tilling are then huge reduction in soil erosion and the improvements in soil health.”
No-tilling is usually paired with using cover crops.
“No-tilling’s only one part of the system that greatly reduces soil erosion and improves soil health,” Hoover said. “The other key factor in achieving those two goals is growing cover crops between the crops that are grown for harvest. Cover crops such as rye, wheat, radishes and clovers are grown without the intent of being harvested. There are two main benefits to cover crop production. The residue it provides on the soil surface helps prevent the rain from running off the fields, carrying the soil with it. Additionally, the roots under the surface increase the amount of organic matter in the soil that makes it able to absorb rain faster so it doesn’t run off the fields. And the roots provide an ideal environment for soil microbes and fungus to thrive.”
Celina Seftas, district manager at the Huntingdon County Conservation District, explained this process helps retain moisture levels.
“Increasing the organic matter content (on the fields) helps improve water infiltration,” she said. “So that helps when you get a lot of rain, more can infiltrate (the soil) instead of run off. So there’s less erosion, and when you have a dry year, that organic matter acts like a sponge to hold on to the water for your crops.”
Seftas explained that the extra organic matter can also hold carbon, keeping it from releasing into the atmosphere.
“It helps to capture carbon and transition that carbon into the soil,” she said.
Hoover also said the increase in vegetation on the fields also draws earthworms, which help to integrate nutrients throughout the soil.
“Earthworms are mother nature’s workhorses ,” Hoover said. “They burrow holes in the soil that can reach three to four feet deep. Earthworms eat tons of dead plant residue per acre on the soil surface that they then deposit deep in the soil on their daily trip down in their holes. During the growing season in soils that have a healthy earthworm population the amount of residue on the soil surface decreases.”
This increase in soil health can also provide an increased crop yield. The climate plan predicts farmers in Pennsylvania who no-till could gain $20.28 million between additional earnings and decreased fuel costs, while only costing $12.01 million in maintenance and repair costs.
The change of equipment from plows and tills to non-till is probably the biggest hurdle for farmers to change to a no-till system.
“Sometimes getting the seed to the proper soil depth when there is residue on the soil surface can be challenging,” Hoover said. “It does require planters equipped with row planting units that are designed with row cleaners and disks that can cut through the residue to accomplish that. That equipment is costly to buy and maintain.”
Hoover said most farmers in the area are moving toward a no-till model that includes cover crops.
“The complete transition to a system that saves labor reduces soil erosion and improves soil health is a long process but can be summed up in two steps,” Hoover said. “Use the no-till planting method and grow cover crops. Most farmers in this area do some form of no-till farming. Many are growing cover crops. … Farmers understand the benefit for everyone of improved soil health. The change in the way crops have been grown for thousands of years is not going to happen quickly. But it is changing, for the better.”
The Pennsylvania Climate Action Plan has been around since 2009, but Rementer explained this year is the first time it has included more specific ways all Pennsylvanians can contribute.
Also, in January, Gov. Tom Wolf issued an executive order setting goals for emission reduction by 2050, and this plan shows ways of reaching those goals.
“Farmers are one of the most impacted sectors from the impacts of climate change, and including adaptation (in this plan) for the first time will help the agriculture community be able to address the impacts of a changing climate,” Rementer said.
For more information about the Pennsylvania Climate Action Plan, visit www.dep.pa.gov.
Jesse can be reached at email@example.com