After 21 years in the same location, No Till on the Plains will be moving its multi-day conference from Salina to downtown Wichita next January.
“Part of the reason for the change is to have it in a meeting facility with a hotel attached to it,” said Steve Swaffar, the group’s executive director. “That encourages folks to network with each other and gives us opportunities to keep people together throughout the event. We always hear that the informal hallway and dinner discussions are some of the best parts of our meeting.”
Swaffar doesn’t rule out returning to Salina at some point or even moving the conference around more frequently in the future.
“We’re certainly in a different age than when we started, and there are a lot of ways to get information now that didn’t exist 21 years ago,” he said. “We’re not the only place to get soil health information like we were back then. That impacts our decision-making and the types of programs we put together.”
Traveling to the conference has become something of a pilgrimage for farmers interested in reducing inputs while increasing the soil’s productivity. More than 1,200 attendees from all over the world typically attend.
Michael “Storm” Casper, a dryland farmer, long-time soil health advocate and conservation specialist from Springfield, Colorado, has made the trek himself and says the mix of people and ideas is eye opening.
“If you look at where everybody comes from, it’s a lot more dispersed than you might expect,” he observed. “It’s scattered throughout a 500-mile radius and beyond. We now have farmers from countries like Australia who come out for a two-week tour and make the circuit to see the latest and greatest the Central Plains has to offer.”
The event has inspired knock-offs that are becoming every bit as influential. Both Colorado and Oklahoma now host two-day statewide no-till conferences of their own. Many government agencies, nonprofit organizations and research institutions have started organizing soil health meetings at the local level too.
The movement didn’t start with governmental agencies, however, it started with farmers.
No Till on the Plains pioneered a format whereby farmers were prominently featured as speakers, organizers and priority-setters.
“‘By farmers, for farmers’ was our tagline when we began, and that part hasn’t changed,” Swaffar said.
Along the way, the group pushed beyond the standard fare by inviting high profile visionaries, often from outside of agriculture, to give talks. Examples include Steve Wozniak, a computer programmer and co-founder of Apple, and David Montgomery, an author and professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Montgomery’s newest book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” comes out in May.
The group has always held cutting-edge scientists in high regard.
“We know it’s important that we have researchers and scientists as a part of this who can explain why something happens the way it does, why it works or doesn’t work, and what the biological principles are behind what we’re trying to do,” Swaffar said.
By now the bar is high, and finding fresh voices can be a challenge.
Next year’s conference keynote has already been announced. Allan Savory, founder of the Boulder-based Savory Institute, a speaker, author and range management guru, travels the world advocating for the strategic pairing of land and livestock to address ecological deterioration.
“He has done mind-boggling things in Africa with reversing desertification, not by removing livestock from the land, but by adding livestock. That’s a principle we have yet to completely grasp,” Swaffar said.
It seems counterintuitive that intensification of land use would make the soil healthier and more productive, but that’s exactly where Savory’s work points and it echoes what no-till leaders are seeing in their own fields.
Another topic that’s trending – and likely to get some prime real estate during next year’s conference – is how to better manage pollinator habitat and attract beneficial insects.
“Sugarcane aphids in sorghum is what really has brought this front and center,” Swaffar said. “You have three days from infestation to react or you risk losing that crop. So we’re looking for alternatives to just applying pesticides.”
Finding natural methods to control bugs and weeds also delivers what he calls “ecosystem services” – benefits to wildlife and the environment that have broad value to the general public.
Modeled on No Till on the Plains, the High Plains No-Till Conference is following many of the same issues and trends, said Michael Thompson, president of the Colorado Conservation Tillage Association, which puts on the Burlington gathering in early February.
“The more you can work with nature, the easier it gets,” said Thompson, who farms full time and runs a cowherd. “Instead of focusing on killing things, we want to focus on growing things. It’s not necessarily about big changes, it’s about small changes you can do that make big changes in the way your land functions.”
The High Plains No Till meeting takes ideas first pioneered further east and looks at how they can be applied in a drier, windier, shorter-season climate. Its regional scope is apparent by the make-up of the board, which includes Thompson, who is based in Northwest Kansas, and Jacob Miller, a farmer and fencing supply specialist from Culbertson, Nebraska.
“It’s just about continuing to find new and innovative people doing great things, but with a special emphasis on lower or limited rainfall situations,” Thompson said.
Both No Till on the Plains and the High Plains No Till Conference have become a resource for soil health advocates who want to offer educational opportunities at the local level.
“We’ve got to have people championing these things at the local level, but those of us working at the local level need to have somebody we can go to when we have questions,” said Blane Stacy, a soil health educator with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission.
“It’s good to have local workshops where we can target local producers in a specific area, but it’s also good to have larger regional ones where we can bring ideas together from people who are farming in different landscapes,” noted Ryan Hytry, a soil conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service based at Lamar, Colorado.
“I don’t think soil health is a new concept,” he added. “It’s something old that’s just coming back around again.”