Andrew Ward, a farmer in Lincolnshire, England made a surprising decision back in 2002. He adopted a practice known as conservation tillage. This meant no more breaking up the soil or disturbing underground microbial life to remove weeds. Instead, he would allow organic matter left after the harvest to provide a protective layer for the soil. His fellow farmers looked on with skepticism — to this day, cultivation remains a traditional practice for controlling weeds. Andrew on the other hand, saw limitations in tillage.
In Andrew’s view, the process of tilling fields to control weeds is visually misleading. On the surface, you see a nicely manicured field with rows of soil ready for planting. But what is happening underneath is another matter.
Every soil disturbance can elicit an array of consequences: carbon stored in the soil is released into the atmosphere, local insects and microbial life are affected, the soil loses moisture and seedlings of weeds can spread, which only compounds the weed problem. Nearly two decades ago, Andrew was ready to test a less invasive approach.
Conservation tillage requires a considerable amount of planning and coordination—what Ward refers to as a complex jigsaw puzzle. One key component of this practice is the herbicide known by its active ingredient glyphosate. In his opinion, this crop protection tool has proven essential not only to his operation, but his conservation efforts as well.
Ward uses glyphosate instead of tillage on his farm due to its ability to effectively control weeds. He can precisely apply the herbicide where weeds are present and minimize disturbing the soil across his 630 hectares of wheat, barley, oats, canola, and sugar beets. In practice, this can result in fewer carbon emissions from tractors and less carbon released from the soil.
Glyphosate has been adopted by farmers around the globe to control invasive weeds. In Andrew’s region a noxious plant known as “black grass” is the main culprit. This persistent broadleaf siphons off resources from area crops. In his view, this pest could not be controlled without the help of glyphosate.
Over time, the agricultural community across Europe caught wind of Ward’s forward-thinking approach to weed control and soil conservation. Earning Farmers Weekly magazine’s ‘Arable Farmer of the Year’ in 2008 and Farming Champion in 2013 brought attention to his central England farm.
Inspired by his newfound acclaim, Ward became an advocate for modern agriculture. He spends time engaging with government regulators, consumers, and politicians on why, despite some common assumptions, glyphosate and other innovations can actually help fulfill their shared desire to protect the planet. This has led to Andrew inviting influential people with opposing viewpoints to see the benefits first-hand. One notable visitor to his farm was a prominent Green Party leader in the UK who spent over seven hours touring his farm. This relationship between farmer and politician continues today, offering more opportunity for fruitful dialogue.
Pheasants and other ground nesting birds, earthworms and sea gulls are just some of the local wildlife that take refuge on Andrew’s land. One of the most lasting and important effects of conservation tillage is the numerous benefits it brings to soil health and biodiversity. And a key aspect of adopting this more sustainable practice is deploying effective methods of pest control. Applying glyphosate to his fields and adopting conservation tillage permits fewer tractor-related emissions, allows less disturbance of soil microbes, and even helps create refuge for local wildlife.
This is why innovation must remain a key aspect of modern agriculture. When farmers gain access to effective tools and conservation practices, the positive impacts can extend well beyond the farm. As farmers like Andrew Ward can attest, conservation and innovation go hand in hand. Embracing these new and novel solutions may cause others to question your methods, but if you care deeply about preserving the ecosystem, it’s a small price to pay.
This article was originally posted on ModernAg.org