My father and grandfather, Ron and Lloyd McRae, always adopted the latest farming technologies. From the 1940s through the 1990s, they were often first to implement new strategies in land, crop and herd management. Some new strategies were great successes, while others were not. For the past fifteen years, as I’ve farmed with my dad, we’ve developed a 5-crop rotation of grain corn, dry edible beans (azuki), milling oats, tofu soybeans, and malting barley. We only do tillage once or twice in this 5-year cycle, and we ensure that the soil is always completely covered by crop residue or a cover crop over the winter and early spring. I was only about 12 years old when my dad quit plowing, so I never learned how to use a moldboard plow.
The McRae Farm - History
Back in the early 1980s, after twenty years of continuous corn production with lots of tillage, nitrogen fertilizer and many other expensive inputs, our debt load was escalating while our productivity and revenues were in decline. To reverse these trends, my father implemented some severe cost-cutting measures and became a better money manager. We also began experimenting with laser land leveling, home-made no-till seeding equipment, grass buffer strips and other land conservation practices. These were a few of our early attempts to deal with soil erosion, compaction and water ponding, all of which resulted from soil degradation.
Back in the early 1980s...Debt Load Escalating
As area farmlands that remained under plow-till systems continued to lose the essential resource of fertile topsoil, we observed our soil changing from an erodible, compacted, lifeless state, to a vibrant and stable ecosystem. We achieved this through a dedication to no-till, ridge-till and improved crop rotation.
Vibrant and Stable EcosystemNo-Till, Ridge-Till, Crop Rotation
When we study the history of farming all around the world, we know that farmers have very often failed to preserve the soil’s productivity in the midst of almost every great civilization. Eras of economic growth, technological success, and population expansion have always compelled farmers to push the soil mercilessly in a fruitless attempt to match insatiable demands for food, fiber and energy. We are now in the midst of another such era. The consequence, in the past, has always been accelerated soil erosion, with an associated decline in farmland productivity – often a permanent condition that leads to centuries of war, ecological degradation and terrible poverty. It’s up to us to ensure that we don’t repeat the same cycle of decline here in Canada.