Learning to do Nothing

People often ask farmers, “what do you do in the winter?” If you don’t have livestock, winter is a slow time. It’s a time to catch up on repairs, make plans for the next growing season, sell grain, and to learn new things. Winter is the time for classes and meetings and conferences.

One of my favorite learning events is the National No-Till Conference. It’s a 4 day event hosted by No-Till Farmer magazine. They move it each year, generally in the Eastern Corn Belt one year, locations like Cincinnati or Indianapolis, and in the Western Corn Belt the next, places like St. Louis or Des Moines. This year’s conference was held in Cincinnati on January 14th to 17th. It drew nearly 1000 participants from all over the United States and internationally.

As its name implies, the National No-Till Conference is about no-tilling, the practice of planting directly into the crop residue of last year’s crop. This helps prevent soil erosion from wind and water since the soil is always covered with a layer of mulch. That layer of mulch also feeds animals that live in the soil, from the invisible microbes to the macrofauna such as earthworms.

Earthworms have been one of the big topics at the conference in the last few years. Earthworms aren’t just fish bait, they are also incredibly beneficial to your soil. Their tunnels provide pathways for water and air to move through the soil. Earthworms eat the residue left from last year’s crop and their castings (i.e., their manure) is rich in organic matter. It’s ideal for plant growth and plant roots will follow the nutrient-rich earthworm burrows deep into the soil.

In this picture you can see where the earthworms have dragged wheat straw to a burrow. They’ve nearly completely cleared the wheat straw from the area around their burrow. What looks like small bits of soil is actually the castings they’ve behind. The hole that they’ve dragged the wheat straw into is a void left by a plant root. The earthworms love these voids as an easy route to the surface. You can dig into these voids and find an earthworm in nearly every one.

Earthworms do all that for us, they loosen and enrich the soil, they turn last year’s crop residue into fertilizer, and they do it for free. We don’t have to do a thing, it doesn’t cost us a dime. All we do is provide them with the habitat they need, which is soil that is not tilled. The soil is alive with creatures big and small and the single best thing you can do for that soil life is to leave the soil undisturbed. Sometimes you have to learn to do nothing.

This is why the National No-Till Conference is a ‘must-attend’ event for me. I hear ideas from a wildly diverse group of speakers, and come back to the farm with ideas, like to do nothing and let the earthworms to work for me, that I’d never come across if I didn’t leave my own backyard.

There’s always something new to learn, and winter is the ideal time for it.

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