Feature Articles

Ontario 'No-till doctor' showcases prescription for farm success

April 9, 2007:

Soil conservation remains more relevant than ever in today's climate of environmental awareness, says pioneering no-till farmer Jack Rigby.

When a noon rain in spring 1981 came down heavy on Jack Rigby's carefully tended topsoil, it triggered more than just the obvious rivers of mud carrying much of that soil off his farm near the township of Blenheim, Ont., down toward the shores of Lake Erie five kms away.

For Rigby, that single rainfall set in motion a lifetime of innovation and advocacy for soil conservation that continues strong to this day.

"That's what started it all off for me," recalls Rigby. "It was early spring and the ground was real loose and ready to plant, then the rain came and carried it all off. That's something you don't forget."

Twenty-six years later, Jack, along with his wife Donna and son Stephen, continues to operate the same farm - now part of Rigby-owned Montrig Farms Inc., - located in the Rondeau Bay watershed. The family operation has enjoyed many years of success tied directly to Jack's pioneering efforts in soil conservation.

"As a farmer, it makes sense that if you take care of your soil, it will take care of you. It's a long-term deal, but in my experience that has certainly proven to hold very true."

The original 50 acres Jack purchased in 1973 is part of the farm's now 1,000 acres and the family also runs a custom farming operation. The Rigbys grow seed corn, field corn and seed soybeans, along with several specialty crops.

Jack, known as the first farmer to grow seed corn successfully using the no-till approach, has led and participated in numerous efforts to promote soil conservation and good stewardship of the land, including speaking internationally as a no-till expert. This has brought many recognitions, including Rigby's induction into the Canadian Conservation Hall of Fame in 1995.

"When I and other farmers of my generation got into no-till and other conservation practices, the motivation was real simple — we did it out of concern for our soil," says Rigby. "As a farmer, it makes sense that if you take care of your soil, it will take care of you. It's a long-term deal, but in my experience that has certainly proven to hold very true."

Leading the charge

Following the downpour in 1981, Rigby led a group of other farmers concerned about soil erosion to help form the Rondeau Bay Watershed Committee, a leading stewardship initiative involving a range of stakeholders which continues today as the Rondeau Agricultural Conservation Corporation. This group purchased some of the first no-till equipment for use by local farmers, including no-till planters for corn and soybean.

Around the same time, Rigby began working with a local researcher, Dr. Helmut Spieseu, to conduct on-farm testing of conservation systems. One of the first tests compared a handful of plots that each had different degrees of cultivation. "For the one no-till plot, the thinking was that approach was not going to work here because the soils are too cold and wet and they need to be turned to get warmth. I asked Helmut, 'who's going to foot the bill for that plot?' He said 'you.' I said, 'let's make that one smaller.' Little did I know the no-till plot would turn out to produce the best results."

Rigby never again made the same misjudgement, soon coming to the conclusion that no-till was the best approach for his farm, even when the focus was getting the most profit out of a bread and butter money maker such as corn. "By developing the right system for no-till, we found we could grow corn at least as good or often better than in a conventional system."

Farmer-driven innovation

Rigby's success and growing role as a spokesperson helped turn on many farmers to the benefits of soil conservation and specifically no-till systems. His advice also contributed to a number of most effective systems adopted by these producers. For several years, this advice was featured in a series of farm newspaper columns developed by Cyanamid, featuring Rigby and another pioneering no-till producer as "The no-till doctors." In the columns and through numerous other activities, Rigby was forthright and passionate in telling producers exactly what he was doing, exactly why it worked and what pitfalls to avoid.

A trained mechanic, Rigby also played a key role in helping to adapt machinery for no-till farming, including assisting in the development of customized planters that improved the results of no-till planting and weed control in corn and soybeans. He also helped build an early prototype of detectable spraying equipment.

While these and other equipment innovations have been critical to progress with no-till systems, Rigby is careful to emphasize that management and knowledge are ultimately the keys to success. "A lot of people get hung up on iron," says Rigby. "But doing no-till right is much more management than iron. It's about learning what works best for your farm and making the time to do things right."