Feature Articles

Challenging coffee shop wisdom paid off for conservation pioneer

April 9, 2007:

Innovative approaches built on sweat and smarts were the key for Ontario's first no-till producer.

Bruce Shillinglaw, starting in the 1960s, has become arguably Ontario's longest practicing no-till farmer. His approach wasn't based on grandiose ideals or complex analysis.

"My philosophy was based on simple observation," recalls Shillinglaw. "I couldn't help but notice the best soil on my land was always in the areas near the fence line that didn't get plowed. It stood to reason that going to no-till on all of my land would be the best way to get all of my soil to that level."

"We wanted to do the best we could for our soils, to have many years of good farming and to leave the land as good as or better than how we found it."

Problem was, in 1968, no-till equipment wasn't something you could pull off the shelf. "As an innovator, you have to be resourceful and develop your own way of doing things," says Shillinglaw. "Often in farming that means you have to modify and develop your own tools."

A self-professed "iron guy," Shillinglaw wasted no time in rolling up his sleeves and getting to work. Over the years he modified virtually every piece of equipment on his Londesborough, Ont., farm to make it work better in no-till. He also sold no-till equipment and parts to other farmers and helped them make it work.

"A lot of us shared the same thinking," says Shillinglaw. "We wanted to do the best we could for our soils, to have many years of good farming and to leave the land as good as or better than how we found it."

Taking on the naysayers

This was an approach that proved to be a recipe for success for Shillinglaw and his fellow pioneering no-tillers. The work was hard, but the rewards were great. The farming was good, the innovation was fun and the producers quickly developed a passion for soil conservation.

As is common with most innovators, Shillinglaw and his no-till colleagues met with a lot of skepticism from their fellow producers in the early days.

"When we started out the first time with no-till planters, the talk at the coffee shop was we'd be lucky to get seed in the ground," he says. "When we did, they said we'd never get anything to come up. And that type of reaction went on and on, every step of the way. For those of us moving forward with no-till, our experience was a bit-by-bit exercise of going against the conventional wisdom and proving the case for something new."

Testing and fine-tuning equipment

Erosion was and remains a particular concern in the Londesborough area, where rolling land is common. While attending the University of Guelph, Shillinglaw met a researcher working on developing a no-till planter. "I thought his approach made a lot of sense," he says. "It was something I never forgot."

Shillinglaw's early work with equipment focused on testing and modifying different planters and coulter blades for no-till. He used one of his first set-ups — an Allis-Chalmers 660 series with a two-inch wavy coulter at the front — until 1973.

When talking to farmers interested in no-till today, a key challenge is getting them to understand that it's just not changing a piece of equipment, but modifying a cropping system. Therefore, thorough planning and management are needed to do the job right, says Shillinglaw.

"The problem with those who have a poor experience is often they take the approach too lightly and are not willing to work hard enough," he says. "I'll have a producer come up and talk to me after a presentation. They'll tell me the equipment they plan to use and how they think it's going to work. But once I get into the details and long-term planning, their eyes start to glaze over."

Steady wins the race

Persistence is also critical to success, says Shillinglaw. "Too often a producer will start with a poor approach and then give it up after a year of poor results. What I say to producers nowadays is to think about all the changes and fine tuning they've done with their farming over the past 20 years to get where they are today. When you look at the learning and the attention to detail required, it's surprising anyone would expect to take the adoption of no-till lightly and then expect to have everything running smoothly right away."

Ever the innovator, Shillinglaw built on his pioneering experience in no-till by becoming an early adopter of computer technology in the early 1980s. In the early 1990s, this included applying a yield monitoring system based on GPS. "I found it really interesting to see the variability in the field. With the monitoring, you can see how production is affected by things like weed escapes, soil conditions, and stand uniformity. That knowledge can help make you a better manager."

"Soil conservation is something we have to get into and sustain for the right reasons. If we think bigger picture and longer term, I think it's clear that soil conservation is a sound approach that ultimately pays off very well both for production success and for the environment."