Mike Belan’s family began no-till farming in 1991. Belan shared his family’s experience at Green Drinks Sarnia. (Carl Hnatyshyn/Sarnia This Week )

Mike Belan and his family made a decision in 1991 would have a profound impact on their Oil Springs-area family farm.

Breaking with tradition, the family – including Mike’s father Mike Belan Sr. and uncle Tony Belan – decided to cut back on expenses, sell most of their conventional agricultural equipment, and adopt the practices of no-till agriculture.

“Back in the late Eighties, there was a high interest rate and farming operations got into the interest bubble and they needed to cut back,” Belan explained.

“So what we did is we sold some farms, reduced some of our equipment and reduced the man hours on our tractors. And this no-till drill came along, John Deere produced it and dad went and bought one. He sold all the equipment the very next year except for a couple of tractors and that’s how it all got started.”

While the decision was mostly driven by the family’s need to reduce expenses, it paid off in many unexpected and positive ways.

Not only did Belan Farms – a 1,200-acre cash crop operation that grows corn, soybeans and wheat –survive, but after years of no-till farming, the soil is healthy and rejuvenated while the farm is producing consistent, high-quality crops year in and year out, said Belan.

“It was trial and error for the first couple of years and after five years we said ‘that’s it, that’s the way it’s going to be’,” he said. “It’s really been a blessing in disguise for us.”

The Oil Springs farmer spoke about his family’s history with no-till farming at a recent meeting of Green Drinks Sarnia, a group that holds monthly discussions about environmental issues.

No-till agriculture is a method of farming that places a priority on soil conservation. Rather than tilling fields several times as practitioners of conventional farming do when preparing the soil for planting, no-till farmers prepare their land for farming with a minimal disturbance of the soil, passing over once to plant the seeds.

In Belan Farms’ case, their no-till methods are complemented by the use of cover crops, grown to help build the soil and to suppress weeds while minimizing erosion.

The combination of no-till farming and the use of cover crops have made a massive difference to the operations of Belan Farms, Belan said, and not only financially.

“What we’ve learned is that with reduced equipment, fuel and labour, (no-till farming) is improving the health of our soil, keeping our soil in place, feeding the microorganisms underground and building organic matter,” he said.

No-till farming also is beneficial for the environment, he added.

Not only does it reduce fuel costs and drastically reduce a farm’s carbon footprint due to the lack of machinery used compared to a conventional farm, but no-till farming also locks carbon in the soil.

On the other hand, Belan said, no-till farms are still highly reliant on chemicals such as pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, more than most conventional farms, because heavy tillage tends to kills weeds.

That reliance on chemicals is something Belan said is currently necessary but could change in the future.

”Because you’re not disturbing the soil, you’re not creating an atmosphere where weeds can grow,” he said. “We are hoping, in the big picture, to reduce chemical reliance to help grow the crop, whether it be fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide and fungicides. That is a long-term goal.”

With yields similar to conventional farms and significantly reduced costs per acre, more and more farmers in Canada and in Lambton County have begun to adopt the principles of no-till farming in recent years, Belan said.

“(In 1991) it was going on a lot in the States, a lot of dryland farms were trying to conserve moisture and that was how they were doing it,” he said. “It kind of gradually worked its way up here.”

Oil Springs area farmer Mike Belan (right) speaks to an audience member following his presentation about no-till farming at Green Drinks Sarnia on Jan. 9. (Carl Hnatyshyn/Sarnia This Week)

“Dad was one of the first in the area to do no-till, but there are many more these days,” Belan added. “Some will do one in three years no-till. That’s a fairly common practice. There are lots in Lambton County who do a variation of it.”

While Belan Farms has benefitted from no-till agriculture, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for all farms, Belan said. Plus, it has certain disadvantages.

“It’s not one hundred per cent for everyone,” he said. “There are so many reasons why some farmers don’t (take up) no-till farming. Manure applications have to be incorporated, it doesn’t work with certain crops … I suppose it’s just one tool in the toolbox.”

“The disadvantages include Mother Nature,” Belan added. “Mechanical tillage can speed up the drying process so you can get in and plant earlier. You can fix your mistakes from the previous year, you can go in and harvest when it’s wet with conventional tillage, whereas we cannot do that. Compaction is priority one on our list.”

Nevertheless, Belan said that after nearly 30 years of no-till farming, his family would never go back.

“When you’re just doing strictly cash crop – corn, soybeans and wheat – there isn’t a reason in my eyes why you can’t do no-till,” he said. “There’s no reason you have to manipulate the soil and turn it over.”

Throughout Belan’s presentation, the farmer and part-time firefighter was peppered with questions by a mostly urban audience. Subjects ranged from the use of chemicals, to insects, to the harvesting of cover crops and the use of cover crops for gardens.

Later, Belan said he was thrilled to connect with and explain agricultural concepts to city-dwellers.

“I guess you really have got to break it down,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know what farming’s about anymore. It’s there, many people don’t really think about it and there are so many people who are so far removed from farming operations that they just see the bad pictures.”

“So when I speak to a group like this it’s a lot of fun because you kind of get back to the basics of farming,” Belan added. “And I haven’t spoken like that in a long time because I’m always talking about advanced stuff to agricultural groups like cover crops and the technology, but this was back to the real roots of farming.”

From Sarnia This Week

Lambton Farmer Reaps Benefits of No-till Agriculture

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