South America’s No-till Pioneer

South America’s No-till Pioneer

Brazil’s no-till revolution started with one man who dared to think in unconventional ways

No-till was an unheard of concept in Brazil in 1970. Some four decades later, 75% of the nation's cropland is grown under no-till systems, and it's all thanks to one farmer – Herbert Bartz - who dared to think outside the box.

It all might not have happened had a devastating tropical rainstorm in October, 1971 not come along and washed away his soil and wiped out half his crop.

"The impact of a drop of water at 90 mm/second on uncovered soil is terrible," says the 75-year-old Bartz, who still farms in Rolândia, in the state of Paraná.

Brazilian no-till pioneer Herbert Bartz

In the month after that rainstorm Bartz started thinking about improved methods for soil conservation. He visited no-till researcher Rolf Derpsch, who at that time was carrying out no-till experiments in nearby Londrina. He traveled abroad to learn more about the technology. In Kentucky he met extension specialist Shirley Phillips, who took him to no-tiller Harry Young's farm (both men have since died). "The hills of Harry Young's farm were so beautiful, originally covered with blue grass pasture, they were featured in the movie, Dancing with Wolves,” says Bartz. ‘When I saw him putting the seed into the land, cutting the slot into the soil on those hills, I was convinced."

Bartz ordered a no-till planter from Allis Chalmers, began tinkering and started solving problems, one by one. His neighbors called him "the crazy German," but it did not stop his work. He couldn't find many answers from Brazilian academics because frankly, no one knew much about no-till.

Between 1987 and 2007 no-till experienced a 72-fold increase in Latin America compared to a 6.5-fold increase in the U.S. Why? Bartz discovered how well suited no-till was to the drier, hotter soils of South America. No-till fits well with tropical soil and weather conditions. No-till conserves water, which can be an issue in some parts of Brazil. And, it cools those hot tropical soils.

"Without straw residue from the previous crop, the soil warms up very quickly and gets very hot in tropical conditions," he says.

The first Brazilian air planter came along in 1983.  By then they were no longer calling Bartz the 'crazy German.' In fact, his farm was given a plaque and called the ‘cradle of no-till.' Norman Borlaug, the American who fathered the Green Revolution and received a Nobel Peace Prize, visited his farm three times and became a friend and mentor.

Bartz' work convinced academics that no-till is the real deal. In the past 25 years he has given more than 74 presentations at Brazilian Universities. "As farmers my friends and I have been occupied to teach no-till practices to future agronomists,” he says.

Still, changes like this usually take more than a generation. The rapid pace of adoption in Brazil is nothing short of amazing.

"We call it the big paradigm change,” says Bartz. "When I entered no-till I was considered not normal. And the conventional guy was questioning if I was right in my mind. But I feel the time was right for this when you consider our growing conditions. If I had not done it, there would have been others who would have.” –Read the full story in our May/June issue.

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