Argentinian agronomist Roberto Peiretti

Argentinian agronomist Roberto Peiretti is an ardent proponent of no-till farming.

ST. LOUIS — No-till farming is the key to increased production and sustainability. But it must be driven by profitability.

That is the message Roberto Peiretti makes loud and clear every opportunity he gets.

“Efficiency is the key to the whole thing — maximizing economic profit,” he told farmers at a national no-till conference here. “Otherwise, it will not work in reality.”

Peiretti is among the world’s most vocal and tireless advocates of no-till farming. He has employed the techniques embodied in the practice for 30 years in his native Argentina and neighboring Uruguay.

Economic viability sometimes takes a backseat to other factors, but it is essential to adoption and growth of no-till farming, he said.

“After visiting agricultural operations in 28 countries, I can say that the main driving force for adoption is the economic one,” Peiretti said. “All others — such as environmental reasons — come after that. Otherwise, there is no realistic way to change agriculture for the good.”

He is convinced that no-till farming is a simple concept. A neighbor in Argentina once wanted to know why his crops did not survive a severe drought while those right across the road on Peiretti’s farm thrived. He asked Peiretti what he did to achieve the better result.

His answer: nothing.

He was half joking in his response. But he made his point.

“In order to go to no-till you have to do nothing,” he said. “Just nothing.”

That’s a gross simplification, of course. But Peiretti said that leaving the soil undisturbed — and covered with the previous crop’s remnants — can mean the difference between success and failure. And he believes no-till farming will allow farmers to continue to feed a world with an increasing population in a sustainable way.

That sustainability is married to economic success.

“There are three main pillars implicit in modern sustainability, with economic viability being the first,” he said. “Then there is ecological viability. We cannot be ecologically viable if we are not economically viable. And, of course, social viability.”

He believes profit sometimes doesn’t receive the credit it is due as a driver of ecologically sustainable agriculture.

“We as farmers must find a way to become efficient,” he said. “We have to be able to remain profitable and to keep increasing total production in a sustainable way. At the end of the day, it’s not enough to be sustainable. We have to go beyond sustainability. We have to improve the resources we are using to produce food and fiber. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to be able to match the demands of the world.”

He pointed out that farming efficiency has grown exponentially. A century ago one farmer could feed seven people. Today each farmer feeds about 155 people.

“This number is growing. The question is, will it be enough?” Peiretti said. “And the answer is, we will have to keep growing in efficiency in the future.

“More than 40 years ago, Argentine farmers — as well as farmers from seven other American countries including your country — made an American move that is widespread across the world,” he said. “In America we pushed very heavily to develop and adopt practically an entirely different farming system based in a new paradigm named a no-till system.”

Peiretti possesses a few idiosyncrasies regarding no-till. He balks at the term “residue” when used to define the remaining elements of a previous crop. He prefers “stubble.”

“Residue is something you don’t want,” he said. “It’s the connotation.”

Soil management is the key to continued success in agriculture.

“We cannot change soil, but we can and we must change the way the soil works for better production,” Peiretti said. “We cannot change the structure. But we can modify things like the porosity and the fertility and many other things with our actions. And it is possible.”

An example includes the relative success of his drought-stressed corn and his neighbor’s failed crop right across the road.

“Climate is the same. We cannot change the climate in a given area, but we can change the way we utilize the rainfall,” he said. “We can change, to some extent, the temperature of the soil. Same for frost tolerance.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.