When fourth-generation farmer Lance Saathoff climbs into the cab of his 510-horsepower John Deere tractor, he's in a control center that's guided by distant satellites to fraction-of-an-inch precision and programmed for exact application of every last seed, every bit of fertilizer.
He settles into the swivel seat, turns the key, and the touch-screens come alive. There's a beep when the auto-steer activates, indicators to show how much fuel is burning, hydraulic remotes and multiple light switches.
When the iPhone in his pocket sounds a tell-tale ring, he knows it's the irrigation system letting him know where it shut the water off because the wind was gusting. He's farming land near Knippa.
It's high-tech, expensive gadgetry, but it's allowed him to “strip-till,” a way of farming that runs counter to the way things have been done for millennia. He's largely abandoned the plow to leave as much of the field undisturbed as possible, mashing and compacting only thin tracts of soil so the rest builds as a “natural” cover against evaporation and weed growth.
That preserves the soil, with its earthworms and nutrients. It also conserves water, which, with drought restrictions in place, has never been so precious.
When Saathoff steps down from the hulking machine, he sees the benefits.
Like a lattice, the detritus of the last cotton crop held the soil even as windstorms days earlier wreaked havoc across much of Texas.
In the distance, puffs of brown dirt followed the tractor of an older farmer out with his plow.
“There's nothing wrong with the way they're doing it. It's been working for a hundred years. How do you say they're wrong?” Saatholf, 29, said. “There's no doubt that strip-till will hold the water, like if you got a 3-inch rain, there would be no water run-out. You won't lose any dirt, like with the wind blowing today, or like it blew on Monday ... it just doesn't blow. The trash will blow, but the dirt will stay.”
In times of dwindling resources, technology may have turned out to be agriculture's best friend, said Charles Stichler, a retired agronomist for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Strip tillage, he said, is largely made possible by Global Positioning System accuracy, which guarantees that only the same strips are being disturbed.
“The conservation that is going on is pretty impressive,” he said. “You got a monitor that monitors the seeds that are falling, the fertilizer that's being applied. It's not that guy out there in coveralls anymore.”
The conservation gains are well-documented. The crop residue protects the soil like a blanket, reducing erosion from 60 percent to 90 percent. Modern equipment can plant and fumigate without digging. In addition to conserving water and improving soil biology, less fuel is used, air pollution is reduced, and less labor is needed — key when farmers are competing for workers with the Eagle Ford Shale boom and San Antonio's thriving hotel and restaurant scene.
Ideally, there would be no tillage at all, said Don Riecosky, a retired Agricultural Research Service Soils Lab scientist who has been invited to speak around the world to farmers about the turmoil of tillage.
“If you compared a major tillage event to what would happen in your home, it's the equivalent of a tornado, a tsunami, earthquake, and ... an asteroid apocalypse.”
Plowing not only annihilates the soil's ecosystem, but it belches out carbon dioxide, contributing to the overload of greenhouse gases.
“We're not lily-white. We are contributing to some of this climate change,” Riecosky said.
Still, there is resistance to new methods, and reduced or no-till operations don't work for certain locations or certain crops.
The history of tillage evokes imagery of the mule, the ox and the water buffalo, and there's a certain pride in a newly plowed field, said Bruce Erickson, education manager with the American Society of Agronomy.
“Agriculture is kind of synonymous with tillage,” he said.
Less mechanical intervention can mean more reliance on chemicals, though they may be more strategically applied, as well as reliance on genetic modifications to make seeds resistant to pests.
So for organic farmers, it may not be an option.
“Even though many people would say that using chemicals some of the time is bad, there's been a lot of progress in making those chemicals safer to use over the years,” Erickson said. “We are using some chemicals but we're saving a lot of soil too, so everything is part of a trade-off in that way.”