Zero-till farming pioneer honoured with hall of fame induction

INDIAN HEAD — As a data and numbers guy, Jim Halford never intended to get into the blunt, greasy work of farm machinery; his graduate research in the 1960s at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) focused on the economics of farming.

And as a Nuffield scholarship recipient in 1975, he lived in the U.K. for five months to learn about that region’s farm-leasing and land-rental system.

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But by the mid- and late-1980s, Halford was up to his elbows in prototypes and patents for a seeder that could do what, on paper, he knew farmers and their soil needed: zero-tilling.

“What I wanted to accomplish ... was to be able to put all the fertilizer that was needed for that crop, but be able to keep it far enough away from the seed so it was safe,” he said. “You can’t put high levels of fertilizer with most seeds; it’ll damage the seed.”

A couple decades later, in 2007, he sold his air-pump, zero-tillage machine design to John Deere; the design used the same concept he patented back in the 1980s, what he dubbed Conserva Pak.

Thanks to his work in bringing the practice — and its materials — to Saskatchewan, Halford was inducted this summer into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame, along with fellow inductees Jay Bradshaw, Dr. Bryan Harvey and Douglas Hedley.

Zero-tilling represents a distinct break with traditional ways of farming the land, referred to as tillage or summer fallow systems. In the old way of farming, a producer would harvest their crop one year, then let a portion of its left-over bits (stubble, stems, chaff) sit unused through an entire growth and harvest cycle.

“(It was) a means of saving a bit of moisture: Harvest a crop, have some of that moisture saved, control weeds with tillage,” he explained. “Some people were maintaining 30, 40 or 50 per cent of the land in summer fallow and then cropped it next year.”

He wanted to find a better way to farm his family’s land, which sits in a valley and has light soil; he knew a fallow-tillage system hadn’t worked in the past.

“We had land that drifted in the 1930s in the really dry years ... complete fence lines buried, like five and six feet of soil (covering) fences,” he said.

On other fields, “because we were in a valley that was at a slope, if you got a heavy rain and it was tilled land, the water would come down and wash out runways into the field, because of the volume of water coming.”

He wanted to find a way to “keep something anchored in the soil.”

Hence zero tillage, which allowed him to plant a seed and a fertilizer underground, spaced appropriately, while reducing how much topsoil he disturbed.

In 1983, Halford tried his first prototype, which would be the basis for his Conserva Pak design: Each seeder head has three arms in succession — one plants the fertilizer, one plants the seed slightly higher than the fertilizer and the third carries a wheel that packs the soil on top. The heads are arranged in rows and attached to giant metal frames, mounted on larger wheels, which get pulled by a tractor.

“We spent about five, six years building a new prototype every year just improving it, until we started selling seeders in 1989,” he said.

Support for the new practice came from local farmers, especially organized groups in Manitoba and North Dakota, but not from the wealthy equipment companies like John Deere, he said. “They aren’t going to venture into some high-level, new things unless they think there’s a market there.”

He had to manufacture and sell that equipment himself through his own company, right on his family farm, up until the 2007 sale.

“By 1993 we were selling in the U.S. and Australia,” he said.

Halford got an inkling of that support in January 1987, when he helped host the Manitoba- and North Dakota-based zero-tillage groups’ annual meeting in Regina.

“We had 1,200 people attend; it just kind of exploded,” he said. Many of those members were actually farming in Saskatchewan.

The effect of Halford’s design is clear, he said. Producers in four different Australian states adopted the practice, as did their counterparts in the northern U.S. and the pacific northwest, six states by his estimation.

He also cited a 2016 U of S agriculture economics research paper. The study’s authors found in 1985 approximately two to three per cent of farmers utilized a zero-tillage system in the three prairie provinces; in 2016 that number was 80 per cent.

Those using summer fallow techniques are now down to about five per cent.

Halford said being recognized, via his induction, holds a special meaning for him, especially being from Saskatchewan.

“I think (it) has done a lot in Canadian agriculture, for a long time.”

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