HOW TO SUSTAIN IN THE NEW CLIMATE REALITY?
Mykola VOLKOGON, Member of the UKRAINIAN FOOD VALLEY Board, PhD, Leading Agronomist-Consultant of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) provides expert assessment of new climatic conditions and advises on changes in tillage technologies, which allows agricultural enterprises to remain effective. The talks were recorded by “AgroFM”, with Dmitry Gordiychuk as an interviewer!
DG: Is it worth changing anything in agricultural production at all, because farmers, cultivating their fields from year to year, have developed their own technological maps.
MV: Everything will depend on the field, if there is a need, and this 2020 year showed that the need may arise unexpectedly for most manufacturers, the best solution is to understand what exactly went wrong and make appropriate changes next year.
When we talk about traditional crop rotation, about traditional agriculture, we take into account 2 factors. The first one is agri-ecological, when thanks to the right crop rotation, we reach optimal yields, interrupting the pests and diseases development cycles, reduce the pesticide load on land. The second factor is the restoration of soil fertility, i.e. the land can rest by growing intermediate, or green manure, or cover crops, so that the land is not empty, but in this way we maintain the active biota of the soil.
When we approach traditional agriculture, very often there is an excessive mechanical impact on the soil – plowing, disking, cultivation, harrowing, then pre-sowing treatment was carried out. A modern plow in incompetent hands can cause damage, destroy soil biota. Soil layers are turned over if we do not give organic matter access to oxygen, so our organic matter rots, and does not contribute to profits and yields.
The traditional approach to agriculture to preserve crop rotation must remain, at the same time – mechanical tillage must be reviewed, today, immediately!
DG: What is the purpose of these changes?
MV: This year has shown us as never before two important problems with moisture.
The first problem was that there were no precipitations until May. Both in autumn and in winter there was no accumulation of soil moisture.
Second, in May we had a significant amount of precipitation in almost all regions. Question: “Why didn’t the plants use it to the fullest, why didn’t it accumulate?”
Hence the need to change approaches to tillage. If our soil cannot absorb precipitation like a sponge so the struggle for every drop will continue, and plants won’t be able to consume moisture at all. Only radical changes in tillage could help improve water uptake.
In conditions when precipitation falls in excessive amounts and unevenly during the growing season, our main task is to save precipitation! Structured soil will help in this. Low soil temperatures, which can be achieved in the form of live vegetation, which can be quickly closed between rows, or it can be vegetation from a previous crop, which in the form of plant residues covers the ground, help to save rainfall.
Moisture is not the only factor why we should pay attention to tillage.
The next factor is temperature. When we talk about soil temperature, we come to the conclusion that when the soil overheats, the plants are stressed, the soil biota is destroyed, respectively, the stress will spread and spread – there will be mineral stress, water stress and it will affect the quality of the final product.
Accordingly, if we talk about the need to change traditional tillage systems, or traditional farming systems, we must first focus on what problem we already have with the soil. For example, if there is a compact soil, it does not allow moisture to penetrate deep into the soil in the lower layers, if there is deep moisture, the plants cannot get to it.
DG: After all, is innovation in the agricultural sector a fad or a necessity?
MV: I agree with the thesis that we must leave our descendants fertile soils that will feed not only our children but also future generations. Innovation is needed where it is needed.
For example, irrigation: “Let’s restore, let’s take an innovative approach to this issue.” But if the farm has basic problems with the soil, with sowing, with the adjustment of equipment, then irrigation will not solve them. Irrigation will only allow you to survive a certain period of time until the water runs out, but then the problem will be much more severe.
One of my colleagues once said about innovation as a factor. If the farm is profitable, adheres to rational agronomic technologies, then multiplying them by a factor of 10, it will work 10 times more efficiently implementing innovations. If the economy works mediocrely, then multiplying 0 by 10 we get 0, and innovation will not bring the desired results. And of course, if the farm operates in a “harmful” mode, the soil structure is gradually destroyed, no attention is paid to the natural fertility of soils, then multiplying the result by a factor of 10, the introduction of innovation will bring 10 times more damage. Depending on the situation, innovation will be either a necessity or just a “good feature” of the owner.
DG: What do you think for most of our Ukrainian producers?
MV: If we talk about innovation as the latest approaches, about understanding the latest approaches, then unequivocally yes, this is not a tribute to fashion, this is an absolute necessity, we must clearly understand what and how we do.
If we have lost the structure of the soil, then the innovative seeding system will not save the situation, we must first work with the soil. On the other hand, there can be an innovative No-till drill, which allows you to perform several operations in one pass: soil preparation, fertilizer application, sowing – and thus reduces the mechanical pressure on the soil. But the economy independently chooses innovations – what and how to do, there is no universal formula. If you bought a super-expensive seed drill for corn, but the quality of sowing is less than 70%, or 80%, i.e. the distribution of seeds in a row is insufficient. Or the depth fluctuates (maybe a driver just decided to go 15 km/h, as it was written so in the local newspaper). The innovations will not work like that. There are corn drills that set records at 20+ km/h, technology is advancing, but it is necessary to understand the conditions under which such results were achieved, and this is what will allow the company to be efficient and profitable. Remember, a company cannot think about the environment if it is not profitable. However, there is a two-way relationship – you cannot help but think about the environment to stay profitable, you need to understand this system to leave the land for posterity.
DG: Should we make ratings of companies that implement agri-environmental innovations?
MV: I think this will be a new trend, because now a lot of people are focusing on it.
In 2019, Ukraine entered a new era, when the “17 UN Sustainable Development Goals” were adopted and proclaimed. I am convinced that further compliance with these principles will affect the export of products, when our partner countries to which we export will require us adherence to the principles of sustainability. We have made commitments; we will have to fulfill them.
DG: What business processes are now more relevant for environmental protection, is it worth thinking about how to increase their efficiency?
MV: The relevance of the topic of improving the efficiency of business processes will always be. Here it is necessary to consider aspects of the management of the agricultural company.
It is necessary to distinguish between the concepts of “management” and “leadership”. The true leader of the company will understand the need for change, set the direction, look ahead for several years and develop strategic directions. At the same time, the executive director of the enterprise will work directly on the ground, organize processes so that the enterprise remains profitable in all aspects: agri-environmental, financial, social. This is a need that is now very accute and must be 100% met. Rural communities around should see that the company works with them, the agri-environmental community – scientists, entrepreneurs must understand that we leave behind fertile soil in the future.
DG: Are we talking about social responsibility, should it be taken into account in business processes in the form of external control or in the form of strategic goals?
MV: Yes, responsibility to society must be taken into account in the strategy, because control in practice can be bypassed.
What is the advantage of the business process – it allows you to level the human factor?
DG: Isn’t the current level of intensification of nature harmful in general, is it worth thinking about increasing its control by the state? Are there quality examples in developed countries in this regard?
MV: Whether the need to ban PPE in Europe is a social or environmental need is a debatable question. In my opinion, this is more of a social responsibility of governments to the population.
That is, the population has raised their values to the level where they think about the environment more than about profit. This is a significant difference between our way of thinking and the European way of thinking. We do not always have a leading position on the environment: some people sort garbage, some do not, some see a huge problem in the destruction of a million bees, and some do not.
This is a question of values, and the question of control will directly depend on their location in our value system
DG: Perhaps industry associations should perform the function of control?
MV: I leave the issue of control over experts on this topic. I can give the example of the United States.
There is a certain amount of degraded land, there are programs under which these lands are withdrawn from agricultural enterprises for a certain period. The company receives compensation, and the land is preserved for the next 10 years under cover crops. Thus, these lands are restored. Is it possible in Ukraine, this is a debatable question, even a political one, related to the opening of the land market.
Often talking to agricultural producers on the topic of agroecology, they answer that this is not our land, we cannot carry out a set of works, because in 2 years we can lose this land.
I am more hopeful that the world community (market?) Will change this situation, when crop production will be required to take into account the agri-environmental aspects of production!