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Copyright © 2001 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Blann, K. 2001. Coughenour, C. M., and S. Chamala. 2000. Conservation tillage and cropping innovation: constructing the new culture of agriculture. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa, USA. Conservation Ecology 5(2): 2. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol5/iss2/art2/

Book Review

Coughenour, C. M., and S. Chamala. 2000. Conservation Tillage and Cropping Innovation: Constructing the New Culture of Agriculture. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa, USA.

Kristen Blann

University of Minnesota

Published: October 10, 2001

Agriculture is universally cited as one of the primary causes of the decline in biodiversity on both local and global scales. One of the most significant and persistent problems created by agriculture is the elevated rates of soil loss that result from clearing land and disturbing the soil for cultivation. The environmental effects of soil erosion range from acute perturbations of aquatic biota during episodic rainfall events to chronic sedimentation of aquatic habitats. Soil erosion is also a serious economic problem: it lowers the productivity of agricultural lands, and its effects on water quality, water supply, navigation, and the irrigation infrastructure entail significant economic costs. As a result, reducing soil erosion in agriculture has received increasing attention from scientists, citizens, and policy makers.

Over the past 50 years, a quiet but significant shift in tillage practices has occurred in the United States and Australia. Today, 37% of U.S. acreage and a slightly smaller percentage in Australia use some form of "conservation tillage," a term that refers to a suite of practices designed to minimize soil erosion on the landscape by reducing the amount of soil tillage before planting and after harvest. Conservation tillage generally includes tillage practices that leave more than 30% crop residue after planting, including ridge-till, mulch-till, and no-till. A new book called Conservation Tillage and Cropping Innovation: Constructing the New Culture of Agriculture traces the spread of conservation tillage in both the United States and Australia, describing the pattern and process by which conservation tillage has been transformed from a novel experiment into an accepted and widely adopted farming practice.

In their book, C. Milton Coughenour and Shankariah Chamala (2000) provide a comparative social history of conservation tillage in the United States and Australia. They focus on the sociology of innovations in cropping systems, asking how, why, and where such innovations occurred, and trace the cross-scale adoption of conservation tillage back to its origins with key innovators in Kentucky and Queensland. Throughout the book, the authors advance three major themes. The first is that, regardless of the significance of a technology itself, the key factor that influences its successful adoption and diffusion is the construction of innovative knowledge-tillage-cropping systems by the farmers themselves. Second, these systems are socially constructed over time within networks of farmers and of technical and farm advisors. Finally, the authors argue that the spread of new conservation tillage systems represents a radical shift in modern agriculture, not only in terms of the technology or practice of conservation tillage but also in terms of the cultural beliefs and values underlying agricultural systems.

Coughenour and Chamala provide convincing evidence to illustrate the book's first two themes. They argue persuasively that the adoption of a new technology is not just a simple matter of knowledge and technology acquisition, but rather a complex and iterative social process. Changes in tillage and cropping systems are squarely placed with innovative networks of farmers and farm advisors. The authors recognize, as others have before them, that any given technology, no matter how revolutionary, must be adapted and integrated to meet the specific circumstances of a particular farming operation in a particular place. Integration of a new technology into cropping systems relies on a willingness and capacity for experimentation at the farm level by farmers, farm advisors, and technical professionals. The authors present a thorough description of the iterative process of learning, technological change, and social interaction involved in the effort to develop cropping systems that reduced soil erosion. During this process, the accumulation of feedback about the problems and failures of conventional cropping systems created dissonance for the observant farmer and motivated experimentation, leading to a gradual paradigm shift in his/her approach to tillage.

However, in focusing solely on the social process of innovation in agriculture, the authors neglect the scientific and technical arguments that challenge conservation tillage as a sustainable agricultural practice. They also tend to ignore those skeptics who doubt that conservation tillage represents a truly radical change in the modern agricultural paradigm even from a social perspective. While admittedly it is not the purpose of this book to examine the merits of the technology itself, the authors provide little in the way of evidence to support claims of environmental sustainability or references that would lead a skeptic elsewhere. It may be true that "... the successful construction of conservation tillage and cropping systems ... inaugurated a cultural revolution" (Coughenour and Chamala 2000: 255) and "... challenged conventional plow-based farming practices dating back into antiquity" (Nelson 1997), at least in the West. However, as someone whose training lies outside of traditional agricultural disciplines, I find it difficult to view the development of conservation tillage as a true revolution in modern agriculture.

From an ecological perspective, conservation tillage does nothing to alter the fundamental problems of modern commercial monocultures. Although the authors acknowledge that conservation tillage relies on greater use of herbicides, they tend to dismiss critics who argue that it does nothing to address the dynamics of the ecological arms race against weeds and pests presently taking place in modern agriculture, or to alter farmers' reliance on external, chemical-based inputs. Rather, the book illustrates just how embedded the modern "independent" farmer-operator is within the institutional structures of extension, research, and input manufacturers and vendors. By reducing farm labor requirements, conservation tillage facilitates the trend toward larger farms. Although it may reduce total costs to the farmer, it does not resolve the long-term profitability problem of downward pressure on crop prices at the farm gate.

As for why conservation tillage has been so widely embraced in recent decades, it is possible to answer this question in a very different way. A recent article (Hall 1998) argues that the growth of the discourse on conservation tillage as an environmentally sustainable practice emerged out of growing contradictions within conventional agriculture, including increasing environmental impacts, the growing dependence of farmers on expensive chemical inputs, and the declining prices and profitability of farming. Conservation tillage offered a means of mediating these contradictions, both by implying that pollution and soil depletion problems could be resolved without more substantial changes to the chemical-based production system, and by giving farmers a rationale for cutting production costs in the face of continuing economic crisis. Coughenour and Chamala, while acknowledging the role of chemical and machinery companies in enabling the transition to conservation tillage, devote little critical analysis to the political economy that led an enthusiastic agribusiness sector to promote conservation tillage as an environmentally sound practice.

Conservation Tillage and Cropping Innovation: Constructing the New Culture of Agriculture is a well-researched and thorough history of technological change in agriculture, and will appeal to anyone interested in the history of agriculture and the transition to sustainable agriculture. Chapter 3, in particular, tells an engaging and entertaining tale of the development of "plow culture" in the United States and Australia, describing how deeply engrained it became in mythology, culture, and society. Based on interviews and historical research, the authors describe specific histories of adaptation and "action learning" in critical networks of farmers and farm advisors whose initiatives can be seen as the seeds of the coming change in tillage and cropping systems.

The book also includes an analysis of the ways in which the pattern of growth of a new conservation practice may be influenced by social movements, policies, markets, and institutions. Chapter 2 neatly summarizes the existing literature on innovation and social change in agriculture, although the thorough description of the framework at times seems a bit redundant. Coughenour and Chamala describe the classic model of diffusion of a technological innovation (Rogers 1983) with respect to conservation tillage in the United States and Australia, noting that the pattern of growth appears more characteristic of a sociocultural movement. The final chapters make recommendations for institutions engaged in research, extension, and the promotion of system change, focusing on the establishment of social and institutional support mechanisms for developing conservation technology and practice. The authors further speculate on how this emerging view of technological change embedded in social process might influence the future of agriculture. The book thus holds lessons for many people interested in understanding and promoting social and technological change in society in general.


Coughenour, C. M., and S. Chamala. 2000. Conservation Tillage and Cropping Innovation: Constructing the New Culture of Agriculture. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa, USA. 360pp., hardcover, U.S. $64.95. ISBN 0813819474.


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Coughenour, C. M., and S. Chamala. 2000. Conservation tillage and cropping innovation: constructing the new culture of agriculture. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa, USA.

Hall, A. 1998. Sustainable agriculture and conservation tillage: managing the contradictions. Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 35(2):221-252.

Nelson, P. J. 1997. To hold the land: soil erosion, agricultural scientists, and the development of conservation tillage techniques. Agricultural History 71(1):71-90.

Rogers, E. M. 1983. Diffusion of innovations. Free Press, New York, New York, USA.

Address of Correspondent:
Kristen Blann
Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology
University of Minnesota
200 Hodson Hall,
1980 Folwell Avenue,
Saint Paul, Minnesota 55108 USA
Phone: (218) 829-3053
Fax: (218) 829-3053 (call first)

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