Riding fields with Bill Richards is akin to a firsthand demonstration from Daniel Boone about how he changed the nation by heading West through the Cumberland Gap. Richards’ venture into the great unknown, like that of Boone and so many other innovators and explorers, born of curiosity, involved failure, experimentation and more than a little derision.

These fields along the Scioto River near Circleville, Ohio, Richards’ lifelong home, are a living record of his quest to make conservation tillage a viable option for farmers. However, Richards is keenly disappointed with the current acceptance of no-till in particular.

As a new Ohio State University graduate with little actual farming background, he experimented with planters and listers as early as 1954.

Atrazine’s introduction “got me ready to try something different with tillage,” Richards says. “I came out of college being told the only reason for tillage was weed control. Atrazine controlled the weeds,” Richards says.

A lack of row-cropping background opened his mind to new possibilities, after he married a farmer’s daughter and took up the trade himself.

He tinkered with toolbars and planters, sweeps, fingers and packing wheels. In 1960, he put together a toolbar planter and bought 6-row IH vegetable-planter units and added JD sweeps, along with shanks that pushed the previous crop’s stalks to the side. It was what we would call strip-till today, Richards says.

“In about 1966, I converted to an 8-row Allis-Chalmers planter that really got us going with no-till. They sold sweeps that were pretty much what we needed.”

By then, quite a few people paid attention to his oddball farming techniques. In 1965-1966, Richards planted 1,000 acres of corn with an 8-row strip-till rig by himself, with only one employee helping, an astounding feat at the time. That rig was an IH planter with a JD toolbar, lister sweeps, closing disks and packing wheels. In 1967, he put Allis-Chalmers’ newly released no-till coulters on the rig and added more rows, which truly got him going with no-till.

In the early 1970s, he visited with Jon Kinzenbaw, a young mechanical genius with a welding shop at Victor, Iowa, who later founded Kinze Manufacturing.

“He started drawing a new toolbar. I wanted a 60-foot toolbar with a 24-row, 30-inch planter. I put JD units on it.” That toolbar truly outfitted Richards to roll with no-till.

More farmers paid attention to his efforts. He began attending Howard Doster’s Top Farmer Crop Workshops at Purdue. “Using a computer to figure out opportunities made no-till look even better,” he says.

Decades of conservation promotion

In 1990, USDA Secretary Clayton Yeutter, a Nebraska farmer-turned-economist, asked Richards to lead the Soil Conservation Service. Richards had not been politically active and hadn’t made financial contributions to either political party. It was the perfect opening for him to promote his soil-conservation philosophy, so he quickly headed to Washington to lead the then-13,000-employee agency.

“I was an outsider, which might have been what they wanted,” he says. “We talked farmers into no-till to comply with conservation plans. Those plans were in terrible shape, so inaccurate, when I got there. I extended the compliance period for 18 months and the environmental community just went wild about that. But erosion went down as conservation tillage went up. We got conservation on the land at an unprecedented rate. The chief after me wanted to reduce herbicide use, and that can conflict with conservation tillage,” he says.

Richards now stays busy on the farm along with sons Steve, Bruce and Elmon, still looking for better ways to save soil and be more efficient.

Now 81 and still pushing to improve these fields, Richards has a difficult time understanding why more farmers don’t fully accept conservation tillage. He watched as no-till spread worldwide, but was dismayed as U.S. farmers inexplicably fell behind other nations’ soil-conservation efforts.

“We were the innovators. Now we’re No. 5 behind Brazil, Argentina, Australia and Canada in percentage of land in no-till,” he says.

“This is the mystery of my life. No-till involves a change in culture. Maybe that’s the problem. An Aussie once told me, ‘You Yankees don’t have to no-till. We do because in Australia we don’t have those government payments.’ We still haven’t done a good job of selling the economic value of conservation. Economics are what really matter, and the economics of no-till are very good.

“Pressure for some sort of conservation tillage could now come from the public as it becomes more aware of the land,” he says. “As land gets more valuable, organic matter will be worth more, and no-till is the way to get it.”