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.”