Estimable farm leader, MSHS speaker Allen Williams, says farmer-driven solutions key to profitability, sustainability
By Kassie Brown • SFA Communications Intern
A sustainable farmer, educator, consultant, and one of this year’s Midwest Soil Health Summit presenters, Dr. Allen Williams has inspired many farmers to improve soil health and raise livestock in a more sustainable, humane fashion.
His own inspiration comes from a family farm which raised pastured pork, direct-marketed through its own general store, and was a diverse operation with multiple revenue streams.
Of course, they wouldn’t have described their farm in this manner.
“It was just how things were done and it worked well,” he said, laughing and reminiscing that the song “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” by Barbara Mandrell always sticks with him.
However, like many who eventually embrace sustainability, Dr. Williams’ path was winding: After earning his Ph.D. and working as a professor, he said he was “totally entrenched” in commodity and conventional agriculture and was even convinced that his youth experience was behind the times. Yet after many years steeped in university research, he started to notice problems with the commodity ag model, and his sustainable-without-knowing-it family farm again became what he considers a healthy agricultural model.
“The band-aid approach wasn’t working,” he said. “With product after product, we were trying to treat symptoms without solving the problems.”
In his university research, Dr. Williams saw a decline in livestock health while observing that farmers were increasing inputs with little to no net gain; it bothered him to remember that the animals he grew up with would die only of old age or at harvest, and that his family farm was profitable despite not using fertilizer. These tensions forced Dr. Williams to examine the phenomenon of increased fertilizer application and livestock disease with increased antibiotic inputs.
“There was no ‘a-ha’ moment but rather a gradual realization that research scientists were not making things better,” he said.
In university research, scientists often reduce variables to study each element in isolation from the whole. Dr. Williams said these intensely controlled conditions can result in conclusions that are often irrelevant when you consider the diversity and unpredictability of real-life agriculture. In other words, peer-reviewed research clearly has value, but its conclusions don’t necessarily work when applied to an entire broad and diverse audience.
Thus, farmers have been forced to experiment and share results with others, and Dr. Williams said many who do are starting to realize that agriculture works better when using holistic methods.
He has noticed a rush by university researchers, particularly ones tied to business interests, to “discredit citizen science as it is based in observation rather than in the reductionist model practiced by university controlled trials.” Fortunately, he said, many university people are starting to see the value of holistic observation and moving to merge rather than discredit.
“Farmers and ranchers exist on razor-thin margins – they’re crying out for help,” he said. “They’re flocking to conferences and field days searching for new data, and they know they need help beyond what the conventional stuff can offer. The band-aids aren’t working.”
As co-chair of the Grassfed Exchange and co-project leader of The Pasture Project, Dr. Williams has consulted with countless farmers and says it’s massively disturbing to see how poor the soil conditions are on many farms. Williams explains that in the initial measurements on many conventional farms, “infiltration is at a meager ½ inch per hour and there is typically a total lack of biology,” but he also says, “it’s encouraging that after only 1-2 years of implementing better practices we are seeing signs of major improvement.”
He says that one of his biggest motivations is “encountering farmer after farmer who, with tears in their eyes, admits that no one has ever told them about the soil biology or about how terribly they’ve been treating it.” They don’t want to lose their farms, and they know they can’t carry on business as usual.
Dr. Williams has noticed a burst in attendance at conferences and field days that offer the invaluable process of meeting people and going through periods of discovery through networking and observing, and believes we’ve reached a tipping point toward soil health.
“The conventional model isn’t working anymore, and there’s hope,” he said. “Farmers and ranchers who are implementing sustainable soil practices are seeing tremendous results.”
Conferences like the Midwest Soil Health Summit are essential because they offer a space for farmers and ranchers to consult one another in pursuit of new ideas and solutions to shared problems. At this year’s conference, Williams is excited to talk about the outstanding results in cover crop and livestock integration on row crop operations he’s been seeing; he says, “it’s like a revelation to farmers as they see their inputs decrease while microbial activity and net revenue increase.”
After decades on a winding path toward soil health and farm sustainability, Dr. Williams said that trial-and-error research and close observation are the most important tools any farmer possesses.
“It’s a journey, not a destination. A continuous road of discovery,” he said. “Our forefathers knew inherently how to farm sustainably because they didn’t have everything available. They had to be successful in the natural world. We, too, need to be great observers so we can work with nature instead of against it.”