SIMPSON, Ill. — It was a radical idea, planting seeds directly into unworked soil — so radical no machine existed that did such a thing. So Donnie Morris made one.
Morris, who spent his 35-year career as a mechanic at the University of Illinois’ Dixon Springs Agricultural Center, cobbled together various parts to make what may have been the first no-till planter in 1966.
The late University of Illinois soil scientist George McKibben, who along with a handful of others had been researching no-till since the early 1960s, struggled to come up with an efficient means of testing out the new cropping method. Initial efforts included using a screwdriver to punch holes in the ground and insert seeds individually by hand, but that was never going to be a long-term solution. So he and Morris developed a machine that would allow planting on a larger scale.
“After trying some changes on conventional planters, it was apparent that that route wasn’t going to get us a good no-till planter,” said Morris, 87, who still lives on the Pope County farm where he grew up. “I made a different back wheel that was heavier. But it wouldn’t pull the ground back together. The problem was getting the seed in the ground. The lightweight planters designed for worked-up dirt wouldn’t penetrate sod.”
The breakthrough came with the creation of what Morris calls a cutter-packer wheel to use on the single-row planter.
“It was probably nearly a foot in diameter,” he said. “I put a coulter blade on the side of it. This blade was about 3 inches bigger than the wheel. I put it on a pivot that you could adjust the angle of it. You could adjust the height of it in relation to the opener runner.
“The idea was it would cut a slice of soil about 2 inches to the side of the runner. It would cut that slice of soil and then move it over and then close up the opening that the coulter and runner had made, then press it down on top of the seed.”
Much of the components of the planter were cast-off parts from conventional machines and donated leftover items from Petter Supply Company in nearby Paducah, Kentucky. Among the contributions from the marine equipment manufacturer were link weights used on anchors. Morris installed them on the planter to provide sufficient pressure to help push the seeds into the claypan soils of southern Illinois.
Morris’s fascination with machines began at an early age. In 1948, when he was 14, he built a crude tractor to replace his grandfather’s team of mules.
He used transmissions from Chevrolet automobiles and the rear axle of a Plymouth so that it would have hydraulic brakes. It was powered by a Briggs & Stratton engine ordered from Sears. The front wheel was borrowed from a wheelbarrow. With no electricity, he built the tractor largely using hand tools.
“All the Morris men were tinkerers,” said Donnie’s wife, Jolene.
The original no-till machine was a three-row planter, providing researchers with a handier method of planting the one-acre experimental plot at Dixon Springs and at Ewing Field in Franklin County. Morris manufactured three planters and has one in his shed at home. The single-row machine was used largely for replacement parts.
The university pitched the so-called Sod and Stubble Planter to John Deere, but the company declined to pursue the idea, citing insect control challenges for no-till farming. Patents were later awarded for inventors with similar designs, but Morris has no regrets. Instead, he is satisfied that he played a small role in helping alleviate one of the biggest problems facing agriculture at the time — soil erosion.
“They gave George and me the right to apply for a patent, but we didn’t do it,” he said. “I was just thankful we got no-till going and saved a lot of acres.”
The realization that no-till would greatly change agriculture didn’t fully occur to him in those early days.
“Probably not at the time,” he said. “We were developing it with the idea of cutting down erosion. Then the idea spread to cutting down on trips across the field.”