Why No-Till?

To first understand why farmers should adopt a no-till agricultural practice, it is first necessary to understand tillage and it’s harmful effects. So allow me to explain. Tillage is any type of disturbance of the soil, most commonly done by tractors, by stirring and over-turning the soil. This is done to make the soil more workable in the short term, to “fluff” up the soil and make it easier for planting. Even though farmers have been tilling their soils for over a century, and have managed to feed a growing population successfully, it has not been done without harmful effects. Some of the harmful effects include killing all soil life including worms, snakes, lizards, and much more, compaction of the soil creating a hard pan, increased risk of disease pressure, increased erosion, soil runoff, decreased water infiltration, destroyed soil aggregates, soil loss, and decreased soil organic matter. The list is daunting. The USDA released a statement in a 2010 article titled “Farming in the 21st Century; a practical approach to Soil Health” saying, “ Tilling the soil is the equivalent of an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, and forest fire occurring simultaneously to the world of soil organisms. …Simply stated, tillage is bad for the soil.” This is huge, and it’s true! Imagine a natural disaster wiping out your state. Millions of people would die and it would take a lot of time for you to re-establish yourself and your communities again. This is what soil organisms go through every season.

I want to talk a little about soil organic matter (SOM) as well because tillage has been depleting this over the years and it is the reason we will not be able to farm for much longer with conventional tillage methods. Soil organic matter, from Wikipedia, “is the organic matter component of soil, consisting of plant and animal residues at various stages of decomposition, cells and tissues of soil organisms, and substances synthesized by soil organisms.” It is essentially what makes up a healthy soil. Before ploughing and conventional tillage methods were introduced, America’s soils had roughly 6-10% SOM in them. Today, after only a century, our soils have 1-3% SOM. We literally do not have another century left to farm the way we are farming. We’ve raped our soils dry and there is almost nothing left.

The bright side is, soil has the ability to repair itself with a little help on our part. This is where no-till farming becomes critical. Soil organic matter contains carbon. It is necessary for healthy soils that carbon is stored there. Right now, there is too much carbon being stored in the atmosphere causing global warming. The very act of tillage causes carbon and nitrates get volitalized out of the soil, combine with oxygen, and become stored as greenhouse gases. Carbon and nitrogen are the two things a farmer needs most in their soil, and we have already lost 2/3rds of carbon in the soil globally to the atmosphere. By adopting a no-till farming strategy, one can begin to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and store it back in the soil. In fact, agriculture is one of the largest and cheapest ways that we could mitigate the effects of global warming. According to Dr. Rattan Lal, Ohio State Soil Scientist,  “A mere 2 percentage point increase in the carbon content of the planet’s soils could offset 100 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions going into the atmosphere.” 

I had the opportunity to take a workshop by a couple leaders in this no-till farming movement; Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser of Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol have been no-till farming for the past 7 years. They have built their soil organic matter up from 2.4% in 2007-2008 to 8% - 11% from 2013 – 2017 with Carbon being 4.6% - 6.5% where it was previously 1.4%. What they have also found from not tilling is that there is no erosion from their fields and no leaching of nitrates. Their farm has the capacity to hold water more efficiently. They only water their crops about 20 minutes every 5 days. This is incredible! For every 1% SOM increase, an acre of farm has the capacity to hold over 18,000 gallons of water in the top 12 inches. Not only is water stored more efficiently in the soil, but the crops utilize it better which is why they can water so infrequently. Due to balanced, healthy soils, they rarely have to worry about disease or pest issues. The diversity on their farm also helps with that, namely their native hedgerows. They also have very minimal weed pressure. When a farmer works with the soil, the soil gives back. Their veggies are chalk full of nutrients whereas nutrients are lost in conventional tillage farm systems. We are nearing a health crisis because we are all nutrient deficient. Nutrients come from healthy soils and when our soils have been depleted to almost nothing, even in organic systems because of tillage, it is no wonder we are all nutrient deficient.

Singing Frogs Farm has a 3-step philosophy for better soil management, which is also synonymous with what the USDA recommends. 1. Disturb the soil as little as possible. (That’s easy- don’t till!) 2.  Keep a diversity of living plants in the ground as often as possible. 3. Keep the soil covered as much as possible.

Keeping the soil covered, whether with living plants, mulch, or landscape fabric is critical. This allows the top several inches of soil to be welcoming for soil dwelling organisms. Soil is suffering when it is exposed, dry, and cracked. You can think of soil as the “skin of the earth." It’s living and breathing. Much like our own skin, we need to keep it replenished with quality moisturizer, and generally covered especially from the sun. Otherwise, our skin becomes dry, cracked, and unhealthy.

Singing Frogs Farms takes an intensive approach to their no till agricultural practice. On their 3 acres of land, they grow a variety of veggies and can get 5-6 crop harvests per season from one bed. As soon as one crop is finishing, they cut it at soil level, leaving the roots in the soil, and compost the above ground plant material. Leaving the roots in the soil is important because it is not only feeding a myriad of soil organisms, but a beneficial rhizosphere surrounds the roots. The farmers aim to plant new transplants the very same day as the old crop is cut out because the biology from the root structure of the previous plant will migrate to the brand new, smaller root structure of the new transplants thus giving the transplants that extra edge to grow big and healthy. Singing Frogs Farmers also intercrop and companion plant a lot of their veggies so that maximum soil coverage can be achieved with living plants. They grow lettuces in-between onions and in-between tomatoes, for example. The tomatoes and onions which are slower growing crops will take longer to fill out and shade the soil, so the lettuces which are faster and leafier, help to shade the soil quicker and bonus- the farmer gets several harvests and more money out of the crop bed. 

The Singing Frogs farmers do amend their beds, sometimes, before the next planting. Their amendments include organic oyster shell for Calcium, organic slow release feather meal for nitrogen, and organic compost that contains more phosphorus and potassium. However, they do not add compost all the time. Since their soil tilth is so good, they may not need more compost in between plantings of lower feeder type crops. In general, their compost use has decreased dramatically since taking a no-till approach. When a farmer takes care of the soil and amends it properly, less is needed; so, no-till farming can save money on inputs.

Singing Frogs Farm employee, Nina, applying feather meal after a layer of oyster shell. Next will be a generous 1/2 inch amount of compost.

Singing Frogs Farm employee, Nina, applying feather meal after a layer of oyster shell. Next will be a generous 1/2 inch amount of compost.

In my previous blog posts, I talked about Occultation and using that method as a no-till practice. This is a great method to use if you are claiming new growing area (which I was) or if you do not have transplants ready to go in after removing the top part of your old crop. Occultation (covering an area with landscape fabric), however, is not as ideal once a farmer has been practicing no till for a little while just because it is time intensive. It takes at least a month, generally longer, for the bed to be plant-able. During this waiting time, you could be harvesting another crop if you had transplants ready to go in. In addition to occultation, another way a farmer can claim new area or get a jump-start on no-till farming is to do the lasagna layering with sheet mulching. Whether you have bare soil to start, cover crop, or weeds, you can lay down cardboard or thick straw, amendments and compost on top, and then another thick layer of mulch. This method is great for building up your soil quickly but it is very resource intensive. Some farmers may think they need to first break up their soil through tillage to get a jumpstart on a no-tillage system, but this is simply not the case. It is also not necessary to break up clay soils. I am working with heavy clay soil, and clay holds a lot of amazing micronutrients. It's a great foundation for plant roots to have access to, so the goal should be to farm on top of the clay by building the organic matter up in a no-till system.

Now, I’m sure your wondering why more farmers are not taking this no-till approach! Well, several are around the country. They’re just quieter about it because they’re too busy farming. Also, it takes a community to really implement a change especially when it’s a very drastic change from the way we have been doing things for over a century. If you’re a farmer, I encourage you to try no-till farming! It is labor intensive, and would be a lot easier to hop on your tractor, so I also encourage you to set aside your tillage equipment to not be tempted! If you are a citizen concerned about the state of our soils, our food system, and/or global warming, I encourage you to have a conversation about this matter with your farmers. Let your farmers know you are interested in purchasing food from no-till farms. Find more no-till farmers and support them! Be vocal about this! I have such high respect for Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser of Singing Frogs Farm for speaking publicly, time after time, about their no-till practice and being completely transparent about it.

According to Paul Kaiser, “We do not need one person farming 100 acres; we need 100 people farming one acre of land.”

The future of food is looking pretty grim unless we can repair our soils now. No-till farming will increase soil organic matter, soil organisms, store carbon, save water, reduce runoff and erosion, reduce weed pressure, reduce disease and pest issues, and help make food nutrient rich again. It’s a no brainer that we need to be farming this way.

For more information on this topic, you can watch Paul and Elizabeth’s latest presentation, here on YouTube, from the Northeast Organic Farming Association Conference earlier this year. They speak on this topic including their farm more in depth, and in an eloquent way!

You can also download and print the USDA’s full review on Soil Health (a .PDF format). Copy and paste this title in Google to find it: “Farming in the 21st Century; a practical approach to Soil Health.”

Happy no-till growing!