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The many benefits of no-till farming

publication date: May 1, 2016

By Jane Tanner

Jonathan and Megan Leiss bought land in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina, in 2013 to start Spring Forth Farm, a flower and vegetable farm. After 100 years of tobacco farming on the red clay, the soil organic matter registered a mere 0.5 percent. Improving the soil was their top priority. No-till practices, the couple decided, were the best way to accomplish it. They found mentors at Bare Mountain Farm in Oregon, a flower farm which transitioned to no-till methods five years ago.

 
After years of mechanical tilling, Bare Mountain owners Denise and Tony Gaetz observed a decline in their plants and a dense hard pan 10 inches below the soil’s surface.


“We also noticed a dramatic need for more compost and a drop in visible soil organisms like arthropods and worms,” Tony said.
They created permanent beds and implemented a system of cover cropping and occultation (blanketing the dense remains of crops with a tarp for four weeks to break it down quickly; see page 3 for details). The percentage of soil organic matter in their fields rose 2 percent to 4-5 percent and soil organisms revived.

“Letting nature drive most of the process works for us,” Tony said.

Below: At Spring Forth Farm in North Carolina, the farmers covered these beds with tarps to smother crop residues. Photos courtesy of Spring Forth Farm.

occultation before

Below: This photo shows the soil after occultation is complete.

occultation after


Vegetable farmers Jay and Polly Armour stopped plowing nearly two decades ago at Four Winds Farm in Gardiner, New York. In 1988, when they bought the farm, they tilled and planted, tilled and planted, the way they learned apprenticing at another farm. When the weed pressure was too intense, they turned to an approach advocated by gardening columnist Lee Reich. They formed permanent beds using a tractor, but never ran the tractor over the beds again. They planted and seeded into a thick layer of manure compost. It worked so well, they expanded from 1.5 acres to 4 acres.


“We did it to reduce weed pressure and we noticed other benefits,” Jay said. 


A dramatic increase in the soil’s organic matter to 8 and 10 percent has brought with it impressive water carrying capacity. If it rains several inches in a few hours, there’s no runoff. No till has become attractive in regions subject to drought because the soil holds moisture well. The enriched quality and taste of their produce (heirloom tomatoes are a top crop) makes them a popular vendor at farmers markets.    


What these farmers have experienced first-hand is backed up in studies that show leaving intact the soil’s vibrant microbial and fungal life boosts soil organic matter, improves moisture retention, improves nutrient density, lowers weed pressure, and helps with pest and disease management.


“When you plow or rototill you are destroying the soil ecosystem,” Jay said. “You cannot get that high organic matter by tilling.”
For chef-turned-farmer Conor Crickmore, no-till methods help him achieve an enviable living on a small parcel at Neversink Farm in Claryville, New York. “Healthy soil has been essential for us to live well and farm only 1.5 acres,” said Crickmore, who anticipates $500,000 in sales this year. “Inevitably we must grow a lot of produce in a small space. Without the soil being able to bear that kind of production we would be sunk.”


Since no-till farmers don’t need space to maneuver tractors, they can cultivate more area and avoid the costs of buying and maintaining large equipment. Patrice Gros at Foundation Farm near Fayetteville, Arkansas, sold his tractor and spader in 2007 after what he calls a 12-year bad habit of tilling.

Below: At Foundation Farm in Arkansas, onions are planted in spring 2015. Photos courtesy of Foundation Farm.

onions 1


“My farm is a good entry level model for someone to start,” Gros said. “Spend $10,000 in small tools and an irrigation system and go for it and still make a living.” Foundation Farm has steadily progressed to the equivalent of $130,000 in sales per cultivated acre from 2007 to 2014 in uneven and demanding weather conditions. To be sure, impressive sales at farms like Neversink and Foundation Farm can only be attributed in part to no-till methods. Crickmore and Gros grow intensively with successions that occur within hours, they grow year round, and are meticulously organized and relentless in seeking out efficiencies.

Below: This photo shows the same beds two months later. The onions were mulched and never required weeding.

onions 2


The Leisses chose no-till methods in part because it seemed a more affordable option that held promise of a good living with 1.5 workers (Jonathan continued to work as a firefighter part time). They liked the idea of not running big machines and the carbon sequestering that takes place with no-till. “No-till farming allows us to reduce our use of fossil fuels and better care for our soil, which means we are farming in line with our values,” Jonathan said.


Most no-till farmers report reduced labor. Gros was inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka’s “do nothing” farming in The One-Straw Revolution and continually looks for ways to eliminate tasks. He and his crew work the farm only three mornings a week for a combined 60 hours that includes all tasks except attending farmers markets. Crickmore said:  “That is the biggest misconception, that we must be breaking our backs. We farm this way because it is much easier, more efficient and much more profitable for us.”


All the farmers in this article are 100 percent no-till. To be clear, these practices are successful at small farms and it’s not evident how much they could be scaled up. Yet, even giant farms today are adopting reduced or “conservation tillage” practices to improve soil quality and reduce erosion. Universities such as Penn State, Iowa State, and North Carolina State are trialing and studying cover crops, crimping, flail mowing and adapting large equipment to disturb the soil less.

Below: At Bare Mountain Farm in Oregon, weed-control practices include occultation of the beds on the left, and crimping cover crops on beds on the right. Photo courtesy of Bare Mountain Farm.

Bare Mtn


On a micro-scale, farmers are practicing no-till in a variety of ways, and what follows is a sampling of approaches that have been successful.   


Gros at Foundation Farm suggests that farmers who are on the fence about no-till should set aside part of the farm to try it. When he makes new no-till beds, he marks them and mows it well. He does not form new beds with tractors. During the transition, he covers the bed with thick manure mulch and straw mulching. He uses wheat straw from a nearby farm. Gros said it takes at least a year and a half for the soil “to surrender.” He does not sow seeds the first year, instead, transplants broccoli, cabbage, squash, and peppers.    


After crops are harvested, the residue and decomposing straw is left on the four-foot wide beds, but pulled over to the outer six inches on each side and compressed tightly.  Instead of compost piles on the farm, composting happens in place on the beds. As planting succession continues, he rakes the half-decayed, soupy, rich biomass over the bed, and plants the new crop and then adds fresh straw for mulch. For seeding crops like arugula, a main crop on the farm, he pulls the mulch to the side and creates a clean bed by raking and re-raking.


Well-established permanent beds get a light layer of manure each January. The first two years he used between 200 and 300 bales of straw each year. Now, after eight years, it’s 500 to 600 bales on the same 24,000 square feet in cultivation because he says the intense microbial activity chews it up quickly. He pays $3 a bale.


Four Winds Farm, on the other hand, relies heavily on a layer of manure compost. They roll a seeder over it or plant transplants into it by hand. At first, they tried cover crops, but didn’t like the results. With shorter growing seasons in the Northeast, time for cover crops is limited, and the Amours found crimping didn’t work well for them. Manure compost is such a key element, they produce it on the farm with 16 beef cattle. Initially, they brought in compost, but it had been screened and broke down quickly. Jay created a system for producing manure compost that forces air through pipes into the manure. He says it can be replicated inexpensively and also used alternatively with food and yard waste. (See Resources at the end of the article.) His unscreened compost lasts through a growing season and sometimes into the next. It acts as a barrier to prevent weed seed from germinating. “We still have weeds, but not nearly as many as we used to, and the weeds we have pull out really easily,” Jay said.

Below: Neversink Farm in New York uses no-till methods to control weeds and hopes to produce $500,000 in revenue from 1.5 acres. Here is their salad mix in a high tunnel. Photos courtesy of Neversink Farm.

neversink 1

Crickmore, who is also a farm consultant, said on the most established beds they cultivate only every three months and find only an occasional weed that needs to be pulled. However, he emphasizes that pernicious perennial weeds must be tackled at the outset or they haunt no-till beds forever. Before Neversink starts production in a new field, they covered it with 6-mil black plastic for a season. They tried other methods, but this worked best and was the cheapest. “Voles like nothing better than black plastic which is why we would never put [plastic] in production fields,” he said.


Use of a broadfork to limit soil disturbance also prevents weeds from coming to the surface, said Tony Gaetz at Bare Mountain. The Gaetzes use a rotation of cover crops and occultation, which burns through the seed bank. By abstaining from tilling, new weeds aren’t lifted  to the surface. A winter cover crop of cereal rye and hairy vetch is planted in the permanent beds and Oregon annual rye grass in the pathways.

Below: Soil is forked but never tilled at Neversink Farm.

forking


“We have chosen these because our climate is quite wet during the winter months and these varieties tend to survive the wet and occasional freezing snow and cold spells,” Tony said. In the summer, they plant sub-clover as an under-sow or buckwheat for quick biomass rotation. The summer planting residues (not the rye/vetch) are heavily watered and covered with tarps for 4 weeks. “This process rots the residues down significantly probably 80-90 percent is consumed during summer occultation.” The drip lines are also buried and he says that has not affected their performance.


 The Gaetzes allow the rye/vetch to grow to the pollination stage, about 5 feet tall. They walked the rows to break the stems at ground level and plant larger transplants into it. It is an excellent mulch for the growing season and the rye has an allelopathic effect on most weed germination. The first year of no-till practices was wet and there was a slug outbreak in the cover crop. “As the seasons have progressed, we have found that the slugs have been offset by an increase in ground beetles and small critters like garter snakes, and other predators,” Tony said.


Seeding cover crops into plant debris was a challenge. Last year, they constructed a von-Bachmayr drum to make a high volume of clay pelleted seed balls for dispersing seed fast and aiding germination. For a typical 100 foot long, 2-3 foot wide bed they need 3-4 seed balls per square foot — around 1,000 seed balls per row for the rye/vetch and about another 600 per pathway between the rows of Oregon annual rye grass and dutch white clover.  The Von Bachmayr so far has yielded about 1,000-1,200 balls per hour.

Below: At Bare Mountain Farm in Oregon, Tony and Denise Gaetz built a von-Backmayr drum to make their own pelleted seed for no-till farming. Photo courtesy of Bare Mountain Farm.

seed drum


“This is still a work in progress,” said Tony, who blogs about no-till practices. They settled on a raisinet-sized seed ball that results in better germination. After pesky slugs camped on the seed balls, this year they are incorporating a small amount of powdered Sluggo (iron phosphate) in the mixture.


With cover cropping and no-till beds in general, there are concerns about delays in spring planting because the soil is slower to warm. 


“The rye/vetch cover lowers soil temp in May/June by about 5-7 degrees,” Tony said. “This does slow things down for warm season flowers. It’s not a perfect system, but we also recognize that some crops do better planted a little later.”  


Outside of tunnels, you are going to have an issue with soil temperature in a no-till system, Gros said. “I’m going to be behind in March to May but after that I’m hard to match in speed and soil. The microbiology is the heart of my system. It’s dormant in the winter. It takes time to awaken. In fall, that microbiology does not die quickly, you will have glorious Octobers and Novembers in a no-till system.”


The farmers have found no-till requires little additional nutrients. Gros points out that he feeds the microbiology not the plants.  Only in the winter and early spring when the soil microbiology is slowed does he use a slow release feather meal to boost green crops like spinach. At Four Winds, they don’t add nutrients except foliar feeding of fish fertilizer when they first put tomatoes in the ground.

Below: beets are harvested in the morning and immediately replanted at Neversink Farm.

beets


These farms are training the next generation of no-till farmers as their crews move onto their own farms. Neversink advertises its School of No-till, fully paid field hand positions to train in the farm’s methods. Jay of Four Wind Farms says, “The best worker is one who has never worked on a farm before” because he or she is not making assumptions about the soil and crops based on tilling. Despite successful small-scale no-till farming in pockets around the country, many farmers remain hesitant. Tony at Bare Mountain offers wisdom for would-be no-tillers:  “Keeping sight of the long term takes patience. What we learned, and it is continually reinforced, is that these are natural systems and that when we seek to manage for expediency it usually creates more problems.”

Resources
Four Winds Farm compost production system - https://www.nofany.org/blog/cheap-diy-static-pile-composting-on-a-farm-scale  
Foundation Farm Patrice Gros Farmer to Farmer podcast - http://www.farmertofarmerpodcast.com/episodes/gros
Bare Mountain Farm’s blog plus demonstration of the von-Bachmayr seed ball drum -  http://www.baremtnfarm.com/tag/von-bachmayr-drum/ 
Neversink Farm has information about no till at www.neversinkfarm.com  and on Instagram @neversinkfarm.

Jane Tanner grew cut flowers and specialty crops at Windcrest Farm and Commonweath Farms in North Carolina, and helped manage the biodynamic gardens at Spikenard Farm in Virginia.



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