By Jason Halm, Farm Manager
In the past few years, a lot of people have heard or talked about “no-till” farming. I’d like to discuss what this term means, how we incorporate it at Green Earth Harvest, and where I see its limitations.
No-till essentially posits that “tilling is killing”, or that taking a rotovator (our tractor-based equivalent to the garden rototiller) destroys soil food webs, increases erosion, and decreases general soil health. These criticisms of tillage are reasonable and accurate. As a result, the no-till movement gained popularity in the United States, first for conventional commodity grain farmers in the 70’s and then, several decades later, for folks deeply invested in growing nutritious vegetables, on a very small scale, looking to preserve and improve the health of the soil.
For conventional grain farmers, no-till was made possible by the production and popularization of very cheap herbicides in the 1970’s, which conventional grain farmers still rely on heavily to produce in a no or low-till fashion.
But, I know that people who ask us about no-till are not asking us if we’ll pump the ground full of herbicides to save a few tractor passes: you’re really asking us if we’re doing our best to preserve the health of the soil. The answer is really reflective of scale.
If I grew on a garden scale, even a large one, I would strongly prefer to use no or low-till methods to create good soil texture for direct-seeded rows. On this scale, mulching with leaves, utilizing a cover crop and then covering by hand or tarping to kill and degrade the cover crop, is entirely reasonable. The systems we have for cropping the greenhouses are as close to no-till as you’re going to see. At no point, in almost the past two years, have we tilled this soil: we utilize cover crops to add organic matter, silage tarps to hasten the cover crops’ decomposition, and broadforks and hoes to aerate the soil and break up large clods for easier seeding, transplanting, and cultivation.
On our thirty acres of outdoor fields, however, the answer is quite different. I have not yet seen an organic farm of our size go completely no-till. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen an organic farm of 1/10 of our size go completely no-till.
Why not? The primary issues of production in a working organic vegetable farm are weeds, pests, soil texture, and soil health and fertility. The successful organic farm is able to leverage appropriate technology, underpriced resources available in the local community, and its existing climate and ecology in order to produce high-quality produce that nourishes a community.
No-till systems require large infrastructure upgrades or switchovers, may not create good tilth (texture) made possible by tillage, and can have highly unpredictable effects on weeds and pests, especially during the transition period. Paramount amongst these worries is that production dips–or crashes–unexpectedly, leading to a serious loss of product, revenue and credibility among customers and other stakeholders.
Ultimately, I am of the mindset that no-till is good to keep in mind as a “perfect” ideal of farming, knowing we may never reach that. But instead of a wholesale switch overnight, we work gradually, dependably, and responsibly towards the most ecologically sound farm we can get to.
What are the practices we’ve put in place in order to work towards a system that addresses the issues in tilling? We cover-crop like crazy, gameplan the farm season like we’re headed into a nine-month-long Super Bowl, utilize and evaluate effective and appropriate technology in all situations, and actively try to get as many sources of biological material on the farm as possible (within the confines of organic and food safety regulations).
Cover cropping, or seeding a variety of plants in order to ‘keep roots in the soil’, is the baseline of conservation practices. It’s hardly sexy, but it is widely proven and accepted to reduce erosion, add organic matter, sequester carbon and nitrogen, suppress weeds, and create wildlife habitat on the farm. Every single field we manage either gets cover cropped or covered in leaf mulch almost every winter, and many get cover cropped more than once a year.
We plan the farm season like you wouldn’t believe. I view the farm season as a nine-month-long choreographed dance, and we try to drill into every situation imaginable to make sure our time, our energy, our talents, and our hard-working hands are utilized to their highest and best purposes over that season. For instance, one way that we’ve reduced tillage in the past couple years is by doubling the amount of carrots we plant in a given space, so that we have to till (and weed and seed and water) about half the number of beds in a given year.
We utilize effective and appropriate technology at all times. In other words, we don’t use a tractor just because we have it, and we don’t refuse to use a tractor just to preserve antiquated, romanticized notions of agrarian work. Our goal is to feed people good, nutritious food and provide individuals an opportunity to be fairly paid for their work in growing this food. Appropriate technology – using the right tools or equipment in the right place for the right job – gets us closer to that goal while inappropriate technology carries us further astray.
Finally, the basis of a lot of no-till organic farms is a heavy reliance on compost, for both fertility and as a mulching material. Many utilize trucked-in compost from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. We believe that we can care for the earth better by using several forms of locally available and low-cost organic matter.
We receive nearly 3,000 cubic yards of leaves from yards throughout Naperville in November every year, and we’ve been working on getting regular infusions of animal manure (for fertility) from Trillium Equestrian, just a couple miles away. We work a little bit with local straw, and we are also looking towards potentially utilizing local woodchips. If we can turn local organic materials that would otherwise become a waste product into the building blocks of soil and good food, we believe that counts as an ecological win.
So, do we till our soil? Yes, though we believe it is far better to do that than spray the land over and over again with chemicals to keep the weeds down. We constantly look for – and experiment with – methods of farming which reduces the amount of tillage needed, continuing a practice that over the past 19 years (and counting!) has led to feeding thousands of people highly nutritious vegetables, building organic matter in the soil, and helping to rebuild a healthy food system and food culture in this community