No-till farming is the practice of farming without disturbing the soil through traditional means of tilling. Tilling seems like a practical method of farming, it creates a clean seed bed and allows farmers to easily incorporate fertilizers into the soil. The rototiller is the tool of the trade for most farmers, and for good reason. However, as we start to learn more about the benefits of the natural soil ecosystem, we have begun to learn how no-till farming can benefit our crops.
No-till farming has been gaining acceptance among small-scale organic farmers in recent years, though some large-scale conventional farmers have been practicing no-till for decades.
No-till and its associated practices have been proven to be revolutionary for soil erosion control, water retention and drainage, soil health, disease control, and even weed pressure. Furthermore, no-till farming can provide economic and time saving benefits for the farmer all while conserving the land and combating climate change. Farmers with land of all shapes and sizes have turned to no-till and it has led to a wide range of innovative practices and techniques, read more to find out if no-till is right for your farm!
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Benefits to the Farmer...
One invaluable benefit of no-till that is universal among practicing farmers is better soil drainage. Across the board, farmers that have transitioned into no-till have been celebrating the ability to access their fields after a rain event (case studies). The process of tilling may create a clean seedbed, but the restructuring of the soil and constant running of the plough can lead to standing water in the field, making it difficult to access. Furthermore, standing water can lead to increased crop disease from water splashing and transmitting pathogens to the plant. As climate changes, no-till farming can be a resilient practice to mitigate the effects of more intense and potentially more frequent storms.
Many farmers report less time on the field with no-till production. While no-till may require a change in practices, without having to till, there is a lot less time spent in the field. With less time on the field, there are fuel savings and less wear and tear on equipment. Furthermore, switching to no-till saves on chemicals and fertilizer. With less disease, there is less need to spend time keeping it off your crops. With a better soil structure, fertilizers are better retained and organic matter and microbial activity helps to keep crops healthy to the point where fertilizers may not be needed as much.
These results may not be universal for all farmers, but with changes in practices associated with no-till, there is likely to be improvement in several of these aspects.
No-till farming can be an excellent tool for conservation and combating climate change. All of this comes down to building a healthy soil ecosystem. When kept in tact and left to natural processes, the soil ecosystem booms with energy as several organisms interact, exchanging information and cycling nutrients. One of those important organisms is the earthworm.
Worms are a clear sign of good soil. Their presence is indicative of high organic matter content and porous soils that allow for better drainage and deeper rooting depths. Worms are also useful in recycling nutrients, their waste can help make the soil richer in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Their burrows allow crop roots to reach lower depths and make more efficient use of soil water. Worms are worth investing in, and some no-till techniques such as the cardboard method (case study) can seriously boost their population. Worms, in combination with insects, microbial organisms, and mycorrhizal fungi can create a healthy nutrient cycle in the soil that will ultimately benefit crops.
No-till farming can be one of the quickest and most effective ways of building soil organic matter and quality and reducing soil erosion. Higher organic matter in soil can prevent erosion and practices like cover cropping and mulching help to boost that. No-till beds are also more resilient to erosion by wind and water than tilled beds,.
Some farmers are turning to no-till practices in response to the uncertainty of future oil supplies. Much of farming is heavily reliant on petroleum, as oil reserves begin to run out, it is important to find other ways of growing food. Many no-till practices lend themselves to using less fuel or none at all.
Benefits to the Environment...
With a rapidly changing climate, the future of farming is uncertain. It is important to build resilient farming practices for a food secure future. With an increase in the intensity of stormy weather, tilled fields will become less accessible after rainfall. With no-till, farms can bounce back quicker from excessive water (case study). Furthermore, no-till farms have less chance of run off and soil erosion from these events. On the other side of the spectrum, no-till crops have proven to be more resilient against drought conditions. Finally, no-till practices have been shown to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, as opposed to tilling practices, which generally release more carbon dioxide,.
No-till farming has been accepted and practiced by people all over the world, at all altitudes and in all climates. There is a wide range of approaches being implemented on farms at all scales. No-till can be the best method for conservation on farms and resilience to climate change while simultaneously saving time and energy. Read our case studies to learn how farmers in the Northeast are doing it, and check out the resources below to learn more about how no-till can benefit you, your farm, and your environment.
No-Till Vegetable Production Case Studies
In the Fall of 2017, CCCD intern Cain Landry conducted a series of interviews with farmers in the Northeast who are actively practicing no-till farming. These interviews were then turned into case studies to highlight the work of the farmers and show the public how farmers in the area are approaching no-till farming in unique ways. Read about our featured no-till farmers below!
Many Hands Organic Farm - Barre, MA
Read about Julie Rawson of Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, MA. Julie is an experienced farmer and executive of NOFA who farms from a unique perspective of soil ecology and is always experimenting and developing her methods.
Seeds of Solidarity - Orange, MA
Read about Ricky Baruc of Seeds of Solidarity in Orange, MA. Ricky is a long-time progressive farmer and master of the cardboard method, which has led to extremely rich soil crawling with dense worm populations.
 Johnson, C. (November 1, 2013). No-till acceptance disappointing. Corn and Soybean Digest. Retrieved from http://www.cornandsoybeandigest.com/tillage/no-till-acceptance-disappointing
 Williams, J., Gollany, H., Siemens, M., Wuest, S., & Long, D. (2009). Comparison of runoff, soil erosion, and winter wheat yields from no-till and inversion tillage production systems in northeastern Oregon. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation,64(1), 43-52. doi:10.2489/jswc.64.1.43
 Spargo, J., Alley, M., Follett, R., & Wallace, J. (2008). Soil carbon sequestration with continuous no-till management of grain cropping systems in the Virginia coastal plain. Soil and Tillage Research,100(1-2), 133-140. doi:10.1016/j.still.2008.05.010
 Kemper, W. D., Schneider, N. N., & Sinclair, T. R. (2010). No-till can increase earthworm populations and rooting depths. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 66(1). doi:10.2489/jswc.66.1.13a
 Schonbeck, M. (July 20, 2015). What is “Organic No-till,” and Is It Practical?. eOrganic. Retrieved from http://articles.extension.org/pages/18526/what-is-organic-no-till-and-is-it-practical
 Gard, L. E., & Mckibben, G. E. (1973). “No-till” crop production proving a most promising conservation measure. Outlook on Agriculture, 7(4), 149-154. doi:10.1177/003072707300700403
 Yoder, D. C., Cope, T.L., Wills, J. B., Denton, H.P. (2005). No-till transplanting of vegetables and tobacco to reduce erosion and nutrient surface runoff. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 60(2), (68-71).
 Derpsch, R., Friedrich, T., Kassam, A., Hongwen, L. (2010). Current status of adoption of no-till farming in the world and some of its main benefits. International Journal of Agriculture and Biological Engineering, 3(1), 1-25. doi: 10.3965/j.issn.1934-6344.2010.01.001-025
 Rouw, A. D., Huon, S., Soulileuth, B., Jouquet, P., Pierret, A., Ribolzi, O., Chantharath, B. (2010). Possibilities of carbon and nitrogen sequestration under conventional tillage and no-till cover crop farming (Mekong valley, Laos). Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment,136(1-2), 148-161. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2009.12.013
Funding to support this work is provided in part by the NH Department of Agriculture, Markets, and Food though a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant, the NH State Conservation Committee’s Conservation Grant Program, The You Have Our Trust Fund through the NH Charitable Foundation, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.