Keep Your Hand on the Plow, Hold On
The art of plowing fields has been embraced in our culture for many years. Whether one is a farmer or not, plowing has found its way in to our homes through literature, paintings, music, and even religion. My wife and I frequently sang the American folk song Gospel Plow to my kids when they were infants. As I think about the place plowing has in our fields and in our culture, I wonder if someone will one day write a song about no-till? Will generations from now look at a painting from this era and see cover crops growing in the fields. Will books like The One-Straw Revolution find their way to coffee tables alongside Norman Rockwell or Life Magazine?
No-till systems are gaining increased attention as a practical way to raise vegetables and improve soil quality at the same time. Growing and managing cover crops to provide killed and living mulches is an important component of these production systems. The combination of organic mulches on the soil surface and reduction of tillage have numerous benefits to soil biology, structure, and health.
No-till vegetable production is a form of conservation tillage. Conservation tillage is the generic term that describes reduced-tillage cropping systems and includes no-till. The primary goal of conservation tillage is to minimize soil disturbance, such as erosion and compaction, but it also reduces the number of passes the farmer must typically make through the field in order to prepare a seedbed, thus saving fuel.
Despite all of the benefits that can be reaped from transitioning and adopting conservation tillage systems, there are still many challenges that need to be addressed over time. One of the challenges can be soil type and topography. NH farms are often dealing with rocky soils and sloped hillsides, which can make no-till planting difficult. Weather can also present challenges if water is scarce. The cover crops associated with no-till can soak up water that could instead be made available for cash crops. Additionally, no-till can delay vegetable plantings in our climate. By not exposing soil to the sun means that the soil warms more slowly and it takes longer to get to the temperatures the plants need to thrive. Finally, having access to appropriately-scaled equipment for managing conservation tillage systems may be a barrier, especially for smaller-scale farms.
With support from a NH Specialty Crop Block Grant, the Cheshire County Conservation District (CCCD) is working with local partners to assist farmers interested in transitioning to no-till/reduced-till management systems through education and equipment resources. This 3-year project is focused on working with conventional and organic farmers on various scales of production. One highlight of the project is the addition of a BCS two-wheel, or walk-behind, tractor and implements for managing cover crops and transitioning to no-till on less than a few acres. The BCS and implements will be made available to growers through CCCD’s equipment Rental Program.
Perhaps this project will spark some creativity in someone writing a song about no-till agriculture or painting a picture of a tractor with a no-till seeder attached. To some, this may not be as idyllic as the plow, but it creates a story around soil health. Maybe this story will be shared in a new coffee table book that you see while sitting in my living room but the Gospel Plow still plays in the background and we sing “Hold on to the plow, hold on”.
Written by: Andy Pressman
NCAT Northeast Regional Director
CCCD Board Chair