Believe The Hype: No Till Growing Methods for Small Farms
No Till Farming
When it comes to farming, there are endless examples of people who have turned their craft into a livelihood through innovations and techniques honed over time to create a system that is truly unique. Often when someone in the farming community really taps into something special, the practices seep into the collective mind of farmers all over the country and the system itself becomes a trend. We see this in the application of particular amendments such as azomite, biochar, or compost tea and we also see this in techniques such as pruning, tool innovation, and no till market gardening.
While there is never just one right way to do things, some systems have been mapped out by experienced growers and can provide a framework for others hoping to make their own operations more efficient and sustainable. With farmers like Conor Crickmore of Neversink Farm and Charles Dowding with his No Dig Garden, resources have been entering the scene for years, providing growers with concepts, tools, and methodology that can make a small scale, no till garden manageable and profitable.
The simple definition of no till farming is growing crops or pasture, from year to year, without disturbing the soil. The most common use of this system in the United States is in large scale operations where the seed from a crop is drilled directly into the plant residues of a previous crop, cover crop, or right into an established pasture. This no till system on a large scale can be organic or not and generally prevents the overwhelming loss of carbon that can take place in large production operations that rely on heavy tillage. It also saves the farmer fuel and time, improves soil health which can promote higher yields, and can increase the water holding capacity of the soil which provides huge benefits in times of drought.
These systems utilized in commodity crop plantings have their benefits and can help reduce human impact on the land, but do rely on large equipment and mono-culture to be efficient. The applications of these methods completely change when the size of the operation is reduced to less than 5 acres and the crop diversity of a market garden brings increased levels of specialized growth habit and care. When it comes to no till market gardening on a small scale, layers of moving parts require a well thought out management scheme that truly harnesses the farmer's creativity and ability to adapt.
The No Till Market Garden Podcast
Jesse Frost and his wife Hannah Crabtree operate Rough Draft Farmstead a certified organic farm in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky moving towards a completely no till system. Hannah and Jesse raise livestock utilizing Non GMO grain, manage the garden bio-intensively, and employ Biodynamic principles to enhance the biodiversity of their landscape. The focus of their intentional practices on the farm revolves around the health and vitality of the soil, which they believe to be the foundation for prosperity within the entire system.
As if running the farm with Hannah and raising their children Further and Ellis wasn't enough, Farmer Jesse has also turned his growing interest in no-till market gardening into a hub of information gathered and shared through his No Till Growers website and his No Till Market Garden Podcast. The website serves as a resource sink for those interested in learning more about no till practices and for sharing their own inspiration and success. Jesse's hope is to create a community made up of people interested in regenerative agriculture and give individuals access to the resources they need to adapt their own operations in hopes of promoting more sustainability in food production.
The No Till Market Garden Podcast gives Farmer Jesse the opportunity to speak with some of the leading edge farmers of today and ask them the tough questions about making no till functional and profitable. Beyond farmers, Jesse also interviews scientists such as Elaine Ingham of Soil Foodweb Inc, compost makers like Karl Hammer of Vermont Compost Company and other field experts such as farmer Andrew Mefferd, author of The Organic No Till Farming Revolution. Through this curated mix of experts and experienced hands, Jesse continues to aggregate quality content that, up until now, has been scattered across the country, stored in the brains and farm plans of exploratory farmers.
Considerations for Starting a No Till Garden
Deciding to start a no till growing practice on the farm or in the garden requires a change in mindset. While individuals may be drawn to the idea of less work from reduced tillage, the establishment of the system may require even more work initially than usual-with the pay offs generally appearing once the system has been managed for multiple seasons. Some of the immediate barriers that face farmers hoping to convert are soil compaction, weeds, water management, soil biology, crop rotation, and organic matter.
Soil compaction is a common issue that can plague those of us who farm with tractors and use tillage technologies. One of the benefits of a no till system is that you remove this pressure from the garden all together. Just as no tractor tires make their way into the field, beds should never be walked on and compost and other soil amendments should be added to encourage the soil structure to begin to lift. Starting with a soil that may have been compacted from previous practices or from the hooves of pastured animals, using a broadfork or other digging tool to loosen the top layer of the soil initiates the lifting process. This allows air to travel deeper into the soil and encourages space for beneficial biology, who are mining for micro-nutrients, and storing that material in humic compounds in the soil to be used by plants. Adding rock powders and other diversified mineral supplements to the surface of the soil encourages worms and microorganisms to travel through the soil, from the subsoil to the top layers of the soil, contributing manure and other gifts as they build their communities and carry out their symbiotic transactions with others.
Weeds feel like the enemy to most growing systems and their tendency to suffocate crops and steal nutrients does make them seem pretty villainous. Their presence in the garden does serve a purpose, just as all of nature's designs tend to have a greater influence than what we can typically perceive from our own perspective, and understanding what they are and why they are there can help steer our practices in the right direction. Some of the most inspiring no till gardens have been managed so well that they appear weed free, and while this is a good goal, it takes time, intention, and effort to get to that place when starting from scratch. The weeds present in the garden are indicators of nutrient deficiencies and structural issues present in the soil. Where purple flowers like Henbit take over a field, we can surmise that the field is likely lacking in copper.
Where Yellow Dock and Buttercup persist, wet fields and stagnating conditions are often contributing to acidification of the soil. Weeds with huge taproots like Pigweed and Thistles are often attempting to break up compaction to release nutrients trapped in the subsoil. Spreading weeds like Bermuda Grass and Yellow Nutsedge, are attempting to create pockets within their entangled roots to collect organic matter and cover the surface of the soil like a carpet to prevent erosion.
Understanding what the weed is trying to do allows us to mimic that management and employ systems that heal deficiencies and correct structural issues in the garden. Once these issues are on their way towards being resolved, techniques such as mulching, physics balancing, and hoeing can keep weeds in check. As the soil moves towards having a balanced pH, becoming biologically stimulated and structurally sound, the harder to eradicate weeds no longer thrive and lush, easy to remove weeds take their place.
No till systems are well known for their ability to accumulate organic matter, season after season. Not all soils start there, though, and the addition of organic matter can help improve the soil's productivity. Adding compost on soil beds is a great way to kick start this process. Cover crops can be grown in a no till system and the residues can be left to digest in place and contribute their carbon and nutrients to the activated soil ecology. For those interested in including these biomass accumulating plants, check out our cover crop selection. Mulching the aisles and beds of no till gardens can add organic matter while also providing habitat for earth worms and other important species of soil biology. While the first season in new no till beds may be wrought with the challenges of low organic matter soils, each season going forward, if managed well, will allow the materials to build.
Managing water in a no till system starts with making an informed decision about where to put the garden. Before putting in the permanent beds, one should observe how water moves on the property and locate any areas where it tends to build up during excess rain. How the water flows from one part of the property to another as it makes its way into the water table should also be considered to prevent streams of water cutting through bed systems or encouraging erosion of top soil. If the land itself has limitations, developing trenches and planting buffers can help move water through the system without causing damage to the crops or beds. Sometimes managing water is as simple as making the beds go in the right direction, ensuring that the water moves easily through the area with minimal disturbance to the structures built. The great thing about no till garden beds is that their lifted structure and stimulated ecology generally create conditions that hold onto water within organic matter during times of dry weather and drain water through developed passageways during heavy rains.
One of the helpful aspects of a no till system is the habitat that is created and maintained for microbiology, including beneficial bacteria and fungi in the soil. Tilling the soil can loosen it up for seeds and roots and provide for good soil contact, but it chops up the native populations of flora and fauna that make their homes below the plants. These seemingly invisible communities are responsible for bringing nutrients to the plants through their symbiotic relationships to plant roots. Whether it is a protozoa hunting for smaller organisms coming to the roots to feed on root exudates and releasing nitrogen into the plant's feeding sphere, or a mycorrhizal fungi, branching from a plant's roots and extending the plant's reach for nutrients, each species has a role to play in the distribution of nutrients in and around the plant. These partnerships enhance the plant's own ability to protect itself. The added access to micro-nutrients allows the plant to develop a waxy coating that prevents damage from pests and diseases and offers the plant reserves of strength during times of climatic stress. When starting a no till system, it can be beneficial to add compost and other amendments containing minerals and micro-nutrients to attract the activity of these native helpers.
When setting up a permanent bed system, it can feel daunting to design a layout that works for all the varying crops that will be moved through the system. An important piece of the organic growing practice is crop rotation. By moving crops through the growing system and not growing the same crop family in the same bed two seasons in a row, the soil is able to adjust to the nutrient requirements of the plants and the total depletion of one nutrient resource is prevented. It also helps to manage pests and soil borne diseases that could accumulate in one space over time. Designing a no till system requires a good rotation and this can be made to work well with proper planning. One method for enabling easy management of the rotation is making beds that are all the same width and length.
The Best Way to Learn is to Try it
No till farming is a great method for utilizing a small, well managed space and allows the grower to really hang on to all of the beneficial qualities of their soil. It is a system that has been very well developed by many experienced growers across the United States and beyond and is definitely a powerful and high impact tool for battling the weather irregularities we are experiencing as a result of our changing climate.
It is not a one size fits all method, however, and the regenerative agricultural movement happening globally is full of impressive systems, of all shapes and sizes, all operating on the fuel provided by nature's living engine. If you are interested in no till gardening we invite you to explore the many resources offered in this blog and encourage you to comment below with your successes and challenges in the pursuit of weed free, permanent beds. The best way to learn about this system is definitely to get your hands dirty on a piece of land, either by apprenticing with a skilled grower or diving in head first yourself!