Is no-till farming actually worth it?
Is the amount of compost required worth the investment, and do the results actually stack up in comparison to tilling?
At the end of the day, where does no-till fit within the market-gardening realm?
In this episode, we put these questions to Jesse Frost of the No-Till podcast and Rough Draft Farmstead.
How do you define no-till? (3:05)
It’s an ever-changing definition, but how I’d define it now is ‘an ecological approach to agriculture’. This means we want to keep the soil covered and planted as much as possible, and disturb the soil as little as possible. There are a lot of different ways to accomplish these aspects of no-till. I am challenged sometimes by all of the different techniques
Do you think this lack of a definition affects the community and implementation of no-till? (5:20)
It challenges us to think about agriculture as a whole. To think about it from the soil up. When you look at ecological farming practices presented to us by the USDA and NRCS they all describe no-till agriculture – saying to minimally disturb the soil and so forth. We could call it regenerative market gardening, which is a great term, but using the term that people are familiar with gets them to find our podcast and website which is important.
I do see some divisiveness around the forums of no-till, people even arguing about what tools and methods qualify, that can’t be healthy for the movement. (9:00)
I agree with you. Some people who are new, who are not satisfied with the terminology and those who debate about tillage do debate. I’ve thought about it as a tool kit. I was just thinking about it today. Sometimes I have to vary the way I plant my carrots due to the moisture in my beds. It doesn’t just add up to one definition. It can be up to 25 different ways that can all be called no-till. Do you think when you saw these debates among people it was adding to the conversation or detracted from it?
Diego – I think it did a few things. This is human nature. People want to group up in factions so they spend time debating definitions instead of studying and working these techniques. The bigger issue though, is, what’s the elevator pitch? Not having a clear definition makes it difficult for the idea to spread.
Jesse – One thing we do on our farm is trail many techniques so we can gain more information to use in the podcast and grow our knowledge of no-till. One week we brought a sign to the farmers’ market that read: No-till, to see what happens. We had customers who would ask and then the word salad would start. It was a good practice so you can hone your definition to relay to a layperson. I would say it’s a different form of agriculture that is focused on soil health and creating nutrient-dense food. If they press I say we don’t invert the soil layers, use minimal soil disturbance which helps us sequester some carbon.
Why do you think market gardeners should consider no-till? (16:45)
There’s a number of reasons, which include practical ones. It’s not just about soil ecology. I was discussing this with Ben Hartman, and he was saying if you’re not putting the tiller on the tractor you’re reducing steps. If you’re only placing a deep compost layer on top of the soil and planting right into it you’re ultimately more efficient.
With a deep compost system, you can also get into the soil much earlier in the Spring, it doesn’t matter what the soil moisture is, which can be a huge advantage to a market gardener. I can set up beds in February. You also have fewer weeds when you have the soil covered. We are cultivating on my farm once every 10 days which is practical. It’s spot weeding, and if you can get wood chips in your pathways it eliminates that step too.
From what I’ve heard a farm that’s tilling vs. no-till is more efficient. What about in terms of bed turn-over? (19:00)
It can be more efficient to till, but it depends on the system. Bed turn over is a big topic. The techniques and technology are changing all the time. What I do is put my flail mower on the lowest setting and hit the bed with that. If I need to seed a baby green into the bed then I take a weed whacker and go down to the soil level or even a little below.
You have to know what crop is coming out and what crop is going in. And it’s a tool question. But even if you didn’t have the expensive equipment, like a BCS with a flail mower, you could just use a weed whacker to turn over a bed in less time than with a tiller.
So would you say the steps of tilling and rolling a bed after removing the last crop are unnecessary? (22:15)
I don’t want to say they are necessary. Not everyone has access to the compost that we have. One of the advantages of living here in KY is we have plentiful horse manure. We start with a 4-6” layer in the spring, and then later in the season we only need to topdress about once. In the case of baby greens, we would add a layer so we could plant directly into that. Some compost will dry out, so there is nuance to it, but if it’s right it will create good seed contact.
With a cover crop, like buckwheat, it’s fairly thin and we’ve direct seeded it. So we mow it and then plant directly between those remaining buckwheat stems. There are a lot of techniques.
I understand – I don’t have a side, I’m just trying to sit on the fence here. I do think a lot of people do these things, like no-till, because it fits their context and the story they want to tell themselves. But if you start to scratch at the question, should I really do this, a lot of those things fall apart. (26:00)
I agree that’s something I’m constantly thinking about. Are we just doing this because it sounds cool and because we can? One example I can speak to is at Frith Farm they use a technique of bending their rye cover crop with boards in the Fall, cover it with a silage tarp to finish the job, and then plant their brassicas into it and don’t have to weed or spray those crops. What’s happening there, and why do I have different results on my farm?
It gets complicated, but there is a fair amount of scientific literature, and it seems promising. Oddly my bok choi is sitting out there in the heat right now without flea beetles on it, what is causing that to happen? We should explore that.
But here is where it falls – I don’t think it’s scalable. Not for a market garden of several acres. (34:00)
You have to design the system around your scale. And around your available materials. If you are getting to above 5 acres you need to go into cover crops. There are also compost spreaders that are getting fast. Broad Fork Farm just had a compost spreader designed that is a single person tractor implement.
I think that there are no limitations to no-till. I think we’ve decided it’s not going to work at scale instead of asking what’s not working about it. What could we try? Can we use not only cover crops but cover crops that winter kill like on Frith Farm?
If I do scale with this system, what does it gain me? (40:00)
It reduces weed pressure. I’ve seen it on our farm – even going from a minimal tillage system down to no-till I noticed a considerable difference. We only have to spot weed every 10 days now. This is something every no-till grower I talk to tells me, “I didn’t realize I wouldn’t have to weed anymore.” That’s not to say the work others are doing to reduce tilling and then perfect their cultivation techniques isn’t working. I think the tools Conor Crickmore is developing are great.
Even if it no-till only reduced cultivation time it would be worth it. I know a farmer who is going to try it on 10 acres and that was his main motivation because he was spending all his money on labor cultivating and it was destroying his business.
Could you solve those same problems with stale seed bedding or flame-weeding, pre-emergent technique? (42:40)
There are lots of weeds, grasses like pigweed, that aren’t affected by flame weeding. But stale seed bedding with a light harrowing can be super effective. As long as you don’t have a big population of pigweed. Then you are using a tractor though.
If you trail it with some good guidance and weigh it against what you were doing you might see it works for you. You are replacing weeding with mulching.
Do you think that some, but not excessively, tilled soil is not as healthy as no-till soil? There are degrees in the comparison here – so how much more healthy is the no-till soil to one that’s occasionally tilled, and how do you know? (46:30)
It would have to be site-specific. I’m always testing different techniques on my farm. I was mentored on a farm that used tillage and a lot of their crops were better than mine. They cared about cover crops, rotated livestock through their fields, they still took care of their soil. You don’t need to look at the soil necessarily, just take notice of the crops. It would be good to compare systems within farms – go somewhere they are tilling and stop, and to a farm that isn’t and till a bed and see what the results are.
You have a good perspective, a balanced approach. Some no-till farmers push points such as their plants are healthier and their food is more nutrient-dense, and they don’t have facts like a lab analysis of their crops to back that up. (49:40)
That’s an important point. The people who are advertising nutrient density are all selling something. It would be great to see studies done on nutrient density. The only indicator we can test now is taste. At the end of the day it comes down to the customer and if they enjoy the taste then that lets you know right there you are doing something right.
What are some of the most exciting things happening in the world of no-till right now? (55:00)
Christan Leech is doing a lot of seed breeding to make varieties available that don’t need fertilizer. I love what Jared’s Real Food is doing – lasagna style gardening on 2-3 acres. Frith Farm is growing beautiful produce with hand tools on 3 acres. I always say we are just at the beginning. As I’ve started to do the podcast I’ve been able to find so many more people who are using no-till. It’s in its infancy and that’s exciting.
Where do you think somebody starts if they want to get into no-till? How do you identify a system that’s going to work for them since there are so many options out there? (57:50)
I’ve been thinking about those 3 principals; keep the soil covered & planted as much as possible and disturbed as little as possible. You then adapt those to where you are – is there a lot of staw being produced nearby? Is compost abundant?
It has to start like any farm – ask what your goals are, what your market is like, what crops you want to grow. Look at those principals and see how they match with your system. It’s ok if it takes 10 years to figure that system out, and you can work elements of the system in overtime. Looking around for systems and compile information, especially if it’s relevant to your bio-region.
There’s a lot to consider when deciding how to manage not just your soil, but all aspects of your cultivation system on a farm. From weed management, to plant health, to soil fertility, it’s a complex web of ever moving parts and difficult to hit targets, which all then need to fit into a production paradigm that pays the bills. Within that decision, frame-work is a new and emerging way of approaching these questions – to till or not to till?
The interview with Jesse was an attempt to peel back the curtain on some of the mysteries and claims surrounding this emergent farming technique and philosophy, and he presented us with a lot of food for thought. Will no-till work on your farm coming into 2020?