After spending a season working on a no-till farm this summer I have absorbed the numerous benefits of this system. For those of you who have never heard of no-till, it is basically what it sounds like, it is farming without tilling the ground. This method is very uncommon for many reasons. As a race we have been tilling the ground for thousands of years, in fact the word agriculture means “tillage of a field” when translated literally from Latin. Conversely the no till method of farming is relatively new and because of a lack of education and communication it has not been tried on many farms. Needless to say it hasn’t been tried in a big variety of climates and soil types either. Another issue is that it doesn’t lend itself to large scale production, in other words, this technique is only manageable on a small scale. On the other hand the benefits of no-till are so great that it’s definitely worth exploring and there is no question that it’s a big step towards a sustainable agriculture.
You might have heard about the idea that more small and medium sized farms are better for our food safety and for the environment than huge farms. Considering that no-till works in small scale farming it’s feasible that if eventually there are more small farms it could be adopted as a common and normal practice. From what I understand, every farmer and gardener who practices no-till does it differently. The system that I learned has been very effective for the farmers at Four Winds Farm in upstate New York for about 15 years. One of the reasons they got into it is because they didn’t have a tractor when they started their farm, which is an issue most new farmers face, considering tractors are such an expensive piece of equipment. After a couple of years, once they began to see the benefits of no-till, even though they were able to purchase a tractor they stuck with it.
Arguably the most important benefit is the preservation and improvement of soil structure and soil life. Better soil structure helps both retain water and drain excess water, it also prevents erosion, run-off and compaction. A soil that is alive with worms, bugs, fungi and bacteria is constantly breaking down organic matter and making nutrients available to plants. Another benefit is weed control. This idea is the hardest for people to understand because essentially, tilling is weeding. The problem with tilling is that it brings to the surface thousands of weed seeds that were buried and exposes them to oxygen which triggers germination. When you don’t till all you have to deal with is the seeds that landed on the surface and the weeds that spread through underground root systems.
The weed issue might be the key factor in considering the no-till method for South Florida. In the North East there are long freezing winters which kill off weeds and give farmers a fresh start in the spring. It isn’t totally perfect though; once the summer kicks in there are plenty of weeds to fight off, many of which have deep tap roots that are a nightmare to dig up. Here in South Florida during our off season the weeds take over instead of die back. That alone changes the way we should approach no-till. Weeding an entire organic farm by hand, which is the way they do it up north, is inconceivable for us.
At Bee Heaven we have a few small fields tucked away in between the groves and one field we keep in permaculture that are never tilled. Coming back to work here this season, after my no-till experience, has given me the inspiration to treat this ground like we worked the fields at Four Winds Farm. I’m curious about how it will be different and how we can manage crops efficiently considering those differences.
The pictures to the right are documenting the process of starting with a totally overgrown plot that had field corn in it last season and preparing it for a new crop. After weeding the “jungle” by hand, we raked the loose weeds and big chunks of wood, rocks and roots out of the way. Then we scuffle hoed the ground thoroughly and finally added a thick layer of compost to the planting beds. Because our compost is mostly plant material with some horse manure, it isn’t very rich in nutrients so we have to add a small amount of pelletized chicken manure fertilizer over the compost. All of this work is much easier said than done! The 3 of us spent about 4 hours working really hard and sweating profusely to get 3 40′ beds done, all by hand.
We’ll see how the season pans out and what the weed pressure is like in this field compared to the tilled fields. The improvement of soil structure will come with time so we wont get the instant gratification of fluffy loose soil like you get with tilled ground. This field will be harder at first, but theoretically over the years if it continues to be treated like this it will gain organic matter, it will have better structure, less weeds and most importantly produce better food.