[Market-farming] No-till in the organic mainstream

road's end farm organic101 at linkny.com
Mon Jan 29 10:28:07 EST 2007

On Jan 28, 2007, at 12:20 PM, TradingPostPaul wrote:

> It's interesting to see influential sources coming around on the 
> subject of
> no-till. Mainstream organics is beginning to admit digging, tilling, 
> and
> cultivating degrades soil structure and organic matter.

"Mainstream organics" has known for quite some time that tillage can 
cause problems, and minimizing tillage is certainly encouraged by most.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody has come up with an entirely 
no-till organic system that works for annual crops. I'm just back from 
the NOFA-NY conference, at which this subject came up in at a session 
on soil health I attended. There were a number of highly experienced 
people in the room, some of whom had been working on this, but without 
success. It's possible to reduce tillage significantly, but getting rid 
of it entirely is a different matter.

Several people mentioned that, (as has been my own experience), killed 
cover crop mulch systems are a disaster if herbicide is not used, 
unless they are tilled at about the point at which the herbicide is 
applied in non-organic systems. Extremely heavy straw etc. applications 
might work on a home garden scale, but the amount of mulch needed (I 
can guarantee that four or five inches won't do it, if you have 
significant weed pressure to start with) makes this prohibitive on a 
farm scale; though mulches are helpful in reducing tillage needs.

Every organic discussion that I've heard for years has emphasized 
caution with tillage: staying off wet soils; reducing the amount of 
tillage; choosing the tillage equipment that will do the least damage 
in the particular situation when tillage is required (which equipment 
that is in a given case depends on a lot of factors); mulching and 
cover cropping (including underseeding) to protect soils and soil life; 
etc. Many growers have had significant improvement in soil tilth and 
organic matter since converting from conventional systems to organic, 
even though they are using tillage in the organic systems.

Those who want to do further research on no-till organic: this is 
certainly an area worth working with. But don't bet a significant 
portion of your crop on a system till you've tried it a couple of years 
on a small portion first.

-- Rivka; Finger Lakes NY, Zone 5 mostly
Fresh-market organic produce, small scale
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