Organic Farming 2.0: How No-Till Farming Might Save Modern Agriculture

farmer planting

It’s no secret that modern agriculture is changing. We, the public, have much to do with it — we get to vote with our dollar; we get to choose the sort of agriculture that we support. And today, more and more, the name of this new form of agriculture is no-till farming.

No-till farming is the exact opposite of the agricultural style that has been en vogue for most of the last century, going against the grain of that established image of a farmer hoeing and plowing the land. But since the late ’90s, modern farmers have demanded a change — a way of working the land that is more in line with nature.

What is Tilling?

To understand the no-till movement, first it’s important to understand tilling.

Tilling, simply put, is the process of breaking up and stirring soil before planting.

This is done for a number of reasons, the most common of which is to loosen soil, creating space for new plants and allowing water and nutrients to reach plant roots more easily. Tilling can also disinter weeds efficiently and allow farmers a way to mix amendments into the soil they intend to plant.

Why Isn’t Tilling Necessary?

As opposed to in conventional tillage, where the earth is turned to a depth of up to a foot over the course of three different steps, no-till agriculture consists of planting done through the residues of previous plantings, with no mixing or breaking up of the soil at all. Seems as though we must be missing something — after all, if farmers have been plowing and tilling for generations, surely there’s a reason?

Hard to say.

In the first paragraph of Edward H. Faulkner’s 1943 “Plowman’s Folly”he says, “The truth is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.” And yet, for years, we’ve assumed that tilling is a necessary part of planting. It’s time to set the record straight.

The truth is that tilling can be counterproductive for a number of reasons. Tilling breaks up earthworms, which perform natural aeration and fertilizing tasks, and the addition of air to the soil can destroy nutrients that plants need. Not to mention that running all that heavy equipment over the soil every planting season compacts the earth even more.

What Benefits Does No-Till Farming Offer?

Farmers have agreed for more than 20 years that tilling is not exactly necessary, but many are speaking out today saying that it goes a step further: no-till can even be beneficial.

The major benefit of no-till farming is preserving the precious layer of topsoil that is usually destroyed by plowing, a layer of soil that can become severely eroded as happened in the 1930s with the Dust Bowl.

No-till farming also reverses damage that can be caused by tilling the same foot of soil year after year. This process has two effects: the ground beneath the foot of tilled soil is further compacted by heavy machinery, unable to be used or mixed into the soil being planted. By contrast, the level of soil on top of this layer of compacted soil is prone to being compacted by rainfall.

But if you don’t plow, won’t your earth just be very compacted throughout? The answer is no. But once you have stopped tilling, earth will naturally return to a less compacted state after a few years. Not to mention, there’s far less manual labor involved with a method like this.

Sounds too good to be true, right? Well… it kind of was.

Up until very recently, all of these benefits were outweighed by one very important con: without tilling, weeds became a problem, which meant that the widespread use of herbicides was almost a given on a no-till farm.

Luckily, that’s no longer the case.

What’s the Future of No-Till Farming?

Many farmers and organizations Stateside have begun to associate the ecological benefits of no-till farming’s low carbon footprint — thanks to less machinery — with the ecological benefits of organic farming, and the results are quite promising.

The Rodale Institute is one organization currently working on organic, no-till, weed-controlling mechanisms to be used in organic, no-till farms. While investing in special equipment is unfortunately one of the short-term cons of no-till farming, on the long-term, the benefits outweigh the negatives.

Virginia Tech professor Ron Morse has been doing some experimentation of his own with cover crops as part of a durable no-till farming system.

These developments are still in process, which means many farmers must exchange experiences and knowledge before finding the perfect way to apply these no-till ideas to their land. But recent advances like these have encouraged more and more farmers to experiment with organic no-till farming, paving the way for new discoveries in this field.

At home, you can apply the same methods and thought processes to no-till or no-hoe gardening. No-dig gardening is just one way to make sure that all of your gardening hacks are beneficial both for the environment and for you.

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Farming image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco