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The Benefits of No-Till Farming

Author Andrew Mefferd

Today's post is from The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High-Production Methods for Small Scale Farmers by Andrew Mefford. Andrew is editor of Growing for Market magazine. He has spent 15 years working on farms, including a year working on a no-till research farm, and 7 years in the research department at Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  

Excerpt from the book The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution

No-till has the potential to be a farming revolution. Tillage has historically been such a dominant paradigm that organic no-till is disruptive technology for small farms. If you could farm without tillage, why would you keep tilling?

Against the drawbacks of tillage we can evaluate the advantages of foregoing tillage. One of the most exciting things about no-till is that, if you already have a farm, you may not need to buy anything or only make a minimal investment to try the methods. Most growers already have what they need to try no-till lying around the farm.

Increased Efficiency of Time

Most tillage systems require at least three passes over the field before they are ready to plant, requiring no less than three different pieces of equipment, and a tractor or horses to pull them with. The no-till systems in this book typically skip the step of tillage by using a mulch that is either left in place or removed to prepare the soil for planting.

These mulches require less investment than tillage in every aspect:

  • No-till takes less time than tillage
  • No-till takes less equipment than tillage
  • No-till takes less energy (in the form of tractor or horse power)
  • No-till doesn’t burn up organic matter the way tillage does
  • No-till should require less work to prepare a field than tillage, with an additional advantage.

Tractor work has to take place when a field is sufficiently dry, meaning that in humid regions farmers are at the mercy of the weath

Garlic grows weed free in heavily mulched beds. Credit: Andrew Mefferd

Increasing the Viability of Smaller Farms

No-till stops the equipment from dictating the scale of the farm and lets the farm be the size it wants to be. For example, it doesn’t make sense to buy a $250K tractor to cultivate an acre. It doesn’t even make sense to buy a $25K tractor to cultivate an acre.

A former logged area is transformed into a productive small farm landscape using cardboard and other no-till methods. Credit: Andrew Mefferd


Because of the reduced requirement for equipment, no-till enables smaller units of land to be economically viable units.

In hoophouse tomatoes planted through cardboard, the root zone stays moist even though it is hot and dry.
Credit: Andrew Mefferd

Increased Efficiency of Organic Matter

The no-till growers I visited with saw OM levels go up quickly after adopting no-till practices. No-till growers see a rapid rise in OM after adopting no-till methods — they are building soil without the burning up of OM that occurs during tillage.

Time is saved with the silage tarp turning weeds into biomass; a field is ready to replant without having to till or remake raised beds. Credit: Seeds of Solidarity


The beauty of these methods is their simplicity; some of them could be explained in a sentence. Deep mulching with compost, for example, could be boiled down to: Apply a thick enough layer of weed-free compost to suppress weeds, and then plant into it.

Salad greens are planted intensively in hoophouses; previous crops are composted in place with silage tarps speeding the process. Credit: Andrew Mefferd

Reduced Mechanization

Along with their simplicity, no-till methods should result in a reduction in mechanization and the complications that go along with it: owning equipment, fixing it, fueling it, and the emissions it produces.

The transplanter that was modified to be no-till we used at Virginia Tech: A tank in front held water that was dribbled into the furrow that was cut through crimped cover crop residue by the large straight coulter. The shank behind the coulter loosens soil, and the boxes drop solid fertilizer into the furrow, metered by a chain attached to the wheels. The big black spools hold drip tape. Finally, two wooden seats are at the end where the two white bins hold transplants for the people to put in the transplanter. Credit: Andrew Mefferd

Efficient Use of Space

With less space devoted to paths, turnarounds, and headlands for equipment, farms can be more productive because more of the space is devoted to growing crops. For most of those systems using permanent beds, fertility can be concentrated on the growing area where it is needed. Seeds can be scattered at higher density than with cultivation because space doesn’t need to be left open for passes of the cultivator.

Vegetable rows were interplanted with flowering plants for farmscaping, like this dill, to attract beneficial insects, like these margined leatherwings.Credit: Andrew Mefferd

Quick Successions

Because time doesn’t have to be taken to till between crops, many no-tillers I talked to were able to re-plant a harvested bed within the same day or very quickly after harvest. This maximizes the profitability and quick turnover potential of fast crops like salad mix. The biology can do a lot of work if you let it.

On the other hand, if you’re not in a hurry, I’ve realized that, when it comes to getting rid of the residue from a previous crop, you can either till or let your soil digest it. This is particularly applicable to some flower and longer crops, where there is no hurry to get rid of them at the end of the crop, because there’s not enough time to plant anything after it.

If there’s no hurry, crops can simply be tarped down to let biology do the rest.

Making sure everything is working right. Once we got going, we could transplant very quickly into a high-residue bed that crimping producesCredit: Andrew Mefferd

No Till Makes It Almost Irrelevant How Bad Your Soil Is

A common theme I noticed in the interviews was that farmers were able to grow on very poor soils by mulching heavily and building soil up, and able to grow on sloping land because they don’t have to worry about getting a tractor stuck. By building your own soil up on top of the existing poor soil, you should be able to farm almost anywhere.

Bare Mountain uses a lot of low tunnels to extend their season. The blue strip down the middle of the bed is a sprinkler hose, which delivers sprinkler irrigation to one bed at a time, useful for getting seeds to germinate where there is no overhead irrigation (or rain). Credit: Andrew Mefferd  at Bare Mountain Farm

Skipping Tillage Makes It Easier to Increase the Amount of OM in Soil

Since tillage burns up OM, simply skipping it will make it easier to build soil OM. In addition to sequestering carbon, higher levels of soil OM have a long list of benefits, including promoting soil life and nutrient cycling and increasing the infiltration and water-holding capacity of soils.

Higher OM soils are more resistant to extremes of moisture — they hold more water during a drought, absorb water more quickly after rain, and are less prone to washing away in a heavy rain than plowed soils.

Smoothing out the compost on top after flipping a bed from a previous crop. Credit: Andrew Mefferd at Lovin' Mama Farm

Reducing Tillage Should Also Reduce Weeding

Though some growers interviewed claimed more of a benefit from this than others, most of them saw reduced weed pressure over time the longer ground went un-tilled. The less they stirred up the weed seed bank in the ground, the fewer weeds came up, though of course there are always weeds that blow or are tracked in.

Harvesting eggplant from a no-till field with leaves added using a manure spreader to improve weed suppression. Less than two hours of hand weeding was needed in this half acre plot over the entire season. Credit: Shawn Jadrnicek at Wild Hope Farm

Gets You on the Ground More Quickly in Spring

A number of interviewees told me about being able to get on their fields in spring before their neighbors, or even farm all winter long in milder areas since they didn’t have to get a tractor on the field for cultivation. This is a big advantage when it comes to early crops, keeping employees through the winter, and having a diverse array of vegetables and flowers for much of the year.

Rows of broccoli interspersed with various farmscaping treatments in order to measure the amount of beneficials attracted by different treatments. Credit: Andrew Mefferd

Environmental Benefits

There are a number of environmental benefits that stem from adopting organic no-till growing practices, including reducing the amount of pollution from farm machinery, reducing off-gassing CO2 and erosion from tillage, and increasing carbon sequestration.

Caption: Fennel with margined leatherwings in front of no-till broccoli. Credit: Andrew Mefferd

Reduced Necessity for Mechanization

The fact that most of these systems aren’t dependent on having a tractor or other heavy machinery will make farming more enjoyable if you don’t like driving, fixing, fueling, or hearing equipment.

This is what rolling straw mulch out in the fall on Sycamore Bend Farm looks like. Credit: Andrew Schwerin at Sycamore Bend Farm

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