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What is No-till Farming?

What are the advantages of no-till farming or gardening? Can moving to no-till methods really help build soil and profitability? Andrew Mefferd, editor of Growing for Market, says it absolutely can, and building on years of experience and research, he lays it all out in Practical No-till Farming.

Conventional tilling can disrupt the soil web and damage or destroy some of the most beneficial organisms and systems that are building in your soil. Starting with – or transitioning to – no-till farming or gardening can help reverse this, building strong, healthy, productive soil.

No-till methods also allow for greater use of space by eliminating the need for large, expensive, and space-intensive equipment. In this excerpt from Practical No-till Farming, Andrew Mefferd outlines how no-till farming practices make it possible to start a profitable farm with little to no equipment, on a very small land base.

Do less, produce more, and grow the soil life that feeds crops using chemical-free, organic no-till methods.

Excerpt from the section: No-Till: A Gateway Method

The advantages of no-till, such as they are – and even taken with its disadvantages – make no-till farming of outsized importance to one important group of farmers: potential farmers. No-till growing makes it possible to start a profitable farm with little to no equipment, on a very small land base. Heck, with a big enough yard (or multiple rented yards) you could tarp down your lawn and start a farm right there. It is possible for one person to start a no-till farm on an acre of borrowed or leased land with hand tools and tarps and very little investment.

Starting a small farm is the entry point into farming for so many people who might want to farm but otherwise can’t imagine financing a big piece of land, tractor, etc. We should not underestimate the value of small farms. Most big farms started out small; everyone has to start somewhere. And the more people we can get to start small farms, the more small farms that will grow into medium and large farms. Overall, it is my goal, personally and with Growing for Market magazine, to increase the number of small farmers and small farms. The supply chain disruptions of the last couple of years have shown everybody what local growers have known for years: a more diversified food system that isn’t heavily reliant on a couple production areas for major crops is a more stable food system.

Read More Blogs About No-Till Farming and Soil Health

Flowers in a farmed field

The Benefits of No-Till Farming

Tomatoes growing on the vine

Important Differences Between Organic vs. Conventional No-Till

Plant starts

Soil and the Role it Plays in the Health of Your Plants

Currently, some low single-digit percentage of food in North America is grown and eaten locally. Much of the food has traveled 2,500 or more miles before it reaches the consumer, and many flowers travel even further. Local farming isn’t a silver bullet against supply chain disruption, climate change, and loss of community, but it has a part in solving those problems. Especially in that it lowers the barriers to entry for new farmers, I think no-till has a part to play in getting the percentage of food that is grown locally out of the single digits. The thing that I would really like to see and encourage is more direct-market vegetable and flower farms selling in the regions they grow in.

Many people have not been able to get into farming due to a lack of access to land and the capital for equipment. The fact that you can start a profitable farm that could support you and your family on a small footprint and with a low investment in equipment means that no-till has outsized importance for new farmers who may be able to start a farm on land that they don’t even own and gradually bootstrap themselves into a larger farm. No-till is a gateway technology that can allow more people to try—and, hopefully, stay in—farming, with less of an investment than ever before. It’s entirely possible to stock a farmers market stand or deliver 100 CSA shares off of a couple of acres. Whether you deliver the produce by CSA, farmers market, or florist sales, the bottom line is that one person or few people can make a living off of a couple of acres.

I don’t foresee a world developing overnight in which everything is locally grown, but I do foresee one where more than a single-digit percentage of our food and flowers comes from local sources. I hope the supply chain disruptions that we have experienced with COVID, including empty shelves at the grocery store, show people the importance of having a diversity of production and supply for something as vital as food.

A field prior to the No-Till method

Evolution of Your Farm

There’s always going to be some soil disturbance in farming; I think it’s fair to say that techniques that only disturb the very surface of the soil and don’t invert soil layers can be called no-till, whereas ones that disturb the soil deeply with the mixing of layers, like moldboard plowing or rototilling, are obviously not no-till. Shallow soil disturbance with a hoe or rake to create a seedbed for direct seeding is an example of a much less invasive use of soil disturbance than, say, frequent rototilling.

The discussion of what is or isn’t no-till aside, I think everything we’re learning about soil health being conducive to plant health, and the fact that less tillage promotes healthier soils, is pointing us in a direction away from tillage. But I also know it’s up to the individual grower to decide what’s best for their land and their farm. So even if someone were to go through the no-till gateway and start a farm, only to get established and then decide that what their operation needs is some tillage after all, I would still look at that as a victory for that person to have gotten started.

Field after the no-till method has been implemented

Small Can Be Beautiful

I value the small-scale farmer as much as the large acreage grower. I think it’s a great thing if one person can make a living feeding others off of one acre. Making it possible to make a living off of a parcel as small as one acre is one of the things that this book is aiming to do. No-till is exciting on the individual farm level because it can allow you to start a farm on a very small footprint that will make you a living relatively quickly. And when I step back and look at the big picture, I’m also excited about no-till because I think it makes it easier for people to start farms; and the more farms that are started, the more that will succeed, especially with scale-appropriate techniques like no-till. I think it’s important to look at all the available methods and not confine our discussion to one particular scale or approach because even on the same farm there may be different no-till management solutions for different crops, different times of the year, etc. Also, it is important to know how to scale up. On my farm, for example, even though our background was in vegetable growing, when we wanted to grow ¼ acre of hemp it was useful to have the skills and tools to do it.

We’ve been brainwashed to think of big as efficient. Well, there’s small and efficient, too; it just looks different than big and efficient. I would argue that no-till itself is an efficiency strategy in that it eliminates all the plowing, harrowing, rototilling, etc., so we can focus on the things that make us money: planting and harvesting.

So, I write this book with the hope that it will give you enough info to be dangerous with a tarp, and inspire people to try tarping down some lawn, growing some vegetables or flowers, and exploring which of these methods are a good fit on farms everywhere. Here’s to your success!

An active garden with no-till methods being used

Andrew Mefferd

Andrew Mefferd is the editor of Growing for Market magazine and author of The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution and The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower's Handbook. He spent seven years in the research department at Johnny's Selected Seeds and worked on farms across the US before starting his own farm in Cornville, Maine.

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