Adventures in Reduced Tillage

Every industry has its trends and fads, and farming (especially organic farming) is no exception. Permaculture, hydroponics, raised beds—these are just a few examples to emerge in recent years. While it can be easy to get swept up in the hype, the challenge is to remain open to new ideas while not betting the farm (literally) on an untested fad.

Dylan Clark cultivates young lettuce with the basket weeder (2015).

One trend we’ve been following for a while is reduced-tillage. While it’s up and coming in the organic sector, reduced tillage is not new, and it has an interesting history in the United States. The old European style of tillage, which relies on plows to prepare the soil for planting and cultivators to control weeds, helped settlers establish themselves in the New World, but it took a toll on the soil. The vicissitudes of intense-tillage farming were most apparent in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when drought conditions whipped the pulverized soil of the Great Plains into giant clouds of dust. Farmers and researchers quickly recognized the necessity of reducing tillage techniques for the sake of the soil. For conventional grain farmers, breakthroughs were made with seeders that drill seeds directly into untilled soil, and with weed-killing herbicides. For organic vegetable growers, however, preparing a planting zone for transplants and controlling weeds without chemicals remained a challenge.