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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.

At Restoration Farm, we’ve dabbled in various reduced-till methods over the years, but now we’re looking to get serious. In 2015, we invested in a basket weeder, a specialized tool that cultivates just the top few inches of soil. We also started using a single-torch backpack flame weeder, which burns young weeds without disturbing the soil.

Carrots germinate in a weed-free bed, thanks to the flame weeder (2016).

Last season, we bought two 160’x30’ tarps, to be laid over a field weeks or months ahead of planting. These black plastic tarps aren’t pretty, but they're fully reusable and they perform three important functions—1) they smother and kill whatever cover crop is growing under the tarp, reducing the need for plowing, 2) by trapping heat and moisture, they stimulate biological activity in the soil, and 3) they germinate and smother weeds in the top few inches of soil, creating a stale seed bed.

Black plastic tarps smother cover crop and weeds ahead of onion transplants (2016).

We’ve been encouraged by what we’ve seen, and we’re looking to build upon it. This year we’ll purchase some smaller tarps for our smaller areas, and we’ll invest in an adjustable shallow cultivator that can be used once the crops have grown too large for the basket weeder. Steve Cecchini is busy designing a five-torch flame weeder, so we can cover more ground faster. We’ve been rethinking how we prepare our beds for planting, watching tillage webinars like junkies, and communicating with researchers at Cornell Cooperative Extension. We’re eager for the season to get underway so we can start putting another winter’s worth of ideas to use. All in all, we’re excited for to be part of a promising trend with the potential for big returns in soil health.

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