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Grow More, Grow Better with No-Till

No-till is better for the soil, better for production, and better for the farmer. That was the message from three experienced no-till farmers who came together to share experiences and advice at the Farmer-to-Farmer intensive workshop, part of the NOFA-Mass Winter Conference held virtually in January.

Gaining pounds (and pounds and pounds) at Gaining Ground

The birthplace of Henry David Thoreau, in Concord, Mass., is the site of Gaining Ground, a three- acre nonprofit farm dedicated to feeding the hungry. Doug Wolcik managed Gaining Ground from 2013 to 2020, during which he spearheaded the farm’s transition to no-till, beginning in 2016. After five complete seasons of not tilling the soil, Doug’s conclusion: “No-till works!”

The first inkling that no-till could revolutionize production came when Doug stopped tilling in their hoop house. “It is scary to jump in, but we saw a big increase in production in the hoop house from just that change,” Doug said. “From there, it was a no-brainer, and we decided we had to roll this out to the fields,” which they did, converting one acre per year, parking the tractor and switching to hand work.

“Each year got significantly better,” he said, and the cumulative effect was nothing short of astonishing. Total farm production more than doubled, from 30 tons in 2016 to 65 tons in 2020. Part of that increase came from planting on more of their fields—with- out the large headlands for turning the tractor, they could use space much more efficiently—but most of it came from higher production within existing beds.

“We discovered the importance of working with living soil,” Doug said.

“Tilling is a like a giant eraser. It is all the natural disasters at once.”

“Tilling is a like a giant eraser,” he said, in that it can make problems, like overgrown beds of weeds, quickly disappear. But it creates many more prob- lems than it solves, bringing up new weed seeds and burning up organic matter—by some estimates, 2% of soil organic matter per tillage event. “It’s all the natural disasters for soil at once.”

Tilling “is all the natural disasters at once.”

“No till aligns with our farm goals—to grow healthy food for our community, and to expose our volunteers to what growing healthy food looks like. We show them that anyone can go home, without expensive tools, and grow in the back yard. You can make a difference in growing your own food.”

All of Gaining Ground’s production is donated to meal programs and food pantries around eastern Massachusetts. Most seasons, they put over 2500 volunteers of all ages and abilities to work composting, harvesting, and weeding their three acres of fields and hoop houses. “With COVID, that couldn’t happen,” Doug noted, so instead they hired three additional full-time farm staff, for a total of seven workers. “We didn’t skip a beat. Because we were in year five, we had our systems worked out and our soil functioning at a high level.”

Key features of the Gaining Ground no-till approach:

• Address soil structure, primarily through compost addition. They have added one to three inches to each bed every year, though the need is decreasing yearly.
• Disturb the soil as little as possible. They use a broadfork, but the tool “makes itself obsolete,” Doug said. “The more you use it, the less you need to,” and it is now used primarily before deep-rooted crops like carrots. “The soil performs as if it was tilled—it is light and airy, and holds water.”
• Use amendments to correct mineral imbalances, and fertilize to provide plants with proper nutrition through the season. Gaining Ground has benefited from adding potassium, manganese and sulfur, based on soil testing.
• Develop weed control strategies. “These are as important as your crop plan,” Doug said. Avoid just reacting to weed problems. Plan ahead. That includes tight succession planting, with one to seven days between harvest and replanting.
• “No bare soil, ever,” to keep weeds away and to keep life in the soil fed and healthy. For this, “cash crops are just as good as cover crops,” Doug noted.

Doug has moved on to start his own farm, in Craftsbury, Vermont. Breadseed Farm will begin with a half-acre of no-till vegetables.

Continuous improvements from no-till on Woven Roots Farm

Jen Salanetti and her partner have been farming Woven Roots Farm in Tyringham, Mass., for the past 15 years. They cultivate one and one-third acres, and have grown their CSA to 200 shares. Over the past five years, they have transitioned to no-till, “hand-scale” farming, while increasing their soil organic matter from its original 2% to close to 10%.

The difference in the soil has been striking, she said. Rainfall once collected in the aisles of her fields, unable to percolate in. Recently, a day-long downpour brought six inches of rain to her farm in less than 24 hours, two inches alone during a lunchbreak. “We went out after lunch and saw no water pooling in the fields at all—it had all been absorbed,” she said. By the same token, they use irrigation only at transplant time to help the seedlings get established. The prodigious water-holding capacity of the soil provides what they need after that.

“We are seeing continuing improvements as we continue with no-till,” Jen said, improvements that have made expanding their production possible. “We charge more than any farm in our area for wholesale, and we have customers who will pay it, because the shrinkage and loss is less, and they know it. People want to buy our food, because it is beautiful and long-lasting.”

Fundamental no-till principles for the farm include disturbing the soil as little as possible, and keeping the soil covered as much as possible. That means having new crops ready to transplant as soon as the old one is harvested, with only a few days’ turn- around between. “The more intensively we grow, the less weeding we need to do, and we also aren’t disturbing the soil and bringing up seed.”

Woven Roots encourages biodiversity on the farm, both on the field scale and the bed scale. Their rotation is based on plant families, with at least 4 cycles before the same family returns to the same bed. “We are also creating habitat for pollinators, and spaces for native animals. We are attracting more native wildlife to the farm.” Jen has also seen a reduction in pest and disease pressure over time, although flea beetles persist.

Check it out – Jen Salenetti will be leading a workshop at the NOFA Summer Conference this July! nofasummerconference.org

Draft animals power Alprilla Farm’s no-till approach

Noah and Sophie Courser-Kellerman grow hay, grains, and beef, along with four acres of winter- storage vegetables for the winter CSA, on Alprilla Farm in Essex, Mass.

“Our soil health has been a priority from the start,” Noah said. “That led us to draft power. A lot of the work I was doing with tractor was to undo the damage I was doing with the tractor, and that seemed pretty dumb.”

They still use a tractor, including for managing cover crops in their no-till vegetable fields. “We use biology to increase fertility rather than compost.” They practice a three-year rotation, with two years in vegetables followed by one in grain.

Time spent on cover crops in fall and winter saves a lot of time in summer Winter rye and Austrian winter pea is their go-to combination, planted by the third week of September. The peas fix nitrogen before dying off, which the rye can scavenge for its growth through the winter. The rye is rolled and crimped with a crimper Noah made in college. It is mounted on the front of the tractor, to allow the bucket hydraulics to in- crease down pressure for more effective crimping. Squash can be planted directly into the dead rye. Winter barley follows the squash.

“We put a lot of effort into establishing the cover crop, and spreading seaweed in the winter,” Noah said, “and that leads to needing a lot less time for summer maintenance. We do essentially nothing for our squashes from the middle June to harvest, except remove row cover. The same is true for our onions—except from a few sprays and a minimal amount of hand-weeding, we do almost nothing. With our no-till system, we front-load the work, which really spreads it out over the year.”

Resources and Links

  • Gaining Ground gainingground.org/
  • Breadseed Farm breadseedfarm.com/
  • Woven Roots Farm wovenrootsfarm.com/
  • Alprilla Farm alprillafarm.com/