No-till in Practice: Four Years’ Experience at Lovin’ Mama Farm

Photo provided by Lovin’ Mama.

When Corinne Hansch and her family were ready to start a new farm in upstate New York, they were also ready to try a new approach to farming. They arrived with five years of tillage farming under their belts, on four acres in Mendocino County, in California, but they had learned the hard way that that approach came with a major trade-off. “It was kind of a miracle, to be able to go out with the tiller and prepare an entire acre for planting,” Corinne says, no small benefit with three young children to care for. But the weed pressure kept getting worse and worse, and in our final year there, we lost many rounds of carrots, baby lettuce, and beets, because we couldn’t keep up with the weeds.”

So as they planned their new two-acre, intensive vegetable and cut-flower farm in Amsterdam, about 40 miles northwest of Albany, they resolved to try another way. “There was so little information on no-till farming five years ago,” she says, but she and her husband, Matthew, had seen online videos by Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser from Singing Frogs Farm, and met them at the NOFA/Mass winter conference in 2017. After that, “we decided to go for it.”

The system they decided on involves laying a thick layer of compost on growing beds to build soil life and bury weed seeds, and mulching paths with rye straw. “In the first year, we didn’t lay the compost on thick enough,” Corinne notes ruefully. “It was horrible—horrible weeds, horrible plant growth.”

They quickly increased the thickness of the compost layer, and added some organic fertilizer as well. “Suddenly we had a formula that was working wonders, and every year we are amazed at how great our crops are. We are constantly exclaiming, ‘We’ve never grown onions like these before!’”

Not tilling also reduced their need for irrigation. “Soil aggregates soak up insane amounts of water, so that it’s really only in the first few weeks that we need to irrigate to get the crop up and going. Once they send their roots down to the native soil layer, they seem to do really well.”

They mix their compost half and half with peat moss, ordered by the truckload from a company in Maine. The compost is made by the county where they live, “and is very woody and low in nutrition, but it is good for the fungal community, and is pretty affordable.” The underlying soil is quite clayish, and it benefits from the large input of organic matter.

The peat and compost are mixed with a skid steer. They also have a Kubota, which straddles their growing beds and makes easy work of spreading the mix by the bucketload. “We avoid wheelbarrow- ing at all costs!” Corinne says. New beds get four to six inches of the mix, older beds somewhat less; new compost is added at each replanting for most crops on most beds, but for beds that have been in production the longest, a once-a-year application is adequate. They also add some poultry compost from Kreher’s, which provides nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and calcium.

In the paths, they lay down a thick layer of May-cut rye straw, “the most beautiful straw I’ve ever seen, cut by an old farmer near here,” Corinne exclaims. They also use the straw to mulch the garlic patch, “where there is not a single weed. This is a miracle to me, compared to tillage farming.”

All that organic material can be expensive, Corinne notes. In 2019, they had gross sales of $200,000, and spent about $15,000 on the peat/compost. “Some people might consider that expense really high, but I think it’s great. In the early years of building our farm, we have been spending every last dollar we can on our soil, and it has come back to us tenfold. It’s our investment. It can be terrifying at first, but when you see the result—when you see no weeds, and the labor savings and the yield increase, all of a sudden you see it is so worth it—every penny.”

A key advantage of converting to no-till is that, with less need to get a tractor through the field, there is less waiting for fields to dry in the spring before planting. And if you aren’t turning under a crop and waiting for it to decompose before replanting, beds can be replanted as soon as the first crop is done. “We can tear the old crop out and put the new one in the same day, and that really helps with production.” Roots from the old crop are left in the soil to feed the soil microbes.

There are some trade-offs, Corinne notes. When crops like brassicas are done, the large and woo roots interfere with a precision seeding system. Their Jang seeder and paperpot transplanter also get tangled up in any straw used on the bed as mulch. In response, they have devoted different sections of the farm to different types of rotations. Precision-seeded crops like salad greens are seeded after carrots or beets, for instance, which leave no root behind after harvest. “When the entire plant comes out, you are left with a clean bed, and it is very easy to flip!”

One question that every no-till, high-compost farm must eventually face is, “How much is too much?” When does the increase in organic matter stop increasing plant health and farm success? Lovin’ Mama isn’t there yet, Corinne says, but they have been making some adjustments as their soils im- prove. At Singing Frogs, the Kaisers found dimin- ishing returns on their own farm above about 12%, although they also recognize that on other farms higher might be even better.

Corinne hasn’t measured the organic content of their soil, preferring to rely on observation to determine management changes. “We are being intuitive about it, watching the weed pressure, and how the plants are doing. In our oldest beds, we are laying down compost only once or twice a year.”

The system on Lovin’ Mama Farm does require a lot of labor, “but that can be good, as long as the labor is efficient, and we are doing profitable jobs with the labor. Our labor is mostly spent on building beds, planting and harvesting. And we are providing jobs for community members. When people say, ‘But your system is so labor intensive,’ I say, ‘Yes, and that’s great!’”

Resources & Links

Lovin’ Mama Farm: lovinmamafarm.com

Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser keynote speech, 2017
NOFA/Mass winter conference

The Ecologist, “The Truth About Peat Moss” theecologist.org/2013/jan/25/truth-about-peat- moss

Richard Robinson practices no-till farming at Hopestill Farm in Sherborn, Massachusetts. You can reach him at farm@hopestill.com