Tilling Best Left to Mother Nature

Published: May 8, 2017 

Whether talking to farmers in France, Ghana or southern Ohio, Rafiq Islam’s message is consistent: Tilling the land does more long-term damage than good.

As an Ohio State University soil scientist, Islam is among the disciples in the movement to convince farmers that plowing their fields before they plant or after they harvest harms the health of the soil and its ability to spur growth and resist erosion.

Soil plowed repeatedly can lose key ingredients that enrich it, including carbon, which can evaporate as carbon dioxide gas into the air.

Left undisturbed, soil can maintain that carbon, and the dry decaying stalks in an untilled field add to the organic materials in the dirt.

After crops such as soybeans or corn are picked, a farmer can plant a cover crop in a field instead of plowing it. The cover crop keeps the soil porous and contributes carbon to it, Islam said.

Land left bare is more susceptible to erosion and cannot absorb water from rain or snow as efficiently as when cover crops are planted on it.

Earlier this spring, Islam was part of a team of soil specialists who traveled to France to present four workshops on climate change, soil health, cover crops and no-till farming, sponsored by two farm organizations in France.

More workshops are planned for the summer in Ukraine and China, in the fall in Uzbekistan, and in the winter in Ghana.

In most parts of the world, the majority of farmers regularly plow. So it’s not easy to convince longtime conventional farmers or even younger farmers not to plow their land, said Islam, who is the soil, water and bioenergy program leader at Ohio State’s South Centers in Piketon.

“You try to open their eyes by showing them the actual field results and demonstrating the user-friendly field tests and tools,” Islam said. “It’s tough. Farmers are businessmen. Some don’t want to take risks.”

To many, tilling makes sense. Running a disk or plow through the land breaks up the soil and helps mix in fertilizer to ready the field for new seeds.

But, Islam and other proponents of no-till and cover crop farming said, plowing the land can kill some of the crucial beneficial microorganisms in the soil.

Even on fields crowded with the dry remains of last season’s crop, new seeds can be sown using drill attachments to planters. And the root system of cover crops helps break up the soil to make room for the roots of newly planted seeds.


No-till at Woven Roots Farm: An Interview With Co-owner Jen Salinetti

Author: Julie Rawson| Published: April 2017 

Jen Salinetti farms with her husband Pete in Tyringham, MA in the Berkshires. They have been farming for 16 years together, the four years spent on their almost 5-acre farm. In recent years they have not been using tillage to grow their vegetables. Jen feels that by not disturbing the soil they have a considerable positive impact on carbon sequestration on their land. They have experienced a significant increase in quality and yields which has enabled them to create a viable business on a small amount of land.

“Pete and I started experimenting with no-till 13 years ago, and we are now going into year 11. Our initial experimenting began when we were looking to increase greenhouse production. We started looking into ways to do prep without the tiller. We saw some really great results after the first season. And then we expanded it out to our market garden. Through the process, we were able to set up permanent beds and maximize our earnings and outputs through proper spacing of plants. It was right around when our son Diego was born. We wanted to commit to farming, to be available for family life and to be home.”

They read of French bio-intensive methods in books. Pete took off with that and Jen has supported him on some level. In the early 2000s they took an intensive with Eliot Coleman at a NOFA Summer Conference. Jen remembers being in that workshop and Pete looking at her and giving her an “I told you so” look. Jen thought this system was nice for a backyard gardener, but was unsure of the scalability for market growing for profit.

Some authors whose works were important in their conversion to no-till and soil buiding were Lee Reich, author of The Weed Free Gardener, and Grace Gershuny’s The Soul of Soil. Jerry Brunetti’s book Farm as Ecosystemwas also valuable. Now they feel that they are living proof that no till can be accomplished on scale. Jen remembered Eliot’s class giving her a whir of emotions. “There is someone who is doing this, has success, hard numbers, and success further north than us. It came at a critical time. We were having our second child. We were committing to being home and to being a family unit and to being in a position to provide high quality food to our community,” said Jen.

Every year they make some adjustments to their system. They push their season extension, have more constant soil coverage and provide more mulching. They find it fun to have this foundation and be able to build off of it, grow their business and teach others about their findings.

Jen states: “I would actually encourage somebody to not do it all at once. I think for two reasons – it could be incredibly overwhelming and a huge risk. I can say with complete confidence that we have better yield and quality, but it would have been too much of a risk all at once. Transitioning over a couple of years helped us to be able to see that one field over there was doing better than the other – carrots, for example were not growing as well over there as here. The longer transition helped to solidify it in front of our eyes and in our mouths. Within the first year we were able to bear witness to the overall positive changes we were making. By the end of year two, it was a significant shift for us.”

Though it was hard for Jen to embrace no-till farming at first, she did have some amazing mentors – she interned with Deb Habib and Ricky Baruc of Seeds of Solidarity Farm. She was their first intern. She saw that they were a number of years ahead of them and having success with what they were doing. After she left college and apprenticed on a farm that was not operating in that way, she was able to see on so many different levels that no-till made sense. Nonetheless, it was harder for her to take any really big steps. Pete is always willing to push the envelope further than she is through new applications and trials. “We had a few books on hand and some good inspiration. The Soul of Soil was a huge one for us. It gave us a clear perspective of our soil as a living environment. Having a better understanding of soil building was the foundation of that book. It helped us to see how comprehensive the system could be. I could see that we were not growing plants anymore. More so, we are here to support an ecosystem.”

Jen suggests that folks start by defining the bed spaces within their garden with permanent walking spaces and beds. Commit to having the bed spaces as weed free as possible. Their beds are very systematic – 30” wide with 12” pathways and beds 50’ long. With that system, they can set up their quick hoops easily and always use the same materials. It also makes it easier to calculate yields when there is uniformity.

Organic matter is a really important component. Having a good source of compost and being generous with it is essential for them. When they first started, they just put the compost in the planting hole. Now they do the whole bed. It is a hard thing to swallow at first, but the layering of compost mimics what the earth naturally does on its own. Observing what surrounds them and putting it into practice in the field continues to help their production thrive.


How a Climate-friendly Flour Company Built a Flourishing Market

Author:  | Published: February 20, 2017 

Shepherd’s Grain sells not only high-quality flour made from wheat grown with no-till practices, it also sells the story of no-till, a farming method that eliminates the significant climate-warming carbon releases caused by plowing.

Based in Portland, Oregon, the company sources wheat directly from family farmers around the interior Pacific Northwest and other regions who practice no-till. Washington farmers Fred Fleming and Karl Kupers founded Shepherd’s Grain in 2002 as a way to keep more wealth on the farm by cutting out the middleman. Since then, it’s grown into a $6 million annual business, and most of its growers have an ownership stake.

The company sells its flours directly to hundreds of bakeries, restaurants, and markets in the region, from the big metro areas of Portland and Seattle to smaller cities like Boise, Idaho. National brands such as Krusteaz and Smuckers use the company’s flour, too.

“We are looking for customers who understand the true value of the product, that they can then sell to their customers,” explains Fleming. A key value proposition is that Shepherd’s Grain is helping to save family farms. “Dollars are going back to care for the land,” Fleming says. “If we don’t bring wealth back to the land, we can’t take care of it.”

Making direct connections with customers helps the company produce better flour because the bakers and restaurateurs provide vital feedback on product quality and variety. “On a quality basis, we surpass anything on the market,” says the company’s general manager, Mike Moran, who used to be the chief baker for Grand Central Baking Company in Seattle and Portland. “Part of what gives us the quality is those relationships. The farmer grows with a different level of care because, ‘I know who the crop is going to.’”


Some Plants Use an Internal Thermometer to Trigger Growing Season

Author: Dr. Joseph Mercola 

Although they may look like bystanders in your garden, plants are actually active communicators and engage in a complex relationship with their environment. They don’t just soak up the sun each day.

More than just providing food, plants have played an important part in human history. Before modern-day medicine, there were plants that provided for medicinal needs. Ancient Egyptian scrolls detail 700 herbs and how they were used to treat patients.1

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of the world’s population primarily uses traditional remedies, a major part of which is derived from plants.2

They also play a significant role in the development of the majority of new medications, as manufacturers are using plants to model their synthetic drugs.3

Plants have a unique interconnectedness between each other, soil, microbes, pests and human health. Some of the newest research has now detected how plants know exactly when to increase their growth patterns in preparation for spring and summer.

Initially, scientists believed that plants only used phytochromes to detect light during the daylight hours. Phytochromes are a photoreceptor pigment used mainly to detect the red and far-red visible light spectrum.5 In the plant, it was mainly believed to be responsible for germination, shade avoidance and light detection.

Exposure to red light produces a chemical reaction that moves chromprotein to a functional active form, while darkness makes it inactive.6 The plant will grow toward the sun as the red light converts the chromprotein to an active form that triggers an increased growth in the plant cells.


Land Stewardship Project: Goals, Realities & Soil Health

Author: Brian DeVore | Published: August 8, 2016

It’s been said that soil without biology is just geology—an accumulation of lifeless minerals unable to spawn healthy plant growth. And as intense monocropping production practices increasingly remove more life from the ground than they return, it sends that soil closer to fossilization via what conservationist Barry Fisher calls, “the spiral of degradation”: eroded, compacted and, eventually, dead.

But if a pair of Land Stewardship Project meetings held in southeastern Minnesota recently are any indication, a number of farmers don’t see such a downward plunge as written in stone. Fisher and other soil health experts at these meetings strongly encouraged the standing-room only crowds to return as much biology as possible to the ground beneath our feet. And in most cases, that means making it so living roots are present 365-days-a-year.

“So when in doubt, you plant,” said Fisher, who heads up the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Soil Health Division for the central part of the U.S. Until recently, he headed up a soil health partnershipin Indiana that has made that state the leader in cover crop establishment.

Indeed, through presentations, panel discussions and networking, farmers participating in the southeastern Minnesota meetings focused on a key soil health improvement strategy that is based on Fisher’s advice: cover crops. During the past five years, there’s been a lot of excitement generated around the growing of these non-cash crops on corn and soybean fields before and after the regular growing season. These crops, which are often small grains such as cereal rye or brassicas such as tillage radish, have proven to be very effective at not only building soil health, but also keeping it from washing and blowing away in the first place. In fact, erosion control is the number one reason farmers begin experimenting with cover crops, according to Sarah Carlson, Midwest Cover Crops Coordinator for Practical Farmers of Iowa.


One Way to Get Big Agriculture to Clean up Its Act

Author: Tamar Haspel

This month, I set out to discover whether what we think of as “Big Ag” is cleaning up its act.

What’s to clean up? There’s widespread agreement that, as industrial agriculture has intensified over the past 75 years, concentrating on relatively few crops and dramatically increasing yields, it has also polluted waterways and degraded soil. But we’ve also seen increased focus on such practices as no-till farming and cover cropping, which mitigate or even reverse that damage. How widespread are those practices? Are they having an impact?

I found out. I wrote a column about it. It was boring.

So I scrapped that draft, and I decided to write a different column. Because what’s interesting about these conservation practices is that they raise the possibility of constructive change in one of the most contentious issues in agriculture: government subsidies.

First, though, you should know that, yes, Big Ag is at least beginning to clean up, but adoption of conservation practices still has a long way to go. No-till (growing crops without plowing up the soil) is used on about 38 percent of the acreage of America’s four biggest crops but doesn’t seem to be increasing. (Corn is holding steady; soy has ticked down.) Fertilizer use remains stubbornly high. Cover cropping (growing crops over the winter or at fallow times so the soil isn’t bare) inspires enthusiasm and wins converts — it’s the Bernie Sanders of conservation practices — but as of 2012, the first year the USDA tracked it, it was used on less than 5 percent of crop acreage.

Not all practices are appropriate for all farms, of course, and many of the practices being implemented are too new to be reflected in USDA data. But I found general agreement that farmers are increasingly focused on these issues and that conservation, particularly in the face of climate change, is important to them.

There. Aren’t you glad I spared you the 1,200 words?

Let’s talk, instead, about money. If conservation practices are to be implemented more broadly, somebody has to pay.


What kind of chicken and eggs do you recommend?

Author: Amanda Blakenship

There is a belief among many people that we need conventional agriculture to feed the planet. I disagree completely. Corporate seed and chemical companies want us to believe in conventional agriculture so they can continue to profit off of hard working farmers. These unsustainable practices are harming people and the planet. My husband and I decided to put our background to good use by showing everyone that we can produce healthy foods using safe and sustainable agricultural practices. We are safely producing grains, hays, beef, chicken, turkey, duck, eggs, and lamb. We are benefiting the soils, animals, people and planet with our hands on management. By growing, harvesting, and milling our own feed we will be able to keep raising pastured soy and corn free poultry. In coming years we plan to add on-farm hatching and processing to further our independence. With customer support we will continue to expand our impact and help change the food system.

Utilizing holistic management and regenerative agriculture, our goal is to constantly improve the health of the soils as well as the diversity and abundance of life within those soils. The health of our soils, pastures, animals, and people are all interdependent. Our practices use far less fossil fuel than traditional agriculture and still produce at least an equal amount of food. Our regenerative agriculture practices include the use of no-till seeding, cover cropping, holistic planned multi-species animal grazing, pasture cropping, and composting. Our beloved animals help us sequester carbon and naturally fertilize our soils. Our soils also benefit from a healthy population of worms, bugs, fungi and other microorganisms that drive carbon sequestration. We never use any vaccines or antibiotics.


Investing In Soil Health Pays

Author: Bill Spiegel 

Let’s begin with a pop quiz.

Two similar fields are on either side of a rural road in Any County, USA. One field has been conventionally farmed for years, with two fall-tillage passes, followed by one in the spring prior to planting. The other field has been no-tilled for two decades. The farmer began planting diverse blends of cover crops four years ago and recently began grazing cattle on those cover crops. Which field will produce more grain?

The answer is, it depends. With normal rainfall and without adverse weather conditions, the odds are good that both fields will yield similarly.

In a year of weather extremes – too little or too much rain, high temperatures or low – odds are good that the no-till and cover-cropped field will produce more consistent yields.

The reason is resiliency. After all, that’s what soil health is all about.

The Trend

Farm trends come and go, but perhaps nothing has gathered momentum like the subject of soil health. The United Nations General Assembly even declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. Unlike most trends, though, soil health has staying power. That’s because farmers and landowners find that adopting sound soil health practices boosts soil biology and increases soil organic matter. This, in turn, improves the soil’s ability to consistently produce a crop regardless of weather extremes.

Mother Nature has built soil communities over thousands of years. Soil teems with life. A handful of soil contains more living creatures than the world has people.


Soil Health: It’s All About the Carbon

Author: Mark Watson

Adding carbon to the soil is critical to restoring health to the soil by increasing the organic matter content.

Producers in today’s modern agricultural systems are working with soils that contain far less carbon than our soils originally contained prior to the implementation of modern agriculture. All of our soils are now degraded.

The good news is we now know how we can regenerate our soils and put the carbon back in the soil. This is a very simple process, but at the same time, also very difficult.

Finding Stability

So why is carbon so important? It’s the building block for soil health. As you increase the carbon content, you begin to improve the aggregate stability. These aggregates are formed by excretions from the soil microbes, which begin to stabilize the soil particles into larger aggregates. This provides the home for all the soil microbes living in these aggregates.

A healthy soil provides a healthy environment for these soil microbes. The microbes will provide the nutrient cycling of soil organic matter making nutrients available for the plants growing in the soil.

These aggregates also provide the pore space necessary to infiltrate and store water in the soil. In our semi-arid environment on the Plains, the ability to infiltrate and store water is critical to crop production.

Stable aggregates that can infiltrate and store additional water can also lower our irrigation pumping requirements by improving soil water efficiency. Lowering our groundwater consumption is critical to stabilizing the currently rapid decline of our groundwater resource.


Pasture Cropping: A Regenerative Solution From Down Under

Author: Courtney White

Since the late 1990s, Australian farmer Colin Seis has been successfully planting a cereal crop into perennial pasture on his sheep farm during the dormant period using no-till drilling, a method that uses a drill to sow seeds instead of the traditional plow. He calls it pasture cropping and he gains two crops this way from one parcel of land – a cereal crop for food or forage and wool or lamb meat from his pastures – which means its potential for feeding the world in a sustainable manner is significant.

As Seis tells the story, the idea for pasture cropping came to him and a friend from the bottom of a beer bottle. Ten of them, in fact.

It was 1993. Seis, a sheep farmer in western New South Wales, and his friend Daryl Cluff, also a farmer, were drinking beer one night, contemplating paradigms. Why, they asked, were crops and pastures farmed separately? Their answer: tradition. They had been taught that pasture and crop systems operated by different ecological processes and were thus incompatible. Crops needed tilling and pastures needed animals. The systems could be alternated over the years, but never integrated. Right? Or wrong? They decided to have more beer.

Seis raised the question because he had been watching the native grasses on his farm and began to wonder if nature didn’t intend for annuals and perennials to co-exist. Nature certainly wanted weeds in his pasture – so why not a different type of annual instead, such as oats? He knew why: weeds liked to run a 100-yard dash while perennial grasses like to a run a marathon. Two different races, two different types of athletes. Right? Or wrong? They needed another round of beer.

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