No till farming article

I’m not sure if this link will work but information about agriculture is always useful to the fruit grower, even when it isn’t about fruit.

One factoid I found interesting was how much extra water becomes available to plants with a 1% increase in organic matter. That could be a good thing or a bad thing with fruit trees.

OK I’ll just paste the article.

n the Plow for More Productive Soil

Cattle graze on farmland owned by Terry McAlister, near Electra, Tex. Mr. McAlister converted to no-till farming for its apparent economic benefits. Credit Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

FORT WORTH — Gabe Brown is in such demand as a speaker that for every invitation he accepts, he turns down 10 more. At conferences, like the one held here at a Best Western hotel recently, people line up to seek his advice.

“The greatest roadblock to solving a problem is the human mind,” he tells audiences.

Mr. Brown, a balding North Dakota farmer who favors baseball caps and red-striped polo shirts, is not talking about disruptive technology start-ups, political causes, or the latest self-help fad.

He is talking about farming, specifically soil-conservation farming, a movement that promotes leaving fields untilled, “green manures” and other soil-enhancing methods with an almost evangelistic fervor.

Such farming methods, which mimic the biology of virgin land, can revive degenerated earth, minimize erosion, encourage plant growth and increase farmers’ profits, their proponents say. And by using them, Mr. Brown told more than 250 farmers and ranchers who gathered at the hotel for the first Southern Soil Health Conference, he has produced crops that thrive on his 5,000-acre farm outside of Bismarck, N.D., even during droughts or flooding.


“My goal is to improve my soil so I can grow a better crop so I can make more money,” said Mr. McAlister, who farms 6,000 acres of drought-stricken cropland. Credit Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times
He no longer needs to use nitrogen fertilizer or fungicide, he said, and he produces yields that are above the county average with less labor and lower costs. “Nature can heal if we give her the chance,” Mr. Brown said.

Neatly tilled fields have long been a hallmark of American agriculture and its farmers, by and large traditionalists who often distrust practices that diverge from time-honored methods.

But soil-conservation farming is gaining converts as growers increasingly face extreme weather, high production costs, a shortage of labor and the threat of government regulation of agricultural pollution.

Farmers like Mr. Brown travel the country telling their stories, and organizations like No-Till on the Plains — a Kansas-based nonprofit devoted to educating growers about “agricultural production systems that model nature” — attract thousands.

“It’s a massive paradigm shift,” said Ray Archuleta, an agronomist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the federal Agriculture Department, which endorses the soil-conservation approach.

Government surveys suggest that the use of no-tillage farming has grown sharply over the last decade, accounting for about 35 percent of cropland in the United States.

For some crops, no-tillage acreage has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. For soybeans, for example, it rose to 30 million acres in 2012 from 16.5 million acres in 1996. The planting of cover crops — legumes and other species that are rotated with cash crops to blanket the soil year-round and act as green manure — has also risen in acreage about 30 percent a year, according to surveys, though the total remains small.

Farmers till the land to ready it for sowing and to churn weeds and crop residue back into the earth. Tilling also helps mix in fertilizers and manure and loosens the top layer of the soil.

But repeated plowing exacts a price. It degrades soil, killing off its biology, including beneficial fungi and earthworms, and leaving it, as Mr. Archuleta puts it, “naked, thirsty, hungry and running a fever.”

Degraded soil requires heavy applications of synthetic fertilizer to produce high yields. And because its structure has broken down, the soil washes away easily in heavy rain, taking nitrogen and other pollutants with it into rivers and streams.

Soil health proponents say that by leaving fields unplowed and using cover crops, which act as sinks for nitrogen and other nutrients, growers can increase the amount of organic matter in their soil, making it better able to absorb and retain water.


Mr. McAlister uses cover crops, like this white turnip, to preserve water and prevent erosion on his farm. Credit Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times
“Each 1 percent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre,” said Claire O’Connor, a staff lawyer and agriculture specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In turn, more absorbent soil is less vulnerable to runoff and more resistant to droughts and floods. Cover crops also help suppress weeds. Environmental groups like the Defense Council have long been fans of soil-conservation techniques because they help protect waterways and increase the ability of soil to store carbon dioxide, rather than releasing it into the air, where it contributes to climate change.

One recent study led by the Environmental Defense Fund suggested that the widespread use of cover crops and other soil-health practices could reduce nitrogen pollution in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River basins by 30 percent, helping to shrink the giant “dead zone” of oxygen-depleted water in the Gulf of Mexico. The Defense Council, Ms. O’Connor said, has proposed that the government offer a “good driver” discount on federal crop insurance for growers who incorporate the practices.

But the movement also has critics, who argue that no-tillage and other methods are impractical and too expensive for many growers. A farmer who wants to shift to no-tillage, for example, must purchase new equipment, like a no-till seeder.

Tony J. Vyn, a professor of agronomy at Purdue, said the reasons growers cite for preferring to fully till their fields vary depending on geography, the types of crops they grow and the conditions of their soil. But they include the perception that weed control is harder using no-tillage; that the method, which reduces water evaporation, places limits on how early in the year crops can be planted; and that the residue left by no-tilling is too difficult to deal with, especially when corn is the primary cash crop.

Even farmers who enthusiastically adopt no-till and other soil-conservation methods rarely do so for environmental reasons; their motivation is more pragmatic.

“My goal is to improve my soil so I can grow a better crop so I can make more money,” said Terry McAlister, who farms 6,000 acres of drought-stricken cropland in North Texas. “If I can help the environment in the process, fine, but that’s not my goal.”

For years, Mr. McAlister plowed his fields, working with his father, who began farming outside the town of Electra in the 1950s. But he began having doubts about the effects of constant tilling on the soil.

“We were farming cotton like the West Texas guys were, just plow, plow, plow,” he said. “And if you got a rain, it just washed it and eroded it.

“It made me sick,” he said. “You’re asking yourself, ‘Is there not a better way?’ But at the time, we didn’t know.”

Mr. McAlister said that he switched to no-tillage in 2005, when an agricultural economist calculated that the method offered a $15-per-acre advantage over full tilling.


Mr. McAlister with bags of seed he will be planting on his farm. Credit Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times
Now he is a convert. Standing in a field of winter wheat, he pointed proudly at the thick blanket of stubble sprinkled with decaying radishes and turnips.

“One of the toughest things about learning to do no-till is having to unlearn all the things that you thought were true,” he said.

Mr. McAlister grows cotton, wheat, hay, grain sorghum and some canola as cash crops, using a GPS-guided no-till seeder that drills through residue, allowing him to plant precisely and effectively.

He credits no-tillage for one of his biggest wheat crops, in 2012, when extreme drought left farmers throughout the region struggling to salvage any harvest. His healthier soil, he believes, made better use of the tiny amount of rain that fell than did the fully tilled fields of other farmers.

But few growers go as far as Mr. Brown in North Dakota, who produces grass-fed beef and has given up most agricultural chemicals. Mr. McAlister, for example, still uses nitrogen fertilizer. He plants seeds that are genetically modified for drought or herbicide resistance. And he depends on herbicides like Roundup to kill off his cover crops before sowing the crops he grows for cash.

The philanthropist Howard G. Buffett, a proponent of soil-conservation practices, said that the drought and flooding that have plagued much of the country in recent years have drawn more farmers to no-till.

“When you get into a drought, that gets everybody’s attention,” said Mr. Buffett, the middle son of Warren E. Buffett, the billionaire investor. “Farmers don’t really change their behavior until they see that they have to, which is pretty much human nature.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay under the Clean Water Act in 2010, Mr. Buffett said, should also be “a wake-up call that the E.P.A. is coming soon” and if farmers do not address fertilizer runoff, the government will do it for them.

Still, he said, reaping the benefits of no-tillage farming demands patience, given that it may take several years for deadened soil to recover. Some farmers try no-tilling for one season and then get discouraged. And there is no one-size-fits-all solution: Farmers must adapt what they have learned to their own land and crops.

Mr. McAlister and other no-till farmers said that perhaps the biggest barrier to the spread of no-till is the mind-set that farmers must do things the same way as earlier generations did them.

“We have a saying in our area: ‘You can’t no-till because you haven’t buried your father yet,’” Mr. McAlister said.

“You can’t take on an endeavor like this with someone leaning over your shoulder every day telling you you’re wrong and it’s not going to work,” he said.

Great article! We would love to grow our summer sweet corn no till but im not aware of any small seeders that can deal with the untilled ground. We grow tilage radish (which has never been used in Arizona but worked really well), cut it down about 5 weeks ago, it started to regrow so we burned it down with a quick spray of round up. All those foot long radishes in the ground rotting and the green material composting on top are really changing the texture of the soil. It would had been slick as hell to just run a no till seeder out in this stubble and grow the sweet corn right thru it. But instead its plow and disk and otherwise prepare the seedbed so that our seeder can handle it. Love the promise of no till, wish it scaled down to what we do.

The tilage radish as a winter cover crop turned out really interesting. The big tops that we cut down 5 weeks rotted down really well. What was a surprise was that we had smaller radishes that were shaded underneath that took off after we cut the larger ones down. Normally in the midwest these things winter kill so they dont have these issues. I finally sprayed the field 10 days ago but even tho the tops died the roots are still whole underneath the soil. As I plow this is what I see everywhere. lol

Overall ive been very pleased with the radishes as a cover crop. In the past we have grwn cereal rye, frostmaster peas, clover, and vetch. The radishes are far better IMO. Sorry I know this has nothing to do with no till, just cool stuff thats going on around here.

1 Like

Problems like erosion and run-off may be reduced relative to conventional methods of growing the same crops at the same scale, but as Eric A. and the article both note, these aren’t scale-neutral growing methods. With regards to erosion and run-off, I would much rather see land farmed like Eric A. than today’s standard corn-soybean no-till model.

There’s about a thousand acres of no-till cropland next to me (which is just one of the farmer’s farms – I’d guess all of my neighbor’s farms in this area total closer to ten thousand acres) which just replaced permanent pasture about five years ago. It’s rolling land that develops little gullies across it every year (and probably sheet erosion too and causes faster run-off which also causes erosion problems downstream.) In this case, we’ve traded beef production from permanent pasture with extremely low erosion and run-off isues (and extremely little pesticide use) for primarily ethanol production with much greater erosion and run-off (causing both pollution and further erosion issues downstream.) These are there kind of real world trade-offs involved when you get past the absurdly reductionist one for one comparisons (and that’s only just touching on all the broader issues involved.)

The author of the article also should have noted – it was clearly an article for general audiences and not technical advise for farmers – that the rise in no-till agriculture has everything to do with “round-up ready” (herbicide-resistant GMO’s) crops and expanded use of glyphosate (which to some degree has replaced other herbicides.) These are highly controversial methods in and of themselves, and I think it’s misleading to gloss over them as the article did. It’s also pretty significant that we’re now moving onto the next generation of herbicides and GMO’s – not necessarily new herbicides, but new herbicide-GMO combinations – as we’ve already unintentionally developed weeds resistant to that first generation. In other words, the no-till agriculture that accounts for almost all of the numbers in the article is already beginning to fail, even as it’s pushed further as in the article above, largely on blind faith in methods still being developed.

1 Like

We will know if the faith is blind only when our eye sight shows it’s so. We need to hold on to that topsoil, first and foremost. Once it is gone there is no getting it back.

I hate that corn is being used to make ethanol which is only to keep agribusiness pleased with our politicians.

But when push comes to shove and we can no longer grow enough food for the planet (should that happen) we will lament most of all the squandering of topsoil that is involved with grain and soy production in the midwest.


We’ve discussed this before over on GW, but when my wife and I purchased farm ground in the early 90s, we cash rented the crop ground (as the previous owner had done) but immediately switched it from tillage practices and found a farmer who had no-till equipment. Our neighbor continued to use tillage practices.

In the time that my wife and I lived there, we could see a noticeable difference in erosion between our soil and our neighbors. Our soil remained black, while our neighbor’s soil started revealing more and more clay (indicating the organic matter (carbon) was being washed away and released into the air).

One thing the article didn’t mention is that it takes a lot more fuel to till. It’s slow, takes a big tractor, and uses a lot of fuel to turn over and break up large areas of earth. It also takes a big tractor to pull large no-till planters and drills, but that just takes one pass vs. multiple passes with tillage equipment.

From what I’ve read most environmentalists also prefer no-till vs. tillage. It’s not that they are jumping up and down about no-till, rather they seem to look at it as the “lesser of the two evils”.

Practically speaking, GMO crops are not married to no-till. No-till was around before GMO resistant herbicide crops. My brother attended one of our state’s land grant universities in the early 80s, and Ag professors where then trying to get new Ag students to take no-till technology back to the farm.

No till can still be successfully used without GMO crops (I saw it in the 90s) because of the advantages of leaving a crop residue on top of the ground to protect the soil, and not plowing. Weeds are burned down (with glyphosate) before the ground is planted. Just electing to use a burn down vs. plowing and disking to prepare a seed bed, saves fuel, time, soil, and conserves moisture for the growing season.

The only reason people use GMO crops is because there is no stress on GMO herbicide resistant plants when using the matched herbicide, so there is greater yield vs. using non-GMO crops and various herbicides. Around here, there are still plenty of people who use tillage practices (i.e. plow, disk) for their row crops, but they still use GMO crops because of that advantage.

There are still a few farmers who use a field cultivator to control weeds during the growing season (a field cultivator would more or less be like running a tiller in between your garden rows to control weeds) but most use GMO crops whether they plow or not. It’s faster, costs less, and better on the soil to spray for weeds rather than use a field cultivator.

I agree it doesn’t make sense to subsidize the ethanol industry. I’m not a big fan of using food for fuel anyway, but it certainly shouldn’t be subsidized IMO. (People burned corn for heat starting in the early 1900s before farm subsidies. I believe the first auto-feeding corn stove was invented in the 1960s.) In general, I’m against most ag subsidies anyway. I will disclose I am currently receiving a small subsidy from the new farm bill, in the form of crop insurance in which part of the premium is subsidized. I chose to purchase the insurance because not to do so would give other growers in the Midwest a competitive advantage over myself. In reality though, I don’t support this program and it should not be part of the farm bill IMO. If I had a chance to vote on it myself, I would vote against it.

As I’ve stated before, no-till has little to do with converting highly erodible ground from pasture to crop land. Most farmers look at this as an economic issue. When row crop prices are high (as they were in previous years) there is a strong incentive for farmers to bust sod and plant crops anywhere and everywhere. Once that land is converted to crop ground it generally stays crop ground for as long as possible. Nevertheless, it can revert back when economics change. Now that cattle prices have sky rocketed, many cattle farmers around here are looking for more pasture for cattle. My neighbor to the south of my orchard converted his crop ground last year to hay ground for his cattle. This was good flat crop ground which was turned into hay, not even highly erodible soil.

Alan, if we don’t know what our eyesight is going to show us about the feasibility of conventionally understood no-till agriculture in the future, even the relatively near future, then in the meantime I think that’s blind faith by definition, but I think that’s just semantics. I very much agree about the precious value of topsoil. As far as how to hold onto it, I just think questions like what methods are best for reducing erosion on a 6000 acre corn mono-crop lead us astray by begging the most important questions like what the effects of scale are and whether we should be growing that corn in the first place, whether we wouldn’t be better off raising our cattle mainly on permanent pastures instead of corn and whether we wouldn’t be better off simply finding ways to do without most of that ethanol and corn syrup, maybe investing more, as one small, tangential example, in beekeeping for honey instead (with added fruit pollination benefits.)

Similar questions could be asked about soybeans, which may be even worse than corn with regards to erosion (because of the nature of the crop residue.) Here we’re talking largely about culinary oil and the high protein part of animal feed. Instead of comparing conventional tillage on the same acreage to conventional no-till, we could compare butter from cattle raised on permanent pasture or oil from perennial crops like grape seeds or walnuts or olives, etc. to soybean oil. And instead of soybean meal we could look to more ruminant meat instead of pork and poultry; we could look to raising hogs on the appropriate parts, appropriately handled of the 50% of food production in the US that’s just wasted (largely going to landfills); we could look to greater use of forages like hard mast (acorns, etc.) and greater use of those animals better suited to utilizing forage (like “weeder geese,” also as a partial replacement for tillage).

All these questions are, of course, tied to scale, but even apart from all these related issues scale itself is a major factor in erosion. Smaller fields alternating between different crops, especially intermixed with traditional “no-till” acreage of permament pasture, orchards, forest, etc. makes a huge difference in increasing rainwater absorption and slowing down the water that is on the surface, and that makes a tremendous difference in erosion regardless of how the corn crop is grown (or however the reductionist question is framed.)

For a parallel, have you ever wondered about the value of church mission trips where a group of random people with no special skills travels to Africa or Central America, etc. for a week or two? Unskilled labor surely isn’t what the communities being served really need, but the real value comes in getting the mission trip members to develop personal connections and understandings that just don’t happen otherwise, and those connections and understandings then lead to the things that really do make a difference. I think soil erosion is very similar. The best soil care will depend on people that have personal connections and understandings of the agriculture they’re financing with their food (and fiber and ethanol, etc.) dollars. We’re not going to outlaw or regulate away soil erosion, especially not without causing all the peripheral problems and perverse incentives and mild political corruption that Olpea points to. And 6000 acre GMO mono-crops are the last thing that’s going to rebuild personal connections and meaningful understanding of agriculture in our society. The agricultural illiteracy of our society is surely integral to our agricultural problems.

Olpea, I think comparisons like you make with the neighbor’s farm really miss the forest for the trees for all the kinds of reasons I’ve just discussed, but also because erosion has had very little to do with the real world increase in conventional no-till agriculture (which definition of “no-till”, let’s not forget, includes plowing up permanent pasture and clear-cutting and bulldozing forests to grow row crops for ethanol.) Conventional no-till agriculture has become a widespread practice because in our current context (including various government policies, subsidies, etc.) it’s often the cheapest way to produce major commodities. In other words, conventional commodity crop farmers don’t really have a choice, and neither do conventional commodity crop consumers. You said nearly as much yourself when you said you don’t believe in the programs you take part in but you take part anyway because it’s necessary to remain competitive in a marketplace with margins that don’t leave you enough liberty to do things the way you really think best. My point is that discussions of whether we should grow corn this way or that way miss the reality that for conventional farmers and conventional consumers the question that dominates all other questions is: what’s cheapest. (One might argue that the government can create incentives and disincentives to change the equation, but our government is also heavily beholden to the dollar, all the more in the context of our agriculturally illiterate society.) I think the only really meaningful question we face as farmers and consumers (and citizens) is whether to follow the dollar wherever it will lead us or whether to farm and eat (and become informed) independent (or at the margins) of the commodity marketplace, at which point conventional no-till is completely impractical and uneconomical (as in Eric A.'s example) regardless of the abstract arguments for or against it.

Cousin Floyd, your writing is extremely dense (compressed, not stupid) so it is too much work for me after my evening ale and a day of tough labor to respond point by point.

I must say that a reduction in scale in agriculture is blind idealism in my opinion. Food in the USA is cheap because of the scale that so vastly increases efficiency in terms of immediate cost of production and distribution.

This is not the system I would design, and I would prefer a more dependably sustainable and environmentally sound one which would include a larger percentage of my income going to the food that I don’t grow.

But it is the system that has provided me with the life style I find myself enjoying and accustomed to.

I can only say that I’ve done my bit to keep human existence a more sustainable enterprise. I have only one child.

1 Like

The example of my neighbor has nothing to do with the reason farmer’s are going to no-till, so I’m not sure why you bring that up. I said no-till does prevent erosion vs. tillage, but that’s not saying most farmers switch to no-till for that reason. I think I was pretty clear farmers, like most people, are driven by economics. The point in mentioning the neighbor’s farm was to compare the advantages of no-till vs. tillage, which was what the original article this thread was all about. You have a right to try change the discussion, but not to discount my input (via cliche’ -miss the forest for the trees) because it doesn’t fit the direction you want the discussion to go.

Regarding the comment about forest land. Net forest land in the U.S. has not been lost since the popularity of using crops for ethanol. There has even been a slight increase in forested land since 1997. According to the USDA Forest Service, in 1630, at the beginning of European settlement, forests covered 44% of the U.S. land mass. By 1907 that figure dropped to 34% and has remained fairly stable since then. In 1997, 33% of the U.S. land mass was forested. According to the most recent census data, forests account for 33.8% of the U.S. land mass. These numbers would also include forest land bull dozed for urban development, although most of the conversion was the result of agriculture. This would include all of agriculture, not just row crops. Plenty of forest land in the U.S. and South America has been clear cut and bull dozed for range cattle. Since most of the corn is grown in plains states, I think it’s reasonable to assume very little forest land has been cleared to grow ethanol.

Beyond that, my post was simply responding to one of the assumptions you made, which was not correct. Namely, that you said GMO crops are tied to no-till, which is a spurious connection IMO.

Lastly, I didn’t say I take part in “programs” I don’t believe in, but take part in a “program” (singular) I don’t believe in (i.e. crop insurance for my orchard). If you are going to restate my position, please do so accurately.

The problem with the government supplementing insurance is it creates an artificial price. The insurance companies will charge large amounts because they can. If they had to compete for your business, no third party, prices would go down, not up. This is happening in medicine too big time!
I’ll give an example. Lasik surgery is not supplemented or even covered by insurance. My wife had it done, over a decade ago. We paid $2,700.00 an eye. Today the price is $250.00, No health insurance coverage no government subsidies, just the capitalistic market. Health insurance is supplemented by the government or employers. You never really see the total cost. If no third parties were involved prices would go down as each doctor and hospital would have to compete for your business.
The government indirectly set prices as the insurance guidelines on price paid are determined by what the government will pay for a certain procedure. It’s a shame as I watch our great medical institutions slowly being destroyed due to mostly price fixing. Hospitals get paid the same if they do a good job or a bad job, No incentive to give good care or to offer competitive prices. No interference with Lasik surgeries resulted in over a 400 percent decrease in costs. Amazing how well capitalism can work.

Olpea, as to my use of plural “programs” I was making the point about such programs in general and that was why I didn’t stress the particular program in the singular; your stated reason(s) for taking part in the program you mentioned had nothing to do with the particulars of that one program and my point likewise had nothing to do particularly with the one example you mentioned but was rather that any marginal thing (with regards to profitability), whether a program or a chemical or a farming practice or whatever, even as marginal as the example you provided, is enough to trump the good sense of farmers, and that same dynamic has gotten us to our modern erosion problems. If, by one set of very narrowly defined metrics of erosion today’s farming practices look better than the 1970’s, that’s an awfully narrow and contrived argument for no-till (i.e. missing the big picture/missing the forest for the trees), and one that conventional farmers (so long as they remain conventional commodity farmers) are pretty powerless to do anything about anyway. The real “forest” includes ethanol and permanent pastures and weeder geese, etc., etc., etc.

By the way, Drew, I’m not making any argument against capitalism here; quite the contrary, I’m making an argument for independent farmers with the support of agriculturally literate consumers cooperatively deciding for themselves how best to farm and eat, etc. by expressing their “demands” (as economists use the term) in how they choose to freely interact in the marketplace.

As to the total amount of forested land, I’m not sure that’s really significant to anything I said. It’s a fact that forests are clear-cut and bulldozed in order to grow “no-till” row crops for the sake of producing ethanol as much as anything else. It’s a very significant fact in my area over the last few years (i.e. immediately following the rise of no-till GMO crops), especially by large investment groups with no other ties to the local community, but also by large scale local farmers. If land is reverting to forest in other areas, then that doesn’t lessen the reality or the impact of the bulldozers, nor does it tell us anything about the interplay of factors in erosion between crop land and forests (how water is absorbed or runs off from crop land into forests or vice versa), which depends on the scale and relative locations of those acres. I would also note that plenty of prime Midwestern grain land grows up to forest when left alone. I don’t know about Kansas and similar drier areas further west, but Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, southern Michigan, much of Iowa… areas like Missisissipi, although that’s not the Midwest, are surely significant grain production areas, too.

I’m sure (and I’m sure you won’t dispute), that the vast majority of no-till farmers grow GMO crops whereas the vast majority of organic (certified or otherwise) farmers don’t practice no-till. It’s fair to say those are the two extremes, and categorizations that are intermediate in one respect tend to be intermediate in the other as well. In other words, there’s a pretty direct correlation all across the spectrum.

I really do not know many farmers. I’m a city boy. But since I have been growing tomatoes and frequent Tomatoville, where a large number of farmers reside, most do not till. From being there, I was always under the impression most organic farmers didn’t till. None I met do.OK, maybe one or two.
Here is what one organic farmer said on tomatoville about tilling.

It’s a big subject Tom. But I will take a stab at it. First off many things do grow in healthy soil besides just plants. There are billions and billions of micro-organisms fungi, plant roots, insects, worms, nematodes, arthropods, etc… In healthy soil somewhere around 94%-99% of these are beneficial. There are 3 main ways organic matter and nutrients get to the root zone. First is leaching. As organic materials on the surface rot they release nutrients and tannins that rain will leach down to the root zone. The second is burrowing larger biology like worms and insects like dung beetles, grubs, arthropods etc. They crawl up to the surface and grab a bit of food and drag it down and eat it. Their manure is highly beneficial to the soil. The third is a chain of life that lives directly in the rhizosphere and is fed by the plants themselves in a symbiotic relationship. The roots grow down and the produce what is called exudates. Those exudates are high energy sugars and other products of photosynthesis specifically purposed for feeding the biology in the soil that create a habitat beneficial for the plant. Think of it this way. A tree puts its excess sugars into building cellulose and making a wood trunk. This basically can be seen as creating beneficial habitat above ground for the tree. Most other plants instead pump most their excess energy in a sap like substance called exudates to create beneficial habitat under the ground.
In order for those nutrients to be released, the biology in the soil must eat it. Then of course there is a whole web of life down there eating those that ate it and so on and so forth until there is very little energy left in it. That process is called mineralization. At that point it becomes stabilized humus that simply holds plant ready nutrients in a similar way as a charcoal filter pulls impurities from your drinking water. Those nutrients become available in a process called cation exchange.
Now what happens when you till? First thing is you kill a whole lot of that mostly beneficial web of life. You also add large quantities of oxygen. If you are adding organic matter, this also temporarily adds a huge influx of food for certain microorganisms. So mineralization increases, lots of stored nutrients are released, and new material is added. This has a huge temporary benefit for your crops. That’s why for thousands of years it was considered the standard procedure in agriculture.
But there are some less than ideal things that happen as well. First off is that the web of life in the soil that used to be primarily fed by exudates is killed, while the microbiology that prefers decaying matter increases. This changes the micro-organism community. Instead of 94-99% beneficial, you leave an opening for pathogens to get a foot hold. There would still be mostly beneficials, but a much higher % of pathogens (plant diseases) has a chance to get established. That big influx of oxygen also can oxidize some of the humus (releasing CO2) that would otherwise be stable for thousands of years. So even though this does release nutrients, it reduces the cation exchange capacity of the soil. So you are trading a short term benefit of quick release for a long term reduction of soil nutrient holding capacity.
A good analogy would be jars of food. You could open the jars and eat a bit then replace the lid… when empty, add a bit of food, and replace the lid and can it… That could go on for thousands of years. But you could also say it is too much trouble to keep opening and closing the jars, The whole canning process is too much work… and decide to just open and throw away the containers along with any extra food they might have contained. You’ll get easy access to the food quickly, but you’ll soon run out of jars, and will need to replace them.
So tilling does work. But it locks you into constantly replacing both the plant nutrients (food) and the humus (jars). It also locks you into dealing with that increased pathogen load.
Now for practical advise. I like to try and use the best from both. So I use no till on the majority of the garden or field, but I do use compost too. The trick is that I only use the compost right in the hole I put my transplants in spring. Obviously this allows that quick early release of nutrients to get my tomatoes off to a good start, while maintaining as little disturbance as possible everywhere else. The other benefit is that I use substantially less compost and other inputs. If you start with poor soil, you will get a short term decrease in yield. But each year it will get better as the soil food web recovers. If you start with pretty good soil already, it is possible to get higher yields right away.

BTW this guy thinks weeds can help. I have seen others use plastic or 20% vinegar.
Cousin, good info and I’m not arguing anything here, just pointing out observations of a very limited farming community, I assume you’re correct about tilling in general.
Some good news, is if we educate ourselves we can correct these problems, it’s not impossible , maybe a pipe dream, but not impossible,

This photo is interesting. looks like at one time forest was cleared for this spot.
My son just bought 40 acres, and it was harvested for trees, but they are now all growing back.
He has no plans to use the land, except for deer hunting.


For over 10 years I sold at a well known local farmer’s market full or organic farmers. Every one of the organic growers tilled their soil then and continue to till their soil. Cover crops and long rotations were primary components to their success. The cover crops were mowed and then tilled into the soil to build organic matter. On a very small scale its possible to do this with a spading fork, but even the manual process of turning the soil with a spading fork is still tillage.


I pretty much agree w/ the tomatoville guy’s rough synopsis. Thanks for posting that.

I don’t disagree there is a correlation between the two, what I originally took issue with was when you said earlier:

“The author of the article also should have noted…that the rise in no-till agriculture has everything to do with “round-up ready” (herbicide-resistant GMO’s) crops and expanded use of glyphosate…”

It seemed to me you were making a point of causation, otherwise there is little reason to mention correlation. Correlation means nothing unless there is causation. The following link illustrates the point in the most extreme examples.

Not that correlation alone wouldn’t be sufficient to make my point, but of course there’s causation. On the one hand, as I’ve already said, commodity crop farmers are pretty much forced by markets (shaped by various government policies as they are, not the least of which are government granted monopolies to biotech companies) to all basically follow the same systems, so there you have a common cause. You also have a common cause insofar as the seed companies are the chemical companies, and it’s no coincidence that they sell you one product that depends on the other. On the other hand, maintaining viability outside of the commodity system generally means farmers can’t operate at the scale necessary for no-till to be practical, and alternative markets are generally anti-GMO, so there you have a common cause again. But no-till also depends on GMO’s more directly, and surely you know that. Perhaps I could agree that GMO’s aren’t married to no-till, but they have been shacking up since the beginning (or perhaps they are married but they’re not 100% faithful), and there’s direct causation there, too. GMO’s obviously aren’t necessary to no-till planting, but they’re a major part of no-till weed management post emergence, especially in row crops – that row crops lead GMO crops is again no coincidence – and it would be much harder to do no-till without being able to use broad spectrum herbicides (or 2,4-d on broadleafs, etc.) In that sense GMO’s have directly caused the rise in “no-till” farming.

You just listed a lot of correlations, information, and opinions, but your original point (and the one which generated my response) had nothing to do with most of what you mentioned in your last post.

Your original point was that no-till has everything to do with (i.e. caused by) Round-Up ready crops.

In your last post, you suggested commodity crop farmers are forced by markets to follow the same systems, and that seed companies are selling GMO seed, and that our current commodity system means that small farmers can’t afford to go no-till, and alternative markets are anti-GMO…

All that is interesting information, but has nothing to do with the point you originally made (and the point of my rebuttal) which was that no-till was caused by Round-Up ready crops.

Phrases like, “[They’ve] been shacking up” don’t really mean anything other than there is correlation. Again correlation doesn’t mean causation.

GMO crops use in post emergence weed control is not evidence for a causation of GMO and no-till. As I stated earlier, tillage farmers use GMO crops, just like no-till farmers, for post emergence weed control. They both use GMO. GMO is not driving tillage farmers to no-till. They already use GMO crops. I suppose you may be saying tillage farmers really aren’t tillage farmers unless they use ONLY tillage for ALL weed control. However, I think most authorities would define any row crop farmer who plows as a tillage farmer (even if they use some sprays for post emergence weed control) and any row crop farmer who uses no-till planting equipment as a no-till farmer.

Lastly, GMO crops have nothing to do with field prep, which is as I said, really how no-till and tillage is defined. Again no-till farmers were burning down weeds w/ glyphosate before GMO herbicide resistant crops were available. GMO herbicide resistant crops have no advantage, and are completely inconsequential, to whether or not a field is plowed or burned down. For a burn down prep, glyphosate never touches the seed or plant.

Again the reason people are going to no-till is because of all the advantages listed in the article, not because GMO is somehow forcing them to, or is even an advantage. Yes GMOs are an advantage in post emergence weed control (as I stated in my original rebuttal). But again, even farmers who plow, plow, plow use GMOs for that advantage.

You seem to be suggesting that it makes sense for farmers to buy herbicide-resistant (GMO) crops even if they’re not going to spray the crop with the matched herbicide. Are you saying there would be any reason for that (other than lack of availability of seed without that GMO trait)?

You also seem to be very directly suggesting that GMO’s never help farmers to replace mechanical cultivation with herbicidal control of weeds. Is that what you’re saying?

CF, my question is, so what? Where is the wheat in all this chafe?

Organic growers are not able to hold onto the soil much better than conventional when they try growing wheat in the midwest via tilling. Mennonite farms are also running at a topsoil deficit in this region.

There are breeders attempting to produce a productive perennial wheat, but annuals don’t need to save energy for next years growth so are inherently much more productive as a food source. If they can come up with a productive GMO perennial wheat, I’m all in.

We aren’t going to help the environment much by changing that crop land (some of the most productive on the planet) into graze land- that will actually likely speed global warming. It is also a much less efficient way of converting sun into calories.

So really, what is your point? Please try to edit to a number of sentences adequate to my limited attention span.

No, that’s not what I’m saying. If I haven’t communicated my point well enough for you, then others have probably missed it as well, so let me try again. The logical order of progression would be something like this.

First, no-till would essentially be defined as a crop farmer who does not plow or disk, but leaves last year’s crop residue on top of the soil. The for the most part, the soil is never turned, so that beneficial flora Drew referenced in his post is never radically disturbed. Tillage farmers would be defined as those who turn the soil, which causes the detrimental things to happen mentioned in the article Alan posted.

Second, some tillage farmers (i.e. most tillage farmers around here) still use chemical weed control after the crop comes up (post-emergence). This is because it’s cheaper to run a sprayer over the crop, rather than a field cultivator. Those big boom sprayers can run over a lot of ground very quickly with hardly any fuel. They have 60’ booms, and as far as I can tell, they appear to run at least 10mph. As I do the math, that comes up to about 70 acres per hour (not counting trips to the nurse tank, for refills). Picture that against a big FWD tractor lugging along pulling a much smaller field cultivator, making sure he keeps it in between the rows (Incidentally, that’s originally one reason farmers were very careful to keep their rows very straight. It was easier to keep a field cultivator from ripping up corn as they ran it down the rows.)

One other advantage for tillage farmers to still use chemical control for post-emergent weed control is because you can plant narrower corn rows and drill beans (instead of planting beans). Some may not understand the significance of that, so let me explain. Corn must be planted, it can’t be drilled because a corn header on a combine has pickers which must run in between the rows. They can only make the pickers so narrow, so that limits how narrow a farmer can plant his rows.

It used to be that farmers planted corn and beans wide enough to easily get a field cultivator down the rows, without tearing up part of the crop. The problem with that is that, it’s not a very efficient use of space to plant with really wide rows and space the seed really close within the row. As an example, let’s say you planted your sweet corn at 32" rows but planted the seed 10" next to each other within the row. The corn will grow fine, but it would actually do better if each corn plant utilized a more square area of ground, rather than packing them within the rows and have the rows spaced far apart. So farmer’s figured out if they could narrow the rows and space the seed farther apart within the row, they could still plant the same number of plants per acre, but the plants would utilize the space better and produce higher yield. Narrow rows also help control weeds better because the plant canopy will come up before the weeds and shade the ground better, making it more difficult for weeds to germinate and grow. Wider rows are harder for the crop to shade.

That’s why they came up with the drill. The drill plants the beans evenly (called equidistant spacing) so there is the same distance between each plant within the row, and between the rows. Drills work good for beans because you don’t have to run a picker in between the rows. Some people used to use a planter to plant beans, but the only reason for that is to run a field cultivar down in between the rows (obviously a field cultivator can’t be run in between the rows, because there are no really no rows for drilled beans). This necessitates spraying for post emergent weed control on beans (whether the farmer is a tillage farmer or a no-till farmer). I haven’t seen planted beans for a long long time. They are all drilled around here.

Now let’s go back to corn. Some years ago, people figured out a way to engineer the corn pickers on the header of a combine to be narrower. So now farmers could plant corn narrower than a field cultivar could safely be run down in between the rows. As the rows narrow, there is less margin for error with a field cultivar. This has really driven farmers to plant narrower corn rows and drill beans.

Third, because of these influences, it makes more sense for tillage and no-till farmers to use chemical post-emergence weed control, rather than a field cultivator. That’s why the most progressive farmers were drilling beans and using chemical post-emergent weed control, long before GMO herbicide resistant beans were available. As I recall, narrow row pickers for corn were available about the same time as GMO herbicide resistant corn was introduced, but the two are not dependent on each other in my opinion. There have long been selective herbicides used on non-GMO corn to control weeds for people who chose to use chemical post-emergent weed control on corn. Technology continues to improve along these lines. They now have a 24-d which can be used on non-GMO beans.

Fourth, all this really has nothing to do with whether or not a farmer chooses to be a “tillage” farmer or a “no-till” farmer. A tillage farmer tills the soil to disrupt perennial weeds, or any annual weed seed which has germinated, and prepare the soil for planting. A no-till farmer simply hires the coop to run the sprayer over the ground and burn everything down. For the no-till farmer, a non-GMO crop, or a GMO crop can then be planted, after the burn down. Likewise, for the tillage farmer, after he tills he can then plant a non-GMO crop, or a GMO crop. Both types of farmers plant GMO crops because of the advantage of post-emergence weed control. In other words, for tillage and no-till farmers alike, GMO crops don’t even enter into their decision making at this point. GMO crops and Non-GMO crops will germinate just as well in a tilled field or a non-tilled field which has been burned down with glyphosate. As I recall on our own farm ground we rented in the 90s, our no-till farmer once planted non-GMO seed and then immediately had the coop come by and burn the field down with glyphosate, after the seed was planted. I asked him about it and he said as long as the glyphosate doesn’t touch the seed (because it’s buried) the seed will be fine because gyphosate is inactivated once it hits the soil. It has no residual effect. It only kills the plants it comes into contact with. I think even if GMO crops were outlawed, no-till farmers would still do no-till and tillage farmers would go right on tilling.

My opinion is that most farmers who till, haven’t switched to no-till because the of costs to replace equipment. That and they are already used to tillage, and people (especially farmers) are resistant to change.

Mind, I’m not against all tillage. I know you mentioned you plan to explore the use of draft horses for plowing on your homestead. I think that method on flat ground, combined with a careful use of the animals manure can keep soil healthy for generations.

Yes, at the end of my post I did say that my perception was probably wrong. I myself don’t use cover crops on my beds because I don’t want to till them. Instead I load the top with organic matter., Any leftover in the spring is used as mulch. I just wanted to point out that some organic farmers do not till. Just because organic farmers in your area till, does not mean all of them do. Local observations do not lend much insight into overall trends.