INTERVIEW BY TRACY FRISCH
Andrew Mefferd is the author of The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High-Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers. He has worked in organic agriculture for the past 16 years. He has also served as the editor and publisher of Growing for Market since 2016.
Mefferd’s masterful new book presents a variety of approaches and techniques used to produce high-value crops without tillage. The second half of the book features interviews with 17 organic, no-till farmers describing their own methods in detail. The methods outlined can improve soil health, produce better vegetables and reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the farm.
After working on farms in Pennsylvania, California and Washington state, Mefferd began thinking that there had to be a better way to control weeds other than constant cultivation. In 2005, he explored this idea by working with Virginia Tech professor of horticulture Ron Morse on his pioneering no-till organic vegetable production research, much of it done using a roller crimper.
The next year, Mefferd and his wife, Ann, started their first farm in Pennsylvania. Mefferd quickly realized that the roller crimper was not a good fit for a diversified three-acre operation, so for the next decade he “forgot” about no-till.
In 2008, the couple purchased a farm in Maine. On their new farm they grew certified organic produce for farmers’ markets and restaurants. Andrew took a full-time job doing variety trials at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Ann worked as the primary farmer on their land.
Around this time, Mefferd also started writing for Growing for Market, the monthly publication for direct-market farmers. Four years ago, Growing for Market founder Lynn Byczynski offered him the opportunity to take over the publication, which she had started in 1992. In early 2016, Mefferd purchased the magazine and left Johnny’s.
Working with the magazine, Mefferd came across articles written by successful farmers about their own no-till systems. With his interest in no-till rekindled, yet unable to find more than scattered information on the subject, he decided to dive in and write the book he had been yearning for.
Since writing the book, he has been using the no-till methods in his garden. In 2019, he grew a quarter acre of no-till hemp. He is starting a seed company that will specialize in hemp varieties that mature early and are naturally disease resistant for organic production.
ACRES U.S.A.: Your early experience working on organic farms motivated you to look into no-till. What did you observe that pushed you in that direction?
ANDREW MEFFERD: A huge part of it is that I’d rather spend my time working with plants than driving a tractor around. We also need to find ways to farm using less fossil fuel. Reducing tractor usage is one obvious way to do that.
I was seeing how tillage equipment was beating up the soil. A lot of the farms that I worked on had a very distinct plow pan, at whatever depth they ran their tillage equipment. On one of these farms, we were transplanting by hand with trowels. It almost didn’t matter how hard you tried to stick that trowel in — at a certain depth in the soil you could almost hear it go “tink.” Not only did it make it more difficult to get a plant as deep in the ground as you should; you also knew that the roots were not penetrating as well and the water was not infiltrating as well as [it] could.
When I first heard about no-till fifteen years ago, it was totally outside of my paradigm. At the time, I was working on a farm that used tons of tillage. I was seeing those kinds of effects, and learning about how tillage — and the disturbance it causes — kills the life in the soil, especially the fungal component. Now we’re finding out that our soil should be more balanced, with almost a 50/50 fungal/bacteria ratio, but the fungal mycelia are churned up and destroyed every time that you till.
So for me, it was a combination of things that you can see (like the plow pan) and things that you can’t see (like the fungal hyphae that you’re killing), and just personal preference (to work less with internal-combustion engines) that pushed me toward no-till.
ACRES U.S.A.: People have been talking about this for a long time, even if it hasn’t been on the radar of most contemporary organic farmers. The book Plowman’s Folly came out in 1943.
MEFFERD: Right. For years, I’ve heard people say that tillage is bad. In the book, I quote from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service: “Tilling the soil is the equivalent of an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, and forest fire occurring simultaneously to the world of soil organisms.”
The question was how do I operate a farm or produce a garden without tillage. Over the years there have been a few books outlining lasagna gardening, sheet composting, and stuff like that, mostly directed at gardeners. The thing that’s new about the interviews that I did for The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution is adapting these no-till approaches to a farm scale.
In my research for the book, I interviewed about 20 no-till growers. A lot of these growers started out with very high rates of compost application, partially because many of them were using compost both as a soil amendment and a mulch. Often their soils required a lot of improvement. Since they weren’t tilling and burning up their organic matter anymore, once they got their soil organic level as high as they wanted it, it stabilized. Over time many of them tailed off their compost rates, going from applying a lot of compost to just a dusting, or maybe even none.
ACRES U.S.A.: Early on, your motivation to look at alternatives to frequent tillage led you to work for Ron Morse at Virginia Tech. He is known for his pioneering work on no-till vegetable production, including in organic systems. Morse emphasized that “high biomass cover crops and no-till systems are as fundamental as the elimination of tillage itself.” Do you think he was saying that high-biomass cover crops were fundamental to no-tillage systems because of the roller crimper or because of other benefits?
MEFFERD: I think both. He always emphasized that his system wouldn’t work if you didn’t have really high biomass. Some farmers treat cover crops as kind of a secondary crop, but he stressed that you have to have good fertility for your cover crops in order to produce enough biomass to suppress weeds. The roller crimper method requires a really thick cover crop that you then roll down and plant through. You’re basically growing your mulch in place.
Ron Morse had seen farms where people had not done a good job establishing a high-biomass cover crop. When they tried his method in a spotty cover crop or one that didn’t have enough biomass, it wouldn’t work. The weeds would come right up through a thin cover crop that was rolled and crimped.
ACRES U.S.A.: Before we get too immersed in no-till, why do farmers till?
MEFFERD: That’s a great question. Why do we do it? Because you can’t plant a carrot seed in the lawn! For a very long time tillage has been the way of getting rid of whatever’s already growing so you can plant what you want. The quest becomes how to prepare the soil for planting and how to improve it, such that your crop grows well, without all the tillage.
ACRES U.S.A.: Besides reducing the competition with other plants and getting soil-seed contact, what other functions does tillage perform?
MEFFERD: It makes the soil friable enough that you can put in a plant or a seed [while] getting rid of the weeds or whatever else is growing there. Many people also believe that they have to till to incorporate fertilizer or other amendments, but the experience of no-till growers demonstrates that you don’t have to mix everything up as with an eggbeater.
Many no-tillers are either layering these materials or they’re very shallowly incorporating them with a tool like the Tilther, which can’t do primary tillage — it can just barely incorporate a soil amendment or fertilizer less than an inch deep. You can do a lot simply with layering.
ACRES U.S.A.: Because the soil organisms can do the work?
MEFFERD: Right. I’m glad you brought that up. Almost all the no-till organic farmers that I’ve spoken with said that the longer they were doing it, the better no-till worked. The first couple years are harder, and then it gets better after that as you build up the soil life.
I think back to my meeting with Bare Mountain Farm out in Oregon. They have one of the simplest, most elegant no-till systems that I’ve ever seen. It involves a lot of tarping. When it gets too late to plant another crop, they just push the old crop over and tarp it all winter long. By the time they’re ready to plant the next crop in the springtime, all the little soil organisms will have broken down that previous crop.
They said that there is a cumulative effect. They didn’t get such fast breakdown when they started, but they’ve been doing this for a number of years now. They even have a name for it. They call those soil organisms their ground peeps — their ground people. It’s almost like they’re cultivating micro-livestock. They said that they’ve been doing this for so long now that the soil is hungry. When they tarp down the crop residues and leave the tarp on for the winter, the soil life basically composts it in place. I love it. It’s one of those cases where the simplest solution is the best solution. Rather than taking crop residue somewhere else to compost it, and then bringing it back to apply to the field, the farmers at Bare Mountain Farm let their ground peeps break it down in place.
They said that if you have been spraying a lot of chemicals or tilling the heck out of your soil and it’s compacted and dead, you’re not going to get these kinds of results where your soil life immediately comes up and digests everything for you. But, if you stick with the system and you do things to encourage soil life — the main practice being not tilling — then, over time, you will build up the populations of all those microorganisms, which will break down your residues for you. People need to persevere with these things. They’ll get better over time.
ACRES U.S.A.: Going back to Ron Morse, is growing a cover crop grain, like winter rye, and using a roller crimper to kill it and turn the straw into mulch, a good fit for small-scale, organic, no-till farms?
MEFFERD: There are challenges with the roller crimper system in relation to how most small farmers farm. When we first originally started our farm in Pennsylvania, we were growing mixed market vegetables on two or three acres. We were very diversified, like many market farmers are. We might be growing 30 or 40 different crops, with many different varieties over the course of a year, and planting a lot of crops, like salad mix or radishes, almost every week.
We set out to use the roller crimper method with that farm, but we did not do so. With the roller crimper method, you only get a limited number of planting windows because you need to kill that cover crop at a very specific time. You would need to have a springtime planting window, when the rye and vetch are in flower, and potentially a fall window also. But having two planting windows a year does not mesh with needing 30 planting windows a year.
ACRES U.S.A.: Is the roller crimper method more suitable for long-season crops that you can plant in May or June, like winter squash, pumpkins and tomatoes?
MEFFERD: Exactly. It works really well for pumpkins and squash because they vine out and then, by the time that your roller-crimped cover crop is breaking down, the pumpkins and squash will have created their own weed-suppressing canopy. People are also using it for organic corn. Tomatoes would be great. Really, the roller crimper would work well for anything with a big planting. In fact, I’m planning on using it next year in my hemp. When you visited, you saw my hemp field. Next year we are going to try to do two or three acres of hemp for seed, and that’s how I plan on doing it. I plan on knocking the weeds down this fall and then planting some rye and vetch with a no-till planter. I’ll roller-crimp down the whole two to three acres at once, and then I’ll transplant the hemp right into it at the beginning or middle of June.
ACRES U.S.A.: How would you explain your statement, “No-till makes it almost irrelevant how bad your soil is”?
MEFFERD: A few of the people that I talked to for my book are farming on really poor soil. Those farmers said that their soil type is classified as “not suitable for agriculture.” [laughs] The reason why soils get classified as not suitable for agriculture is because they’re not suitable for tillage. You either have too much of a slope to plow, or if you plowed it, you would have a lot of erosion, or it’s too stony and rocky, or the soil is really poor, without much organic matter.
ACRES U.S.A.: Or poorly drained.
MEFFERD: Yeah, or poorly drained. That might rule out a soil for using a roller crimper, since you usually would use mechanized equipment to plant the cover crop. But all the other methods in the book essentially involve building up the soil with organic materials, instead of digging into them with tillage implements.
Another farmer I interviewed called what they do “farming above the clay.” They were making their own soil on top of whatever poor soil they had. Because they were not tilling, they were really building soil.
ACRES U.S.A.: My guess is that the clay component would be integrated into the new, good soil, so you no longer have a layer of clay under the soil you have created.
MEFFERD: Yes, I think that’s right. If people let those soil microorganisms develop, they will do a slow motion tillage on the soil for you. We’ve all seen those soil food web diagrams with a bazillion little critters living in the soil. They’re finding new critters all the time in our soil. I’ve talked to growers who said that, after they had been doing no-till for a while, they would see worms coming up and getting the fertilizer. The microorganisms would do some of the work of moving fertility and organic matter up and down between the different strata of the soil. It’s not as fast as a plow, but they do some of that work.
ACRES U.S.A.: And it may be more effective long-term.
MEFFERD: Right, without the step back. Many organic growers, including myself, have been in a frustrating situation where we grow cover crops, add compost and do all the best practices, but still we’re either watching our organic matter levels go down or stay flat from year to year, when they’re low and we want to increase them. Adding compost and growing cover crops are only making up for the damage being done with tillage. Every time you till, you’re taking some of that carbon in the soil organic matter and turning it into carbon dioxide. So you’re treading water and not making any progress with your soil organic matter levels. But if you can get those levels up, things will grow better. A number of the growers that I talked to said that only when they stopped tilling did their organic matter really started to increase.
ACRES U.S.A.: Was that one of the motivations for moving toward no-till that you found among the farmers you interviewed?
MEFFERD: Yeah. And some of them had problems like weed pressure and compaction issues that were just getting worse and worse.
ACRES U.S.A.: So their crops were growing worse rather than better in subsequent years?
MEFFERD: Exactly. No-till is part of the really big question: How do we live on the earth without exhausting it? Over time, many regions where people have lived eventually collapsed because their agriculture exhausted the soil. The book Collapse by Jared Diamond discusses that. Take the Fertile Crescent, where civilization emerged. That area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers peaked at some point, and then people abandoned parts of it because their agriculture made the soil too salty to farm. This scenario has been repeated over and over ever since the invention of agriculture. People find good land, farm it for a certain period of time and exhaust it. We’re at the point where we don’t have anywhere else to go. We need to figure out how to farm for the long haul, sustainably.
No-till may not be the entire answer to that question, but I think it’s part of the answer. That’s been very gratifying for me to see. Unfortunately, we’ve really painted ourselves into such a corner with climate change. I worry about it every single day.
ACRES U.S.A.: Do you have children?
MEFFERD: Yes. I have a six-year-old and an eight-year-old. It really worries me what kind of a world they’re going to live in. One of the only generalizations you can make about climate change is that it has progressed faster than anybody predicted. If something is predicted to happen in ten years, it ends up happening in five.
I’ve started seeing references to no-till and carbon-friendly farming in mainstream newspapers and magazines. The climate discussion is long overdue, but at least these kinds of solutions are being talked about. Part of the problem is that most people have no idea how their food is produced and how resource intensive agriculture is. That’s very unfortunate. No-till may not be the only strategy and it may not work for every single farmer, but it is a strategy to be able to farm without exhausting the land.
ACRES U.S.A.: What makes it a revolution?
MEFFERD: I think no-till is a big deal for two reasons. It’s a totally different approach to solving the challenges of farming than most systems since agriculture began. It was not in my paradigm when I started farming. Instead of starting the season by hopping on your tractor and tilling everything up, it takes that out of the equation. In that respect, it is a revolution.
It’s also a revolution because farming is a big contributor to climate change. We’re all threatened by climate change, so I think that’s a revolution that needs to happen. There’s all this talk about climate anxiety. I suffer from some of that. Every day, I think about what kind of world my kids are going to inherit from us.
It feels like we’re up the creek without a paddle. You want to say, “Okay, so this is really bad. What can I do about this?” As farmers, we’re very aware of climate change, because we work outside. Maybe if you work in an office every day, and it’s always 72 degrees in your work environment, you could compartmentalize it and not even notice that the climate is changing.
But farmers know that things are changing. The weather is just not what we used to expect it to be. Anything that you can do to farm in a more carbon-friendly way can give farmers and gardeners a way to feel like they’re doing something, instead of just being helpless in this crisis. Just as importantly, it can empower consumers, too. I think that farmers who are no-tilling or using other carbon-friendly practices need to start advertising that, just the way that “certified organic” has become a selling point for people who don’t want pesticides in their food or to be responsible for those pesticides going out into the environment. Local, carbon-friendly farming has an advantage that faceless, industrial food doesn’t have.
For a lot of the no-till growers that I interviewed, it is part of their marketing. Connor Crickmore of Neversink Farm in New York communicates his whole no-till/no-tractor thing. As the organic marketplace gets more crowded, farmers are using it in their marketing to set their produce apart — not just from industrial produce, but also from other stands. As organic and natural growers, we need to be in the business of de-commodifying our produce. If consumers only care about price, they’re going to go to Walmart and buy what’s cheapest.
ACRES U.S.A.: Isn’t another argument for organic no-till that it can serve as an adaption to climate extremes and a way to navigate difficult weather situations?
MEFFERD: That’s a really good point. Almost every grower that I talked to said that their water infiltration and water-holding capacity had improved with no-till. Singing Frogs Farm in California comes to mind. The farm is in a relatively dry area, and water is really precious in California. After they went no-till, they didn’t need to irrigate as much, and their soil would stay moist longer. Instead of water running off, it soaks in pretty quickly, even in a big downpour, and the soil holds onto it longer. That’s going to be really critical as we figure out how to farm in the changing climate.
Lots of little farms everywhere will be more resilient to climate disruption than centralized agriculture. There’s an analogy with electricity. Most of our electricity is generated by centralized power plants. Some homeowners are getting batteries for their houses so that with solar or wind they can make and bank their own power. Local farms are not only nice; they’re the kind of agriculture that we’ll need to survive climate change.
ACRES U.S.A.: Here’s a devil’s advocate question. Given the relatively small total acreage used to grow vegetables, compared to field crops, does the greenhouse gas contribution of tillage in vegetables really matter?
MEFFERD: My answer goes back to what I said before. Purely from a psychological perspective, in order not to feel powerless, we all need to feel like there’s something we can do, both as farmers and eaters. Maybe I only have two or three acres, but if everybody who’s growing two or three acres put their two or three acres together and started doing no-till or other carbon-friendly practices, it would add up.
The other thing we need is more local farming. Last time I checked, the estimates of how much of the nation’s food supply comes from local farms were in the single digits. If we went from 5 percent to 50 percent, that would be a huge change. And if all of those people did carbon-friendly farming, that would actually make a dent. I think it’s a cop-out to say, “I just have a small farm. Changing my farm wouldn’t make a very big difference, so I’m not going to change.” If we had more local farms, and they adopted climate-friendly practices, all those small changes would add up to a huge change.
ACRES U.S.A.: Such a question also misses the resilience that you can gain. So many farmers struggle when it’s too wet and they cannot get on their fields. To what extent are those weather conditions an issue for these organic, no-till farmers you’ve written about?
MEFFERD: If you can get your head outside of that box of tillage, no-till has a lot of production advantages. Being able to get on your field any time of the year, regardless of whether it’s muddy, is a huge advantage here in the Northeast, where we have a short season to begin with. We tend to have very wet fields in the spring. In Maine, we call it “mud season.” This spring we had a very rainy season, so we planted much later than we wanted to, but I was able to do fieldwork for my hemp crop the day after it rained because I hadn’t tilled it up and didn’t need to.
This isn’t just an issue in the Northeast. One of the reasons that Singing Frogs Farm in California adopted no-till was to keep its crewmembers year-round and generate year-round income. Their climate is mild enough that they could farm year-round as long as they stopped tilling.
ACRES U.S.A.: Because it would be too wet in the wintertime?
MEFFERD: Right. Their rains come in the wintertime, so the problem was saturated fields. Because they’re never tilling, they can produce year-round. Including the time of year their neighbors stay off their fields because it’s too muddy for a tractor.
Singing Frogs capitalized on their nice climate. It gets cold and freezes in the wintertime, but it’s a heck of a lot warmer than Maine. They realized that if they just stopped tilling, they could have crops growing in the ground 365 days of the year.
I’m not a proselytizer. I realize some people have spent years developing a system that works for them. Rather than saying that everybody must no-till, I’m saying that no-till has many advantages that every grower should consider, even if it may not work out for everybody.
I would never urge anyone to switch their whole farm system overnight. What I would recommend is that farmers trial no-till at a scale that’s meaningful for them, whether that’s a bed or an acre, so they can see if they like it and then work out the kinks before they do the whole rest of the farm.
But on the other hand, no-till works in a lot of different situations. That’s part of the reason that, for my book, I interviewed so many growers in many different environments. Farmers tend to be of two minds about this whole “no-till” thing. I meet a lot of farmers who are really interested and want to do it yesterday. I also meet other farmers who are really skeptical. They tell me that they don’t see how that would possibly work because you can’t farm without tillage. I realize not everybody’s going to do it, but even skeptics should be aware of the advantages. Maybe it would work for some of their crops. It’s not an orthodoxy. It’s not certified, and it’s not like you have to be 100 percent no-till or you’re not in the club!
My thought is that if people can use the ideas in the book to even just reduce the amount of tillage that they’re doing, it’s going to be good for the earth and for their ground peeps. Tillage is not a recreational thing that we do, right?
ACRES U.S.A.: Some people do love to drive a tractor.
MEFFERD: Exactly. I think of some people as recreational mowers. And some people are recreational tillers. We used to think of people being on a spray schedule. For many farmers, tillage is like that. Even if farmers don’t go completely no-till, I want them to realize that, if they could figure out how to eliminate some tillage, it’s going to be better for their land.
We can find the proof of concept in conventional corn and soy production. Over a relatively short period of time, like 20 years, a huge amount of the conventional corn and soy has gone to no-till, though it’s not ecologically friendly because the crop is genetically modified and sprayed with a herbicide. It’s been quickly adopted by the conventional ag world because it requires fewer passes over the field.
ACRES U.S.A.: Of course, conventional no-till has had the power of Monsanto and the related industry to promote it. What’s most interesting is no-till has served as the gateway for a small minority of farmers to move beyond herbicides and GM crops and develop really great regenerative agricultural practices.
What types of specialized tools and equipment did you find among the organic no-till farmers you interviewed?
MEFFERD: One of the things I love about the no-till is that, for the most part, it doesn’t require specialized tools. Typically, small-scale no-tillers are using tools like tarps, broad forks, and rakes. They use opaque silage tarps for occultation and used old greenhouse plastic for solarizing.
These tools are the opposite of specialized. They’re probably things people already have in their tool sheds or can get cheaply or used. This is one of the benefits of no-till, especially for a lot of young people who want to get into farming, given that the two big barriers to entry are access to land and equipment.
When we started our first farm, we bought a used tractor even though we were only farming two or three acres. We felt like we needed it. In retrospect, I would have loved to not have bought that tractor and used tarps and cover crops and stuff like that instead.
The kinds of strategies that are available in no-till allow a person to start a viable, commercial farm on a smaller footprint than was used in the past. You can really pack crops in when you don’t need tractor turnarounds and headlands. You hear these stories of people having very high returns per acre because they’ve packed crops in. They’re usually growing fast-turnover crops, like salad mix. Every time you plow, you have to go through a few steps of secondary tillage before you can plant anything again. It’s almost a point of pride for some of these no-tillers that they are able to harvest and replant a bed on the same day.
ACRES U.S.A.: You’ve talked about the potential productivity and profitability of organic, no-till farming systems. What you found in some cases was pretty impressive. What factors enable these systems to be so profitable and productive?
MEFFERD: We already talked about quick turnovers, of people harvesting and replanting a bed on the same day. Spending less time weeding is another factor. Once you’ve exhausted the weed seed bank in the top layer of your soil, your weed populations should go down over time. Building up the soil organic matter over time should make crops grow better and reduce the need to irrigate as frequently.
ACRES U.S.A.: What do organic, no-till growers need to pay attention to in order to manage weeds?
MEFFERD: Weeds can be a sticking point. If you are used to cultivating to manage your weeds, and then you decide you’re not going to do that anymore, the main thing would be to have a plan. That can involve using mulch or exhausting the weed seed bank with one method or another before you plant.
Many of the growers who were transitioning from high tillage systems to no-till said that they weren’t selling their tillage equipment yet. That way, if things get out of control, they have a fallback. But I have talked to a few farmers that successfully made the transition and then sold their equipment.
Here’s a succinct way to summarize the no-till advantage: in agriculture, we are interested in three types of soil properties — physical, biological and chemical. Tillage is bad for all three. If people can find a way to get away from tillage altogether — or just reduce it — it’s going to be easier on the physical, biological and chemical properties of the soil.
ACRES U.S.A.: Aren’t these properties much more interrelated and integrated than those three categories would have us believe? Soil structure comes from biology, not tillage, though sometimes people have been misled about that. When we talk about tilth, we might think about it in terms of tillage, which is upside down.
MEFFERD: That’s a really good point. Those three things are interrelated, though a lot of people don’t appreciate it. I’ve heard lectures from the 1950s where soil scientists were saying, “The soil doesn’t matter. It’s basically just there to hold the plants. You can just put enough fertilizer on, and everything will be great.”
ACRES U.S.A.: Yikes.
MEFFERD: Having soil life improves the soil structure. Just dumping chemicals on the soil could keep it productive for a while, but of course, in many cases, it’s the soil life that cycles that fertility and makes it available to the plants. So it’s one of those virtuous cycles. When you start treating the life in the soil better, the fertility of the soil should become more available to your plants. And then the tilth should increase as you build up that organic matter and you’ve got all those little critters making tunnels and they’re living and dying and decaying and contributing to your soil.
We’re tilling our soils to death. Fifty to 70 percent of the carbon in the world’s farmland soils has been already off-gassed into the atmosphere due to tillage. People tend to think of agriculture’s contribution to climate change as being farting cows and diesel tractors. But one of the biggest contributors is tillage turning the carbon that’s there in the soil into carbon dioxide.
ACRES U.S.A.: What are some of the materials that organic no-till farmers use as mulches to prevent or suppress weeds?
MEFFERD: I break the mulches down into the biodegradable mulches and the non-biodegradable mulches, like clear plastic and silage tarps. The most common organic mulches that I saw people using were straw, compost, wood chips, shredded leaves and cardboard. If you look around for which byproducts are available in your area, you may find nutshells, wood chips or something else.
A lot of times in tillage-based crop production, farmers leave non-biodegradable mulches in place during the growing system. They till up ground, and then they bed up, put a layer of black plastic on the bed, and plant through that. No-till growers much more frequently use plastic mulch before the crop, and then they take it off and are able to reuse it. There’s way too much plastic used in agriculture, and people are trying to find ways to use less of it.
Organic no-till growers are also using opaque tarps, like silage covers, which are those white-on-black plastic tarps, or landscape fabric. Usually these tarps need to be down for at least a month for occultation. September is a good time to occultate a brand-new field where you want to try no-till next year. Or if you live in a snowy area and want to prep an area for next spring, you could put the tarp on before the snow flies, and leave it there all winter long, until the spring or whenever you need to plant. Even sod will break down after being under the tarp all winter long.
With the clear tarps, as long as it’s in the 70s and sunny, it only takes 24 hours to kill the weeds after the previous crop because it gets so hot under a clear piece of plastic laid on the ground. You can use it on one bed at a time. As a crop comes out, you can kill the remaining weeds with a quick solarization.
ACRES U.S.A.: What can you say about wood chips?
MEFFERD: Wood chips work, as long as they’re not incorporated into the soil right away — most farmers know that if you incorporate highly carbonaceous materials into your soil that you will tie up the nitrogen while the microorganisms break it down.
One grower in particular comes to mind that uses wood chips — Bryan O’Hara in Connecticut. Bryan is awesome. At Natick Community Farm in Massachusetts, Casey, the farm manager, got intrigued with Bryan’s method and more or less set out to use it. And he did, with a few very slight tweaks.
People would visit Natick Community Farm and tell Casey, “You can’t be putting wood chips in your soil.” But since he was putting them on top as a mulch, they had a chance to weather and start breaking down a little bit. By the time subsequent layers were added, the lower layer had already weathered and been colonized by fungus and started breaking down. And they had a lot of success with that method.
ACRES U.S.A.: Are any of these no-till organic farms encountering problems due to excess organic matter, such as explosions of springtails or other root-feeding insects?
MEFFERD: Not that I encountered, but one of the disadvantages that a lot of people mentioned was slugs, particularly at the beginning. Slugs like rotting organic matter, and organic mulches give them a place to hide. Over time, after they stopped tilling, people developed populations of slug predators like ground beetles and even snakes, which put slugs back into a manageable range. Ground beetles, of course, live in the soil, where they make little tunnels. You will have more ground beetles when they can have tunnels and not get ground up every few months.
ACRES U.S.A.: Are there regional differences in the no-till methods to use?
MEFFERD: The only farms I talked to that use deep straw mulch were in the Midwest and South. That kind of mulch cools down the soil, whereas here in Maine we need all the heat we can get, so we don’t mulch much with straw.
On the other hand, I mulched my whole hemp crop with spoiled hay, and hemp is a warmth-loving crop. Most of the people in this area plant hemp on black plastic, which I didn’t want to do. The hay mulch might have slowed down my hemp by a couple days, but now that we’re at the end of the season, I couldn’t be happier with the way my hemp crop has grown.
ACRES U.S.A.: Going back to your book, is scaling up a logical next step for the farmers you interviewed, or were they satisfied with the size of their farm operations?
MEFFERD: Most of the growers that I talked to, who had been doing it for a decade or more, had grown their farms to the size that they wanted them to be. Conner Crickmore in the Catskill region of New York was actually taking a little bit of ground out of production. He’s making enough money. As a retail direct market grower, he doesn’t want to grow more stuff and then have to figure out where to go to sell it. And he’s growing more and more in greenhouses.
On the other hand, the growers in more of an establishment phase, such as Lovin’ Mama Farm, were scaling up.
ACRES U.S.A.: Do no-till organic farmers find that they need to use transplants more than their counterparts who use tillag?
MEFFERD: Some of these farmers do rely heavily on transplants, but I wouldn’t say they have to. Singing Frogs is huge on transplants because they want to always have living roots in the soil. When the time comes to remove their previous crops — they lop them off at soil level, leaving the roots in the ground.
ACRES U.S.A.: Wouldn’t you also maximize your production if you’re able to transplant so your crops are further along?
MEFFERD: I think that’s part of their model. On the other hand, some people will either pull the tarp back and have fairly bare soil, or just pull back some deep mulch to direct seed.
ACRES U.S.A.: Some of the practices you present in The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution would shock commercial vegetable growers. For example, one farmer broadcasts carrot seed.
MEFFERD: I think that was Bryan O’Hara.
ACRES U.S.A.: What allows that practice to work? Because most farmers would think he’s crazy.
MEFFERD: Yes, they would. He says that he can plant carrots at a higher density by scatter-sowing them. Once again, we have such a rigid paradigm. People don’t think about it, but the fact that you have to leave space between the rows for a cultivator to come through reduces the density that you could plant at. With his very, very low weed pressure, he realized that he could plant at a higher density and get a higher yield off of a particular bed by scatter sowing rather than planting in rows.
ACRES U.S.A.: How are farmers dealing with perennial weeds, like grasses or other kinds of noxious interlopers?
MEFFERD: Long-lived perennial weeds like dock and burdock and Johnson grass are one of the difficulties of no-till. But people also struggle to deal with these with tillage, so maybe we should say they’re generally difficult to deal with. You just need different tactics depending on whether you’re tilling or not. Some of those plants have such a big taproot that they can survive your average occultation or solarization.
A lot of growers just cut out these weeds or shovel them out. If you’re on a small enough scale, once you’ve remove all the burdock or dock or whatever you have, then they’re gone.
ACRES U.S.A.: Do you have any guidance for beginning farmers who are thinking about starting an organic no-till farm?
MEFFERD: I think they should go for it. The best situation would be to try no-till on a smaller scale first. It’s the same advice that I would give to anybody. Practice the methods before you pin your livelihood on them. I realize that’s not always possible. One reason I wanted to profile so many growers was so people couldn’t say, “Well, that’s just a one-off, or that would only work in that situation.” My advice is to think about which methods appeal to your style or are appropriate for your growing area. Maybe you wouldn’t want to use deep straw mulch in Manitoba!
On the other hand, though experience is always preferable, these methods work and people can learn as they go. That’s why I moved around and worked on a bunch of different farms before I started mine. Don’t quit your day job right off. Or figure out these methods in a garden before you expand into a farm. I’m finding out about new no-till farms every day. So go be an apprentice.
ACRES U.S.A.: What were you trying to achieve in the book by focusing on small-scale farmers?
MEFFERD: Jeff Moyer at the Rodale Institute wrote a book called Organic No-Till Farming that focuses on the roller crimper method. If somebody came to me and said, “I want to do big acreage,” I would say, “Well, that’s your method then.” That book had already been written. I wanted to give a complete picture, where people could see what all their options are. That’s why I didn’t completely ignore the roller crimper method.
The other reason was because most of the farms are smaller. I talked at length with Connor Crickmore about how no-till organic farmers could scale up. He was funny. He said, “You could design some kind of tractor attachment that broad forks for you.” I envisioned a combination of Dr. Seuss and Rube Goldberg inventions — a tractor with arms broad-forking your fields. He said, “You could scale up what I do, but it wouldn’t be the same. If you have one restaurant and you make it into a chain, then you have 1,000 restaurants, but it’s not the same.”
You could scale up any of the methods in the book. It’s just that small-scale farms were the laboratories for these methods. It would be hard to go — boom — from ten acres of plowing straight to ten acres of no-till. If there were a 100-acre organic no-till farm out there, I would’ve gone to visit them.