Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an interview with Bryan O’Hara from the April 2020 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine. To read the full interview, purchase a digital or print copy of the April 2020 issue, or subscribe to Acres U.S.A. magazine for monthly coverage of similar in-depth interviews and educational articles on eco-farming.
Bryan O’Hara intensively farms three acres of market vegetables in Lebanon, Connecticut, at Tobacco Road Farm. He began his career in 1990, and over the years, through observation and experimentation, has developed a very successful no-till, pesticide-free system.
O’Hara is the author of No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture: Pesticide-Free Methods for Restoring Soil and Growing Nutrient-Rich, High-Yielding Crops. The book is a manual for all aspects of market gardening, with a particular focus on no-till techniques.
Named the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s Farmer of the Year in 2016, O’Hara is a frequent speaker at conferences and events in the Northeast and around the country. In this interview he discusses the factors that led him, over many years, to his innovative no-till system, as well as his thoughts on plasticulture, cover crops and protected growing.
O’Hara is an excellent “demystifier,” as he says, of biodynamics, and he offers his take on the fundamentals for Rudolf Steiner’s principles. He also discusses the realm of the possible, both in terms of finances and labor, for young farmers.
Interviewed by Paul Meyer
ACRES U.S.A.: The book is called No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture, so obviously it focuses on the no-till part of your operation. You were tilling at the very beginning, though. Describe your evolution toward no-till. At what point — what year exactly — did you become 100 percent no-till, as you would define it?
O’HARA: Well, here’s how I define no-till. This is what’s appropriate for us; there are a lot of different definitions out there. What we’re talking about when we say “no-till” is that we don’t use tillage equipment to create a seed bed, or any other soil disturbances in terms of prepping soil.
So, there’s no soil disturbance, except for things like planting equipment — furrowers for planting potatoes or transplanting furrowers. So, there is some soil disturbance with planting equipment, but not for the actual preparation of the planting surface.
ACRES U.S.A.: What about using a broadfork or a tilther? How would they fit into your definition?
O’HARA: Tilthers and broadforks are reduced-tillage implements. They’re heading away from tillage.
Our movement away from tillage equipment went in phases — from intensive tillage to reduced tillage to a no-till system. Originally, when we started growing vegetables, around 1990, we used the organic method, which is just compost application with some minerals, limestone and things. We used a lot of tillage to prepare the land — to move from one crop into another. So we purchased all kinds of tillage equipment: plows, harrows, rototillers and hand tools.
We were cropping vegetables, a lot of them short season — sometimes there were three, four or more crops on a given piece of land in a single year, and there’d be tillage passes and bed-shaping between every crop. I basically just hopped from one tractor to another with different tillage tools and bed-shaping equipment. It all proceeded under a pretty intensive tillage regime. Everything was nice and straight and tidy, set up for cultivation.
But the soil was deteriorating in terms of its aggregation and structure. We had excessively loosened soils, even though we worked to compress them with rollers and various equipment. But we weren’t getting the crop growth that we had previously — say, ten years earlier, when we started out.
That was a combination of the intensity of the tillage, combined with the deterioration of the environmental conditions here — we’re under a lot of pollution and other detrimental impacts. The vitality of the whole system, even beyond the fields — all the forests and the fields — are suffering extensively from insects and diseases.
The combination of the tillage and the environmental run-down started giving us difficulties in growing crops, particularly with fungal diseases. So we started to address those — because, of course, we don’t apply pesticides — with various cultural approaches. And no-till was a great leap forward for us.
We did a lot of other things, too. We adjusted our fertilization, our composting, our foliar feeding programs. We got into biodynamics and Korean natural farming for biologicals and for a greater understanding of the whole system. But the biggest, quickest improvement really was switching into no-till.
Our journey into no-till started with experimentation. It was a process of many years; we didn’t just switch overnight. We had a slow, careful approach, using various experiments and techniques at a time.
The first step was to reduce tillage. To do that, we set up permanent bedding systems so that the wheels of the tractors or equipment would consistently travel over the same ground from year to year.
That alleviated the need for releasing or correcting the compaction from equipment. Simply by laying out the permanent bedding system, it got the equipment off of any areas that would be growing crops in the future.
There are basically three profiles of tillage. There’s surface preparation with light tillage tools. There’s working the plow layer, essentially from a couple inches down to, say, ten inches deep; this layer is commonly worked with the plows or harrows, or even rototillers. Then you have subsoiling tools, like chisel plows and subsoilers, that reach beyond the plow layer.
By setting up the permanent bedding, we eliminated tillage tools in the middle layer. We stopped the deep rototilling or plowing, or deep harrowing, but we continued with occasional chisel plowing to rip through existing plow pans and alleviate previous compaction issues.
So, we went with occasional deep chiseling, mixed with just surface bed preparation in the top couple inches, which is very similar to what using the tilther for surface preparation and the broadfork to get down into the plow pan. That was classic reduced tillage, and a lot of growers are switching to that — surface preparation and occasional deep working of the soil with gentle tools like the broadfork, or an occasional rip with a chisel plow.
ACRES U.S.A.: That’s similar to what’s described in some of the market gardening books — Eliot Coleman, J. M. Fortier, etc. They’re using techniques pretty similar to that, correct?
O’HARA: Right, yeah. Exactly. And we got improvements using that system. What we soon found, however, was that those chisel plow rips became less and less necessary because we weren’t re-compacting the soil with equipment or other tillage tools.
So we went from that to eventually just surface preparation. For surface preparation, originally we used very shallow rototilling. But then we tried to get into just using field cultivators and light disc harrows and tined arrows, because a rototiller, of course, really creams the aggregates on that surface. So we started using even gentler tools as much as possible, and mixing in some hand labor to kind of shine the beds up, because those tools aren’t as effective at giving you a smooth seed bed as the rototiller was. We used a little less aggressive tillage tools and a little more human labor. That was the next progression. Until, finally, we got into complete no-till, when we discovered solarization.
ACRES U.S.A.: Can you describe the difference between solarization and occultation?
O’HARA: Sure. That was the big breakthrough for us — when we figured out how to use solarization. It really fit into the speed of our production system.
Read the rest of this in-depth interview on no-till production in the April 2020 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.