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Organic Farming Doesn’t Have to Mean Excessive Tillage

A roller-crimper works its magic in a field of rye.

By Sam Malriat

Rodale Institute’s organic farm consultants have spent the last 18 months working with farmers nationwide to transition their operations to organic. During our conversations with conventional, transitioning, and even some new organic farmers across the country, we often encounter the misconception that organic farming is a system built on intensive tillage. However, our goal is to show that this isn’t always the case.

This assumption is partly based on the reality that organic farmers have a limited number of non-mechanical tools for weed control at their disposal. But it also ignores the fact that there is a growing contingent of organic farmers making their systems work without tillage, or with tillage implemented in a rare, responsible way. Additionally, production systems using reduced or infrequent tillage may not be as detrimental to soil health as previously thought.

The no-till movement has brought the concept of soil health into the mainstream over the past decade, which in turn has caused the entire supply chain to consider how soil relates to our food system and human health. Farmers are increasingly exploring certified organic production as a means of reaping both the financial and environmental benefits of on-farm soil-building efforts.

However, we find that a significant number of conventional no-till farmers are concerned that a transition to organic production requires an exponential increase in tillage; they’re worried about losing the soil structure they’ve worked hard to maintain. While intense tillage may have been the prevailing practice on organic farms 30 years ago, that assumption is now not only dated, but directly preventing progress on farms across the country. The organic farming community, which is now made up of a host of former conventional and sustainable farmers, has fully recognized the benefits of no-till methods.

There’s an abundance of evidence that no-till agriculture has a positive impact on soil health. The concept of keeping living cover on soil for as long as possible has translated well to a variety of production systems. As of 2017, approximately 21% of row-crop farmers were operating under a continuous no-till system, and it’s likely that number is higher today. In some parts of the United States, no-till is a necessity; it has offered a way of preserving highly erodible soils and maximizing water availability where precipitation is limited. In just 50 years, we’ve gone from a production system characterized by continuous and routine primary and secondary tillage to a system soon to be dominated by no tillage whatsoever. While this provides some benefit to farmers and natural resources, is it possible that we’re on track for a slight over-correction?

There are tested, successful organic no-till techniques that can be implemented on more farms without compromising no-till principles. But no-till isn’t the only way to build healthy soils. In most cases, the combination of an application of compost and manure, the long-term use of cover crops, and the effective rotation of diverse cash crops has a more positive impact on soil health and productivity than continuous no-till alone.

Between the two extremes of no-till and excessive tillage, there may exist a middle ground for farmers who want to go organic but don’t want to sacrifice their carefully built organic matter. Studies show that tillage implemented in a responsible way can still foster healthy soils.

Take the most recent results from the Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Soil Health Benchmark Study report, an effort to quantify and compare soil health across 100 farms in the Mid-Atlantic United States. It states that “it would … be reasonable to predict that soil disturbance could have a drastic and unavoidable negative impact on soil health. If this were true, we would expect a steep and consistent negative relationship between tillage intensity and organic matter… Our data do not support these predictions. Instead, we found a shallow and weak correlation between tillage intensity and organic matter. Our data indicate it’s possible to achieve optimal soil health while still conservatively tilling and cultivating to control weeds and terminate cover crops.”

As with most things, we may find that moderation prevails. If you’re a conventional no-till farmer wary of organic production because you’re under the impression that it requires excessive tillage, know that there are options for you that don’t require a full-scale tillage routine, but leaves room for you to be open to its use as a rare tool. Adding cover crops to your rotation or utilizing manure from a local source can help buffer the impact of tillage events. However you decide to manage your operation, making an investment in a certified organic system now, with or without tillage, will undoubtedly position your operation for long-term success.

Sam is the Director of the Organic Consulting program at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA. Please visit www.RodaleInstitute.org/Consulting for more information. Farmers interested in transitioning their land to organic and participating in one or more of these opportunities can contact Rodale Institute’s Organic Crop Consulting Services to get started. Reach out at Consulting@RodaleInstitute.org or 610-683-1416.