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Can Tilling be Sustainable?  RSS feed

 
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I just want to start by saying that I have a lot of experience with no till gardening and farming. I do hugelkultur, lasagna gardening, and I've seen a lot of Back to Eden gardening. I've seen the good, the bad, and the great.

But, I've also been in a position where the need for producing food was great, and I had to grow a lot of food without much time to prepare, and I didn't have the resources (large amounts of cardboard and good mulch) to prepare enough area such that I could grow enough with no till. And I certainly didn't have the labor to dig all those hugelbeds on my own (I also lacked the wood and organic matter for them anyway). In that situation I made do with what I had available, but it was an experience which got me thinking.

If I had to grow a lot of food for myself and other people, I think I would have to till. Tilling worries me, mostly because I'm very afraid of eroding my soil. But I can see how tilling can save an enormous amount of materials and labor in its own way.

So I wanted to ask someone who does till, and whose farming methods are largely respected and considered sustainable, what they think about tilling. Joseph Lofthouse does tilling at his farm.

So, Joseph, I guess my first question is: What do you think about erosion and tilling? How do you prevent it? Do you think you've had erosion loss since tilling at your farm?

My second question is: What about water retention? I've always been told that tilling can dry out the soil. I know water is a limiting factor for you, so how do you address this?

As an aside, I've been to places in Italy and China where tilled agriculture has been practiced for thousands of years continuously. I'm not sure if the nutrition in the food has gone down, but these examples exist.
 
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The problem i have had is with undesirable weeds. Omg do they pop up in qty. This was an attempt to establish a deer foodplot. Now i just broadcast the seed. If the ground is bare i cover the seeds lightly with hay.

To establish an annual garden, i have tilled. I used redhawks advice. I added a couple of inches of aged manure and tilled it in. While it killed some biota, it also jumpstarted it. I tilled a couple more times to get bermuda rhizomes out of there. I don't see a need to do it again.

Erosion wasnt a factor in either case. The weeds and foodplot came up quick, in the garden i used a mulch. Tilling doesnt mean you cant use mulch. Mulch retains the moisture.
 
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There are plenty of unsustainable elements within the process of tilling a garden.  Despite this, when I initiated my garden I was in the boat of needing to get a garden plot established with limited inputs and fast.  I hired a guy with a PTO driven rotovator to make 5 passes on a plot of my field with his tractor.  It cost 60 dollars.  I still had to sift out and deal with a lot of perennial grasses, but I was able to use a fair amount of the nutrients of the meadow plants mixed in with the topsoil and top subsoil horizons.  In this case, it was a one time process, and then the no-till beds were established.

Erosion comes in several different ways.  We primarily think of it in terms of physical loss of material due to wind or water movement.  If your garden is mostly flat or the beds are roughly terraced on contour, then you are likely not to notice much erosion.  Primarily, if the material is not being noticeably lost in these ways, the loss is in the intact soil system; and I am thinking specifically of four things:
1.) The fungal interface which is the network that connects everything.  This is shattered when tilling and takes a long time to regain its full potential.   2.) The upheaval and chaos and death that is caused within all the set communities and their interactive partners.  Earthworms are chopped up and their tunnels are collapsed, many creatures are crushed or macerated.  Anaerobes are exposed to oxygen.  Aerobes are suffocated.  Micro-algae are deprived of sunlight as are other photo tolerant soil beings, while photosensitive species are exposed to the light.  3.) The aeration of the soil is desiccating, and many microbes need more moisture than that.    4.) The loss of carbon-rich humus (created through the metabolic wastes of all the microbial community), which is rapidly burned off in the metabolism of the surviving aerobic bacterial population which explodes temporarily as the layers below the surface become aerated in the tilling process.  The humus off-gasses a lot of Carbon Dioxide and other more potent greenhouse gasses like Nitrous Oxide, and Methane. 

So even though we don't see these erosive processes (since they are largely invisible to us), they are significant.  The loss of mass in the soil is significant due to drying and carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen losses into the air, though the volume initially looks greater due to the amount of air blended into it, fluffing it up.  If a good plant root system is not established quickly then these air pockets collapse and the soil becomes very dense.  This is particularly the case if the soil is exposed to hard rain or overhead irrigation without mulch.

I'm likely speaking to one who understands all of this, but I thought that I would write all of that for the benefit of others besides you, James.  Since you seem to understand the no-till philosophy.  The reason that tillage becomes unsustainable, regardless of whether we do it in the perfect situation, is because of the losses that I mentioned above, and probably others that I have unknowingly omitted through ignorance or lack of time in thinking about it.

Another big negative on tillage is the hard-pan that is developed when the rotating tiller tines scrape and polish a certain depth of the soil.  This creates problems with drainage, aeration, and root penetration amongst other things.  Some soils, like those heavy in clay, can be permanently damaged (or at least be very difficult to repair) due to this process. This is particularly true if done repeatedly.

If I had to grow a lot of food for myself and other people, I think I would have to till. Tilling worries me, mostly because I'm very afraid of eroding my soil. But I can see how tilling can save an enormous amount of materials and labor in its own way. 

If I had to establish a large garden to feed a lot of people in a hurry, and I did not have the materials available to sheet mulch the area with cardboard, then I would probably till an area to start the initial process.   Tilling, if done repeatedly will require a lot more inputs in order to keep up the fertility (food for the soil community that feeds your plants), and even the initial losses should probably be amended (as Wayne mentioned with tilling in manure). Tilling will expose your weed seeds, and break up weeds; some of these that are present will be multiplied by the process. So, although it seems like a labor-saving tool, tillage can cost a lot in labor expenditures due to weeding.  I'm not sure what the savings in materials are that you can see in the tillage process.

Note: Edited for clarity.
 
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Thanks for asking James...

I am not a permaculturalist, so any views I express will be in line with the way of doing things that my family have practiced since time immemorial. It's been like ten thousand years that my family have been tilling the soil to grow annual crops.

I grow two major types of gardens: food forest, and annual vegetables.

My food forests are no till gardens. They are typically mowed periodically (every few weeks to once a year). I'm not much interested in planting new things into them. I basically only prune, mow, and harvest. They are stable, and change little from year to year. Leaves and twigs fall onto the ground. I do little to no weeding. Plants are scattered around helter-skelter. I think of this type of growing as "horticulture". There isn't much to see out here in the desert that would indicate that fungi are particularly present in the food forest.

My annual vegetable gardens are tilled routinely... Weeding is ongoing throughout the growing season. Crops are typically planted into rows. I think of this type of growing as "agriculture".

Politically, it is easier to control and manipulate agricultural societies than it is horticultural societies. Because agriculturalists gather the harvest into graineries that can be easily counted and captured, and the food carried away. It's much harder to  find, harvest, count, and capture a food forest, cause if you didn't know what you were looking at, you might not even see it.

The species that I grow as annuals, are typically adapted to growing in areas disturbed by things like: floods, landslides, avalanches, drought, herd-migrations, burrowing animals, wildfires, etc. Therefore, they tend to thrive in tilled soil, and do poorly in forest type soils. They do not compete well with tree roots.  Those sorts of disturbed ecosystems are common enough, and were productive enough that my ancestors noticed the good things that happen in them, and chose to mimic them by creating intentional disturbance. Many of the foods that are familiar to people today are these sorts of annuals. I think that many people who are attempting no-til end up failing, because they are planting species -- adapted to disturbance -- into stable ecosystems. Then the plants fail, cause they are growing in the wrong ecosystem.

The roots of annual plants extend deeply into the ground. Tilling only touches the very uppermost surface of the ground. My view is that tilling is superficial. Running a tiller through the top couple inches of soil, does little to change the top 20 feet that the roots might extend into. I find it much easier to change the species and/or genetics of the plants that I'm growing than it is to change the soil.

My ground (both food forest and annual garden) is thirsty as anything, and approximately flat, so run-off of soil is non-existent. My farm has been tilled for approximately 160 years. We understand hardpan, and how to deal with it. That's like farming 101.

I live in the deep desert. Therefore I irrigate, 1 inch of water once a week June through September.

Long winded way of saying that I think no-till advocates may get better results if they don't try growing annual species or root crops. How could a proponent of not disturbing the soil grow something like carrots, or potatoes?

Hmm, is tilling sustainable? Hard to say. We've made it 10,000 years so far. I'd really miss my tractor if diesel or replacement parts became unavailable.


 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Tilling tends to be really good at eliminating many perennial species: particularly grasses. Other perennial species, like bindweed, it just subdivides into little propagules. Tilling encourages the proliferation of annual species.

Tilling is effective for controlling tree species.

 
Joseph Lofthouse
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The end of the last ice age lead to drying environment in areas such as the Levant, one of the centers of origin of agriculture. Vegetation would dry out and die during long dry periods, leaving propagules to sprout upon the return of moisture. The species domesticated in the Levant were thus annuals: Wheat, barley, peas, lentils, garbanzos, and flax.
 
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To till, or not to till, that is the question. I think one needs to look beyond just the question, since my response to most questions is 'it depends".
What is the climate and weather like?
What kind of soil is it?
What is the land like?
What are the gardening/growing methods being used?
What sort of crops are being grown?
That's just a few of the questions needed to be considered. Since I started teaching people in my area to grow food, I've quickly learned that there isn't just one ideal gardening method for all locations. It all depends upon many factors.

On my own farm, some of my crops are grown no-till, while others are tilled between each harvest. I've found that certain crops simply don't produce or grow well here without doing soil preparation. Others do just fine without the soil being disturbed. And yet others are half way between, doing reasonably well for a couple years before declining, then getting a big boost with a bit of tilling. I really agree with Joseph, it's the crop that matters. Some crops are adapted to disturbed soil, while others prefer stability.

I am a big user of compost and mulch. Typically I till 3"-6", depending upon the soil and the crop. Tilled ground is immediately mulched to prevent the sun and wind from damaging the soil ecology and drying it out. Ground is seldom ever left completely bare on my farm. I suspect that tilling the top couple inches doesn't destroy the soil structure of healthy soil further down, at least not with my soil type. Things may be different with other soil types.

As for worms, they are abundant in my tilled garden beds. Tilling very well might kill a lot of the larger ones, but their bodies then join the food cycle in the soil, feeding other small worms and soil life. I find a lot more worms in my tilled beds than in my non tilled beds. I suspect that's because in the tilled beds, compost and mulch is regularly being added to the soil. This material provides an abundance of worm food.

Is tilling a sustainable practice? Again, I believe that depends. With my soil and weather, it has proven to be highly successful. And where I've converted tilled areas into no-till crops, those crops are doing far, far better than those being grown in 'virgin" soil that never has compost tilled into it. But this is just my situation. Repetitive tilling in other situations has proven to be disastrous for some, causing all sorts of problems.

As for erosion, again, it depends. On my farm, I have no erosion problems because of the nature of my soil and land structure, in addition to my gardening methods. But tilled bare land in the right situation my very well be an erosion nightmare. Every situation can be different,

As pointed out already, one has to consider your goal. Mine is to grow enough food to feed ourselves and our livestock, and have extra to trade & sell. This means some serious production. Because of the type of soil I'm working with, I could not achieve this goal without tilling. I aggressively till in compost and mulch for certain crops. But I do have certain other crops that are very productive with a no-till combined with top dressing and nutrient teas. In plain words, I do what works within permanent agricultural methods........not necessarily what some people are defining permaculture, but instead, what in reality is permanent agriculture.

Joseph brought out, what I believe, is a very important point. Some crops prefer disturbed soil without fierce competition. Some crops, such as root crops, prefer loose soil. Others do just fine with a no-till situation because they have evolved for that niche. I see where both tilling and no-till have their place in permaculture.

Again as Joseph and others have pointed out, there are examples where permanent agriculture has existed for hundreds of years, long before the introduction of oil and machinery. Some of that old agriculture successfully incorporated tillage. Some of those examples are still successfully growing food has it has for centuries.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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I believe that the practice in medieval Europe was to leave each field fallow and untilled one year in three.
 
pollinator
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Here's a talk by toby hemenway which covers some of the problems of tillage food growing (agriculture):  
 
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The growing of annual food crops is usually where you see tillage used, tillage is an artificial form of disturbance that farmers have used since humans discovered you could make tools for digging in soil.
The trick is to use just enough tillage, not turn the soil to dirt, usually two passes of a plow will get this done but the modern farming method is where you can see tillage gone wrong.
Tillage (no matter how little) when used without any vegetative matter returns will deplete the soil to dirt over time, that's why you can find dead fields that have been abandoned all over the world.

Since the tractor was invented the amount of tilling per field has increased by 50 to 100 percent, this occurred because it is easier to plant with seeding equipment if the soil is pulverized to almost powder consistency.
Doing such damage to the soil structure then requires applications of fertilizers to artificially provide the nutrients the plants need for growth, this is because the microbiome has been killed off by so much tillage.

If you are planting annual crop plants there is benefit to a double pass tillage regimen, one of which is the ability to use a standard seed drill to plant neat, easy to machine harvest rows.
If your soil needs organic additions this double pass tilling also allows you to incorporate the organic matter at the same time you are turning the soil.

I have found that humans tend to side one way or the other, no-till or till and they seem to become zealous about the side they choose to stand on.
Unfortunately both can be right, but also both can be wrong, it will depend on the goals of the use of the land.

If you are growing a perennial only space, then no-till is the way to have the best success. In this sort of growing you will do a one time disturbance (the act of planting, even a tree, is such a disturbance).
To use no-till in a market garden type setting you need a "no-till seed drill" these are heavier, longer tubed and weight allows compaction if the soil isn't also getting more organic matter and microorganisms.
This is where you really have to get it all right, if you don't you can still loose some of the benefits of no-till agriculture (which is really suited for straw grain crops).
If you are going to grow annual crops, then you will benefit from a small amount of disturbance every time you plant.
This is the method Kola Lofthouse and I use to great advantage in "market" gardens, it keeps the soil building and allows for better density of planting for those plants that benefit from that.
Joseph is fortunate enough to have the machinery to do large gardens where as I currently am limited to "Old world methods" but I hope to get a tractor fairly soon to make this easier on me.

Redhawk

 
Roberto pokachinni
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Despite what I said earlier, I have seen some very successfully stuff done with tillage on many of the farms that I have worked. 

As an example: I gardened with a guy for two growing seasons (but have kept in contact with him over the following 6 years) who probably had some of the best soil that I've worked.  He had been tilling crops of green manure into the soil, as well as growing green manure specific for making compost to be added to crop beds.

He did not fallow his cropland (leaving it to natures whim for a year), but tilled it every spring or in the late summer for a fall green manure crop [or a fall planting of a root crop (carrots, parsnips, garlic) for a boost on Spring growing], with more of his compost added on top of the beds he planned to till and grow crops in.  All of his crops were irrigated, including his green manure (which consisted of grains like rye and oats, the latter being mixed with either peas or a combination of peas and vetch)  He rotated the crop plots with the green manure plots.  1/3rd of his area was devoted to green manure.

With this method, he was able to increase the soil biomass even with the apparent loss to the atmosphere from tillage.  This is partly due, I think, to the nitrogen-fixing of his peas and vetch, the biomass of all the roots and the related microbial communities that survived, and the fact that he irrigated his crops at the right times.  It might be sustainable to be able to make gains on the soil biomass in this fashion.  In his case, all of this was meticulously planned, and his tillage was generally shallow, but I think that it could be done with less planning and even less tillage, so long as certain principles were followed.  In fact, that is exactly what he did.  These principles would be that the tilling is minimized, the soil adequate moistened, biomass was added or returned to the beds to be cropped, and crop areas were rotated. 

In his case there is the element of 'stealing from Peter to pay Paul'.  He was using green manure crops on one part of the land to make the compost that he added to his other beds within the same landscape and the landscape would simply be rotated into or out of the production of exported food crops (he marketed vegetable and consumed them and did not return any human manure or other manures).  The reason that it works is that the plants are fixing those same atmospheric gasses that I mentioned into the soil system both in their roots, and in the above-ground elements which were either tilled in, or made into compost and then added back to the crop beds.  This resulted in net gains, in spite of the tillage.  After working with me and listening to my arguments for non-tillage, he began to experiment by planting directly into his previous green manure plots, as well as some of his crop beds with a great deal of success.  He would still eventually return these plots to tillage and green manure, but the soil community was able to go beyond the initial stage of succession as the plots might go three to four years or more before being rotated into the green manure plot.  This was the case because he began to even experiment with planting his green manure in beds without tilling it thus still keeping roughly 1/3 of his garden growing green manure crops. 

He was big on the methods detailed in Rodale's material, and had a contact who worked at Rodale who he consulted with on everything.  He would never take my ideas at face value without running it by his Rodale guy.  It was a little annoying, but at the same time, I always felt vindicated when the Rodale dude would verify that my suggestion actually rang true to science-as was found in experiments at Rodale.  We had many heated discussions, but always with mutual respect for what was being done and what might be done in the future.     Many of my suggestions were incorporated into his process, including restructuring his entire garden so that his irrigation produced no-runoff (erosion), the increase of soil community stability due to reducing tillage sequences, the interplanting of crops, the use of mulch on certain crops, the increase in crop bed width to maximize the area of living soils, and the creation of compost teas as a crop soil amendment, and even better planning for irrigation.
 
Su Ba
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Bryant stated..."Tillage (no matter how little) when used without any vegetative matter returns will deplete the soil to dirt over time, that's why you can find dead fields that have been abandoned all over the world. "

Excellent point! I suppose that's why my own soil keeps improving over time rather than declining. I figure it's that, plus the fact that I take care not to compact the soil. I've noticed that in areas where the soil has bern compacted, things grow slowly and poorly.

Roberto, sounds like you had an amazingly educational experience working on that farm and being able to have discussions with your farmer. Oh how I'd love to see that farm in action and learn more about its methods. What I've done on my own farm was to "reinvent the wheel" by reading whatever I could get my hands on, then going out and experimenting on my own farm. It's taken me 15 years and I'm up to the point of doing a passable job of having a self sufficient homestead, but there are plenty of places where I still need to develop methods to cope with various situations, like long periods of daily rain followed by drought, periodic waves of garden pests, etc. I don't have a blueprint to follow here, so it's been a long learning experience.
 
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I like using the word regenerative vs sustainable.

So do I think that I can improve the soil and make it better than how I got it, with my farming practice as a whole. YES
If all I do is just till the soil, it will degrade the soil.
But if I till ans also add rockdust, plant cover crops/legume, add carbon (biochar, woodchip, straw, grass covercrop), add worm tea/mushroom slurries, etc, etc. Then yes my overall interaction would be an improvement. Is this the best that I could have done, NOPE, but it is still better than the avg smith even though I had to cut some corners due to other pressing external factors.


It's not a YES or a NO, 0 or a 100 it is a continuum and as long as you strive to keep on improving it is okay.
Now is this a blanket pass to just slack off and do the least/minimum amount of actual "good/change" so that you can carry some sort "green street cred" or offical USDA organic certification. Nope.

But dont get sick worrying about it too much, we know where your heart is and what you are working towards long term.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Hi Joseph


Long winded way of saying that I think no-till advocates may get better results if they don't try growing annual species or root crops. How could a proponent of not disturbing the soil grow something like carrots, or potatoes?
till
Hmm, is tilling sustainable? Hard to say. We've made it 10,000 years so far.

  I'm not going to argue with Joseph's family history, or his methods, which certainly are great and to be commended; particularly in the high desert.  I certainly could stand to learn immeasurably from his knowledge base.  I chose this quote from his post to point out a few things.  There is a big difference between running a roto-tiller and the harvesting of some carrots, potatoes, or garlic.  I harvest with a spade-fork. While it certainly does disturb the soil, there are large masses of intact soil ecosystem left from which the carrots or potatoes or garlic separate, and these are likely (in my thinking) able to help re-inoculate the rest of the soil system with a balance of soil community members and provide some long-term stability to that system.  Tillage, unless it is done with a single pass of a plow, does not allow such communities to be intact.  Generally, these days, tillage is done with a machine which tends to not leave large masses intact in the soil.  Even if tillage is done in a way that minimizes the powdering of soil, the masses are usually broken down into quite small bits in comparison to the harvesting of carrots with a spade fork.  I am not a staunch advocate of zero disturbance, simply minimizing it.  There is also a difference between no-till and no disturbance.  No disturbance is impossible.

Sure, we have been at the agricultural thing for 10,000 years... but that doesn't really mean it's sustainable.  I would argue that the fact that something being done for 10,000 does not really correlate to that activity necessarily being sustainable.    The process of desertification has been greatly enhanced by the clearing of the land for fields, and the breaking up of the land's soils for agriculture.  This has been demonstrated time and again by historians, bio-geographers, and ecologists.  Even though this process has been greatly exacerbated by the advent of machinery used wrong, so too has the wrongful use of excessive tillage or excess soil disturbance, and the widespread clearing of landscapes of trees before the advent of machinary exacerbated the processes of desertification.  Tilling appropriately, as can be done (as mentioned in the practices by Bryant, Joseph, Su, and the example I gave with my garden partner), can result in soil community being built up which must be the goal if one is to pretend that sustainability, much less regeneration, is possible. 

Which leads somewhat to a third point following this quote:

Therefore, they tend to thrive in tilled soil, and do poorly in forest type soils. 

  Interestingly, after visiting Le Ferme du Bec Hellouin, Eliot Coleman decided that he should start planting trees in amongst his annual market gardens.

This post is not meant to argue against the efficacy of Joseph's methods and/or his ability to create soil and make his land productive for his community.  It is simply to show that some statements should maybe be discussed further to add clarity, rather than be treated as if they are 'the truth' and not to be questioned simply because they have been done for a very long time.  If the longevity of a method or of doing something were the sole reason to consider it worthy of merit, then slavery, amongst many other dehumanizing processes, would be clearly openly acceptable in our culture. 

Edited for clarity and minding my manners.
 
Tyler Ludens
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I practice tillage agriculture (Biointensive) so I like to think that tilling CAN be sustainable, but based on history, has generally not been sustainable (see Hemenway examples above).

Ideally, in my opinion, most food would be grown using non-tillage methods, that is, we would use horticulture (permaculture) for most of our carbohydrates, with some agriculture for small amounts of grain and some annual vegetables.

Some climates seem to be more suited to (possibly) sustainable agriculture - cool, moist climates seem to be able to tolerate plowing better than wet/dry "brittle" climates.  Plow agriculture in brittle climates has been, historically, a total disaster (see North Africa/Sahara and American Southwest).
 
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