A Second Look at No Till (repost)

Below is a post from November 10, 2008, that was originally on a now defunct blog. I still haven’t gotten around to playing with no-till in the years since then but I’m partially posting this because there seems to be interest. I’ll put a few additional thoughts I have looking back at this at the end of the post.

I just got back from the Washington Tilth Producers annual conference in Bellingham, Washington, where Dr. Paul Hepperly of the Rodale Institute gave a keynote address on no-till and then followed it up with a question and answer session that was very informative.  About five or six years ago I spent two seasons trying to get no-till garlic to work.  Those experiments definitely turned me off from no-till in vegetables but Dr. Hepperly’s talk, even though it was on a grain rotation, actually gave me some hope that it might work in a few specific vegetable crops.

When we ran the garlic trials, three farms went in on a SARE Producer Grant.  47th Ave. Farm, Praying Mantis Farm, and Sauvie Island Organics all tried to establish thick stands of sudan grass, plant garlic into the cover crop, and then use the winter-killed cover as a mulch to suppress weeds.  This did not work for us for a variety of reasons, all reasons that Dr. Hepperly’s system avoids.  Also, as an aside, the Producer Grant turned out to be a lot of work for us to manage which made us less excited about those grants, but more excited about the Research and Education grants when the OSPUD project came around in 2005 (more on that in a future post).

The rotations that Dr. Hepperly was primarily talking about were field corn planted into a cover crop of hairy vetch and soybeans planted into a cover crop of cereal rye.  Not only were the cover crops providing all of the weed control, they were also providing all of the fertility for the cash crops, and, at the same time, reducing economic and environmental costs by limiting tractor passes and other inputs, and holding soil from erosion.  Perhaps the most amazing part is that they were out-yielding conventional tillage systems, consistently!

There are some important limitations to the no till approach that Dr. Hepperly described, and in the question and answer session he clarified that the entire rotation is not always no-till, when they have weed problems, or if other issues come up they need to till sometimes to establish strong cover crops.  I made a list of the points I recognized as important to making the system work:

Weedless cover crop

For cereal rye they seed very heavily, I think he was saying 150-200lbs/acre.  A fellow I was talking to at lunch also mentioned that instead of seeding in one pass at a heavier rate, two passes at right angles to each other at a more typical rate of 80-90lbs/acre give more early coverage in the field.  For vetch, since the seed is expensive, a higher rate isn’t used but winter kill oats are added for early weed suppression.  Buckwheat or other summer annuals are also possible, but the cover crop has to be an annual for the system to work.

Sufficient Biomass

To create an effective mulch there needs to be sufficient biomass, I think he was saying about 5 tons per acre. If there is too much biomass there can be problems as well but mostly it sounded like you just need enough so that there’s good ground cover when it’s killed.

Roll down at full flower

To kill the cover crop it has to be rolled down, preferably with a roller crimper, at full flower.  They’ve done some good design work on the roller crimpers and there are a lot of little details available on the web site.  A roller crimper is  available for sale from Buckeye Tractor whose equipment I’ve used and is well made.  

There are a couple of keys here: full flower, leaving the stalks attached to the ground, and crimping the stalks.  The window is narrow for achieving full kill, it has to be after full flower, but before the cover crop sets viable seed.  If full kill isn’t achieved the cover crop becomes the weed.  Leaving the stalks attached to the ground helps keep them in place when the secondary seeding or planting operation happens.  Crimping the stalks helps with more completely killing the cover crop.

Don’t expose soil when planting

The point of the mulch is to shade weed seeds and prevent them from germinating.  If your planter exposes the soil and leave a strip then there will be in line weeds to deal with.

Direct seeding only works with large seeds

Small seeds don’t push through the mulch so this only works with large seeded crops, or transplants.  Another important point with direct seeding is that the press wheels need to be be heavy enough to provide good soil contact for germination.

The mulching effect has a limited time window 

The mulch starts to break down immediately so the system works best when the crop provides a full canopy by the time the mulch has broken down enough to let weed seeds germinate.  

With all of this new information I’m re-inspired to try no till on a few vegetable crops.  Good candidates, I think, are winter squash, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, fall brassicas, sweet corn, beans, and melons.  The trick, it seems to me, is to find crops where the planting dates roughly match the flowering dates of a cover crop, and that will provide a good canopy later in the season.

On small scale plantings this systems seems like it would require very little investment in equipment for trials.  Crops can be crimped with a 2×4 and some string, and transplanted or seeded by hand or jab planter.  On a larger scale more might need to be invested in a roller crimper and no till seeder or transplanter, but the roller crimper is not terribly expensive and modifications can be made to existing equipment to make them work in no till situations.

February 2015 – Additional Thoughts

Here in the Northwest I think there are a few drawbacks to thinking about no-till systems that are specific to our climate. No-till systems tend to help keep ground moisture and to keep the ground cooler. In hot and dry climates this is a big plus, but for us here in the Northwest we are almost always hoping to warm things us and dry them out a bit so the heavy mulch of no-till can be counter productive in all of the potential crops I mention above. Slugs and voles are also problematic in my area, particularly when there are damp conditions and there is ground cover. Bare soil in the field helps control both of these pests whereas mulch exacerbates the problem.

Another note that was left out of the original post, the Rodale system wasn’t all no-till all of the time, but for certain years of the rotation there was no tillage. This helps break build up of perennial weeds that establish in no till systems, and also makes crops that aren’t appropriate for no till fit into the rotation system.

The Cost of Saving Ugly Produce

A small sampler share of delicious produce from Slow Hand Farm that wouldn't have made grade at any grocery chain
A small sampler share of delicious produce from Slow Hand Farm that wouldn’t have made grade at any grocery chain

My good friend Katherine Deumling (cookwithwhatyouhave.com) just posted a short video about the French grocery chain, Intermarche, and their campaign to reduce food waste by promoting “inglorious fruits and vegetables.” This campaign follows the FAO initiative launched in 2011, SAVE FOOD: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction.

I am completely onboard with the FAO’s mission to reduce food waste. I think it’s fantastic that Intermarche is recognizing that fruits and vegetables should be a greater part of our diet and that people need better access to fresh fruits and vegetables. I also agree that size and visual appearance is not a good blanket indication of the quality of produce. When I started Slow Hand Farm in 2008 I intentionally put produce in my farm members’ shares that were “inglorious” but delicious. I put in anything that I would have eaten out of my own garden and reduced waste like so many other small farms do.

My late night, quick comment on Katherine’s post was, “Unfortunately this actually most likely means less $ to farmers.”

This deserves more explanation because I think the issue of food waste and food access goes much deeper than strict grading standards, and I worry about people oversimplifying and missing the bigger picture.

As a follow up to my comment Katherine posted two more articles, one from the New York Times and another from Grist, which both seem to imply that approaches like Intermarche’s have worked in other places to the benefit of all, including farmers. Certainly in some cases farmers have, and will benefit from this approach, but for farmers as a whole I think this makes things worse. Even though selling more produce (even at a lower price) definitely adds gross revenue to the farm’s income statement, it can actually reduce the bottom line, cutting into profits by adding significant expenses.

Let me explain that last point because I don’t think it is an obvious one, especially to non-farmers. As a farmer, I frequently leave produce in the field, not because some part of it is not edible, but because it is more work (read cost) to harvest, sort, wash and pack the produce than the return (read income) that I can receive from selling it. Most times it actually takes longer to sort, wash and pack substandard produce meaning the cost of production is actually higher, not lower, than quality produce. This produce is left in the field or is composted on the farm and provides fertility for future crops. I do not consider it waste, it is home grown fertilizer.

To be clear, this is not the vast majority of the produce being discussed in the above articles. The vast majority of the food waste discussed above is already harvested, and probably washed (I use the term washing loosely here), but is discarded either at the sorting stage (also called grading) before it is packed and shipped, or because once it has been packed and stored and shipped and stored again, it no longer meets the grade. Standard grades (usually based on size, color and shape) are set not so much because they ensure any kind of eating quality, but because they let far away buyers know, with a kind of short hand, what they are buying. If you’re a produce buyer buying cases of lettuce, you want to know that when you’re comparing two cases of romaine lettuce from two different suppliers, who in turn have bought those cases from different brokers, or maybe even farmers somewhere far away, that they both have the same number of heads, the same basic size of heads, they same basic color. You don’t want to pick the one that is $23 over the one that is $24, and then after buying 50 cases realize that what you’re getting is some tiny, mis-shapen, off color variety of romaine packed only 20 to a case that you can’t sell. You want to know that a case of romaine is a case of romaine, your typical loaf shaped green thing with a tender heart and 24 heads to a case. The standards are there to make life easier for distant buyers, not to improve the quality of our food.

Food that is rejected after the expense of harvesting, washing, sorting and being shipped from the farm is waste. It’s wasted energy (which can’t be recovered) and it’s wasted nutrients (which can be recovered by composting but usually aren’t). For the farmer that sells produce this way, and especially for the middlemen who distribute produce this way, being able to sell rejects as “inglorious fruits and vegetables” definitely increases the bottom line, at least in the short term.

But here I see a second problem in this nearsighted solution: the basic economic concept of supply and demand. To review for a moment, as supply increases, demand, and the corresponding price, decreases. There are only so many fruits and vegetables that the world’s population can eat, therefore demand is increasing slowly. It increases as we improve our diets (eat more fruits and vegetables), and increase our global population, but there are still limits. If we actually had a shortage of fruits and vegetables worldwide and adding “inglorious fruits and vegetables” into the supply didn’t make up for the full shortage then demand probably would stay high and prices to the farmers would would be good. Intead we have an abundance of fruits and vegetables and an inefficient distribution system, so by increasing the inefficiency by reducing the waste, prices will only be driven down. Increased supply without a corresponding increase in demand leads to lower prices. Lower prices are not good for farmers as a whole.

If having big grocery chains accept sub-standard vegetables to reduce food waste, increase food access for the poor, and generate more income for farmers isn’t the answer then what is?

Shifting more of our food dollars to local farms by buying directly, or encouraging the grocers we buy from to do the same would make a much bigger difference. Shorter supply chains reduce waste in shipping and storage, and any “waste” that stays on the farm can actually contribute to the farms fertility in the future.

Reducing income and wealth disparity and therefore increasing the purchasing power of the poorest segment of our population would go a long way toward improving food access.

Increasing food prices could help in several ways. Many of the worlds poorest are the food producers and so when we talk about getting food to the poor, increasing farm income, while at the same time reducing income and wealth disparity, would disproportionately improve conditions for small farmers and farm laborers at the same time as it increases access to food for all poor people.

Increasing prices would also encourage less waste by the end users of food. As food prices have dropped in the US food waste increased by 50% between 1970 and 2010 (http://visualizing.org/visualizations/21-shocking-us-food-waste-facts-statistics).

Intermarche’s marketing campaign for ugly produce is a good one. We all need to understand that visual appearance is not a stand in for more important qualities of food like taste, nutrition and environmental impact. Their campain is limited though, and we need to think beyond just the easy (and false) path of spending less to get more. We also need to make larger changes to the system to address some of the root causes, not just the superficial symptoms.