Op Ed// So What is No-Till, Really?
Over the course of The No-Till Market Garden Podcast, especially as we begin to wrap up season one, I have been reflecting on what it means to be a “no-till grower.”
Indeed, what is no-till, anyway?
When adding the sum of all the parts—the common themes and approaches that run through the nearly 30 interviews—a few things stand out. Our earlier observations that no-till is about keeping the soil covered as much as possible, planted as much as possible, and disturbed as little as possible still hold true. However, those practices are animated by something much deeper. We heard a lot of different ways in the podcast to go about those practices, but we also found a lot of reason to go about them.
Of course, we have been thinking about it for a while, but friend of NTG Steven Larson really put it well in a response to a post of ours on Instagram.
Our post read, “At some point, with #notill gaining more and more public interest and attention, will market customers begin to go beyond just “do you spray” and start asking “do you till”? It went on to ask, “What are your thoughts? Do you think that will happen? Should it? Will it lead to a #notill label? What would that label include?”
And Steve’s response touched on one of the major themes we’d been observing: “I would be happier,” he wrote, “if the label were more about living soil and how alive and healthy your soil is. I fear incentivizing one practice as the best can become dogmatic when the underlying reason why more are not tilling is because of soil health. So many nuances in regenerating soil where I believe doing what’s best for your soil in its context should be the goal, whether that is to till or not to till.” [italicizes ours]
Let’s be clear, we don’t want NTG to become an authority on what is and is not “no-till”. We consider ourselves aggregates, facilitators, and observers of the living soil movement, at least with respect to small-scale veg. But, if we were going to make one significant mark, it would be to discourage dogma and encourage this sort of thinking—the sort of thinking that comes from soil up. Because honestly, for the vast majority of people I interviewed, soil health was the main focus—they weren’t no-till because it was more practical (though it can be) or more enjoyable (though, again, maybe so). Steve hit it on the nose. They were in it for the health of the soil. Simply put, healthy soil grows healthier crops and a healthier conscience, too.
Soil health—to me, above all others—has italicized nearly every conversation we’ve had for the podcast and online in general, about no-till.
Limiting no-till to a strict, “this is and this is not no-till” may actually be counterproductive to achieving the goals we all want to achieve in reducing tillage. Put another way, if one limits oneself only to “no tillage at all”—no broadfork, no stirrup hoe, no disturbance, nothing—then they may succeed at growing the crops, but they may also be failing the soil.
Are these growers achieving the best possible soil and plant health by skipping the broadfork or tilther? In some cases maybe. In others, maybe not. I’m one of those maybe nots. I have had compacted beds that I have attempted to not broadfork and the results have been almost universal crop failure. Conversely, I have beds I have broadforked and no longer have to, and some that have never needed it in the first place. So, am I no longer no-till if I continue to broadfork? To some, yes, and so be it—I’m doing what I feel is best for my soil in my context, not for a label. I don’t care what anyone calls it, I care about the ecology and, as Karl Hammer put it, “photosynthetic efficacy.”
It’s all about that sort of context—context being another persistent theme of the site and podcast—but it’s also primarily about high-functioning soil. If pushed in a corner and forced to give an exact definition of no-till, I would probably just say, “whatever is best for your own soil” which would, in the long term, necessarily include observing the principles referenced above. Note: those three main principles of keep it planted, disturb it less, and keep it covered, did not come from nowhere. Further, the NRCS is beginning to promote these principles, as well. There is no reason to even consider them save for the ecology—tilling is so clean, straightforward, and prescriptive. These principles were developed because they are what makes soil work, and—if done well—improve it.
No-till, I admit, is not the best term. But, we stand by it. It is a great keyword, because the more you look into what makes soil healthy, the less you’ll want to till it. Further, we use “no-till” as a tool, a means for disseminating information. No-till, in all its reductiveness, does in fact lead you here, and to Bryan O’Hara, and Singing Frogs, and Dowding, and Neversink… you get the idea. It leads you to ecological and profitable farmers and farming practices. Likewise, on that search you will also find that we all have different soils, in different climates, with different needs. So, no-till then is not about what others say it is, it’s about your relationship to your specific soil which, like all relationships, is complex, sensitive, and has different needs in different areas and at different times. And like any relationship, the more you work with it, the better it gets. That, to me, is no-till.
Our work is—in large part—supported by YOU! Yes, you. Our purpose is to bring you—the farmer—the best no-till growing content out there. For free. If you want to see No-Till Growers grow, support our work for as little as $2/month on Patreon or Venmo/Paypal a onetime contribution. At 30 podcast episodes a year, not to mention hundreds of blog posts, that’s less than a dollar for each episode. We need your help to reach $1,000/month to do season two of the podcast, run the site, do more experiments, and bring you EVEN BETTER no-till, low-till, and regenerative veg content. Quite literally, we couldn’t do it without y’all.