Best Tools for No-Till Farming

These ingenious no-till farming implements allow you to raise crops organically while preserving the health of your soil.

| December 2016/January 2017

First, the bad news: We’ve lost millions of tons of soil from croplands in the United States annually for the past 20 years due to water and wind erosion. The rate of erosion skyrockets the more soil is cultivated and left bare. Heavy tillage also destroys the soil structure and life-forms that nourish plants, meaning more fertilizer and amendments are needed later. The good news? You can help turn around these problems by practicing no-till or low-till farming techniques on your own land.

No-till farming methods (also known as “zero tillage”) can be adapted to any size of operation — backyard gardens, small market gardens, multi-acre farms, and more. The technique involves creating a deep mulch, and then planting a crop through the mulch. No-till in conjunction with cover crops can reduce erosion, boost soil nutrients and organic matter, and conserve moisture. Additionally, the thick cover-crop mulch suppresses weeds and encourages the microbes, earthworms, fungi, and other beneficial microorganisms that maintain soil structure and health.

Although no-till farming is now used on more than 35 percent of the acreage of major crops, conventional operations largely depend on herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. Organic no-till methods, however, will allow you to avoid chemicals and improve the soil structure in your plot, whatever its size. For organic farmers who need specialized equipment to make zero tillage viable, we especially recommend the following tools.

1. Roller/crimper. Organic no-till begins with a cover crop, which becomes mulch after it’s killed. You can kill your cover crop with hand tools if your plot is small enough, but larger growers do this mechanically. About 12 years ago, Jeff Moyer created the roller/crimper at Rodale Institute, a leader in organic farming methods. This implement is basically a large, heavy cylinder with long blades welded onto it in a chevron pattern (see slideshow). Rolled over a cover crop, the blades crimp the stems of the plants, killing them in place to make a weed-suppressing mulch that conserves moisture while adding organic matter to the soil as it and the cover crop’s roots degrade. “It’s the biology of the cover crop that’s doing all the work,” says Moyer, whose book, Organic No-Till Farming, describes how no-till limits tillage, reduces labor, and improves the soil without chemicals.

“The cover-crop mulch has to be fairly thick, at least 5,000 pounds of dry matter per acre — 8,000 to 10,000 pounds is much better,” says Moyer, executive director of Rodale Institute. Timing is very important, too: The cover crop is easiest to kill when it’s in bloom, but before its seeds have formed.

Gardeners and market farmers with limited power tools can make their own crimper out of simple materials: Screw a 30-inch piece of angle iron to the bottom of a 30-inch piece of 2-by-4, drill a hole into each end of the wood, thread a rope through, and knot the ends. To use a homemade crimper, Moyer explains, “You put your weight on the board and crush the stem of the plant, then pick it up by the rope and do it again.”

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