What is Permaculture No-Till Farming?

When we mention our farming style is permaculture no-till, we know that many people may not fully be aware of what that means exactly. We hope through educational on-farm workshops plus sharing details about our practices on a regular basis that will help everyone to gain a deeper understanding of our practices, and possibly even implement them in their own garden. The techniques themselves are actually pretty straightforward and easy to learn, and we will break those down in more detail in future posts. But first you must understand the concepts behind why using these practices are so important, then you can begin to apply those concepts and ideas pretty much anywhere with anything you are growing.

source: http://landscapeforlife.org/soil/support-the-soil-food-web/

One of the most important aspects of the way we farm is the soil food web (pictured above), which is the interconnectedness of everything below the ground, and how those interactions affect what is above. There is a delicate balance of life and relationships in the soil, that in return affect everything going on below and above the soil including the health of your plants. Scientists are still finding out information to this day about how these microbe relationships are connected and work together, but there is a lot they already do know. Such as, if you decide to till, whether it's in your backyard garden or 30 acre farm, you are damaging the microbe relationships in the soil and that can take time to repair which will in turn affect the health, vigor, and yields of your plants. Farmers use terms such as "minimal tillage" or "reduced tillage", that is a step in the right direction, however, it is still doing damage. The majority of the most important connections are happening in that top 1"-6" of soil, because it has been shown that microbial biomass is increased closer to the surface, and anything below 12" is significantly decreased for microbe activity. So even if you are minimally tilling, you are breaking up systems and networks within the soil that can take years to repair, and your plants and soil health will suffer.

Why does this matter? This matters because the reason farmers and gardeners till is for multiple reasons such as aerating the soil, or suppressing weeds. Neither of which is truly accomplished by tilling. When you till, you will see the dirt on top get compacted down from rain and become muddy with a lot of water pooling up on top, which greatly reduces and eliminates microbe life/activity and soil permeability. When you leave the soil intact the soil microbes create channels and tunnels, making air pockets that will actually store air and water, aerating and providing moisture to roots. When we switched our urban farm from organic methods to permaculture no-till a bunch of years ago, that was one thing we noticed immediately. When it would rain, you wouldn't be left with a muddy mess of a field and dirt splashed veggies. Instead through mulching and using permanent cover crop, we saw enhanced plant growth and disease resistance, and larger yields. Mulching beds with straw helps maintain a more consistent soil temperature, increases soil moisture retention and absorption, increases soil organic matter, suppresses weeds but allows for clover and other cover crops to grow through and establish (this must be naturalized and managed over time), and also provides the top inches of the soil the ability to increase microbe activity due to creating a more desirable environment for them to thrive in. When you till, you also break up the mycorrhizal fungi that is so important to the health of the plants and their roots. Farmers and gardeners will till attempting to create a falsely manufactured environment in which to grow in, when nature already has it figured out much better.

Seedling transplant in growing medium that had mycorrhizal fungi mixed in, enhancing root growth and plant health even during early stages

Mycorrhizal fungi plays a huge role in the way we farm. We inoculate with it when we transplant into the ground in order to enhance the plants strengths and natural abilities through it's roots. This also helps increase and rebuild the local mycorrhizal fungi population and allows it to directly create a symbiotic relationship with the roots, in return enhancing the plant's abilities to absorb water and nutrients, plus increased drought resistance and disease resistance. Through not tilling, you leave the microbes and their environment intact within the soil. Microbes are continuously living and dying, going through cycles, when they die they can be taken up as food for the plant through the relationship with the mycorrhizal fungi, providing key nutrients and micronutrients. Through this connection it allows these nutrients to be absorbed even from very long distances away. The entire soil food web helps increase the cycling and availability of nutrients, and also builds organic matter. This is why no-till is so important. Because if you are tilling, you are ensuring your plants will not be able to utilize this symbiotic relationship and you will have plants that are more likely to become susceptible to disease, drought, decreased yields, and not have as much overall vigor.

This is where the permaculture aspect of our farming also helps plants to be stronger and healthier naturally. We use permanent clover cover crop, along with some other varieties of cover crop, to continuously fix nitrogen into the soil and to the plants. Cover crop can live in harmony side by side with your vegetables. The roots of the cover crop help prevent erosion, and the flowers of the clover attract pollinators. When the clover becomes too tall, you selectively trim it around the plants and lay it down as additional mulch. So you end up replacing weeding your beds and fields with hand trimming clover in certain areas, which is much less time consuming and more enjoyable than hand weeding a field or garden bed. Another common practice that conventional and organic farms have been doing for years is using cover crop to fix nitrogen into the soil and then till it into the ground. This is counterproductive and only half of the puzzle. It's the same as "minimal tillage", it's better than nothing, but still not great. The moment it's tilled into the ground, the soil food web gets broken up and decreases the overall health of your soil. And the reason the nitrogen needs to be put back into the soil in the first place, is because it was depleted from the lack of using the bioavailable nitrogen that stays accessible to your plants when the soil food web is fully intact and thriving.

Clover growing alongside garlic, mulched with straw 

Some other permaculture aspects that are a huge part of how we farm are: companion planting different plant species near each other to deter pests or enhance plant growth/yields, using compost to replace soil carbon and recycle plant waste, AACT (actively aerated compost tea) to naturally enhance plant resistance to disease and pests plus increase plant growth, and planting in zones so the more frequently harvested plants that need more continual maintenance are closer to your central location and as you get further away from the central location planting what requires less attention. By eliminating tractor use in our fields we also reduce/eliminate soil compaction that negatively affects the soil food web, and we increase the amount of space and layout options for our plantings based on not needing wheel tracks for the tractors. It allows us to have complete freedom with our field planting layouts.

Marigolds are planted along with vegetables to deter pests and attract pollinators, plus other benefits

We are excited to begin a long process of remediating the fields we are now growing in on this farm land, they are in decent shape (because they haven’t had chemicals used on them) but considering the amount of tillage they saw last season and for many years prior only time will tell how much work it will take us to bring the microbes and biodiversity back into balance because there is definitely damage that has been done to the fields from tilling the soil. The farm that retired before us was a "certified organic" operation that had been here for over 15 years, and before that the land apparently hadn't seen any chemical use by the previous farm either. The downside is the most recent retiring farm operation would till fields multiple times throughout the season last year, from seeing the condition of it over time and seeing dust blowing off the fields we knew our methods were needed to help improve the soil and enhance the overall environment on this farm land for future generations. That seems to be a continuous issue within the entire farming industry. Methods that involve a serious change to how you farm are a huge risk and an investment. A risk of time and money, that may be difficult to see a return in at first. The majority of organic farms are just conventional farms that don't use chemicals, so their practices are only slightly better than the farms that are spraying chemicals.

The farmers that were here before us knew over tilling was not a great practice, but they didn't know any other way because they never felt comfortable or able to break into different and better methods of doing things than they were used to. The entire farming industry knows that tilling is not great, but still pretty much every farm does it because they are heavily reliant on tractor use which ties them to the practices they are used to. We see the ideas of minimizing tilling bounced around by farms, but there still seems to be a lack of concrete solutions and structure for farms on exactly how to transition into a better way of farming. Methods that are used on conventional no-till farms require the use of machinery and chemicals, for the health of people and the planet this is something that needs to be worked away from completely.

But all hope is not lost, you can reverse the effects of tilling over time and increase your soil health, by doing what we are doing. Through using permaculture no-till practices there are many benefits you will see. It does take work and time to establish, and you are essentially saying goodbye to using a tractor. But both of those are positive things. Once you get your permaculture no-till beds established they are actually much easier to maintain than traditionally tilled fields. And by minimizing/eliminating your tractor use, you are avoiding the need to support the fossil fuel industry which is not a sustainable practice in the short or long term.

Since it will be our first full official season on this farm land, and seeing how the last farm faced seasonal and growing challenges last year, it made us extremely confident our practices will help us to farm this land more efficiently and more sustainably. It will be challenging, but attainable, for us to accomplish farming with the methods we are accustomed to using. We see other farms working to grow their businesses and add employees, and we are going in the opposite direction. The goal is that we will work and farm up to 20 acres, completely by hand just the two of us, with only using the tractor minimally and working up to eliminating it's use entirely in the fields, except for mowing. Because the beds are fairly self maintaining once established, this allows you to minimize the cost on payroll allowing you to expand your farm business into other areas. For us it will allow the farm the ability to have extra resources available to educate the public more on these growing methods, and get as many people involved with sustainable gardening and farming practices as possible. You do have to be physically ready to work though, and doing it by hand definitely helps keep you in great physical shape. You'd be surprised once you're in peak physical shape, everything that you can accomplish by hand.

Do yourself a favor and read all these books if you're interested in learning more about how to grow in a way that works in harmony with the environment. Mycorrhizal Planet by Micheal Phillips is a great book too.

We have always gone all in on what we believe is right, and this is no different. We know permaculture no-till is the best way to farm for the overall health of the environment and ecosystem. Permaculture no-till practices are incredibly sustainable, they increase soil carbon and lessen CO2 emissions, which contributes to a healthier planet.

Everything we use is all natural and does not harm the environment. We do not use chemicals or anything synthetic on our plants or in our fields. We started growing our own food in order to eat as healthy as possible and to know where our food comes from because even when you buy "organic" at the grocery store you don't know how fresh it is, and depending on where it came from can possibly have a large number of food miles. Food miles is the amount of distance your food had to travel to get to you. Which is why it is better to support local farms using sustainable practices because your food is fresher, you can be fully aware of the practices used, and it also minimizes the use of fossil fuels needed to get your food to you. Plus you are supporting your local community, strengthening the economy close to home.

We use methods based in permaculture no-till because they are the least damaging to the soil and the environment, and will actually continue to enhance and remediate the area you are farming when these practices are used over a long period of time. This is true soil health. You too can contribute and achieve the goal of building better soil for a healthier overall environment and ecosystem, by going no-till and implementing permaculture practices!


<< Resources >>

Our farming methods are derived from concepts and details written about in "Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to The Soil Food Web" by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis



<< Additional Resources >>

Soil Food Web Picture: http://landscapeforlife.org/soil/support-the-soil-food-web/

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