Hastening Adoption of Zone-Tillage on CT/ New England Vegetable Farms

Final Report for ONE08-080

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2008: $9,902.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Connecticut
Project Leader:
Jude Boucher
UNiversity of Connecticut Cooperative Extension
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Project Information


To achieve the goal of hastening the adoption of zone tillage in CT and New England, we recorded preliminary Soil Health Test data on 5 deep zone tillage (DZT) farms; recorded organic matter and compaction data from 53 farms across CT; recorded over 30 grower-identified benefits of transitioning to DZT; provided 22 individual conference presentations attended by 892 growers; provided 14 discussion groups, twilight meetings and farm tours with a total attendance of 361 administrators, students and growers; reached over 3,985 growers through 20 newsletter, manual, abstract, magazine, and proceedings articles and posters; and thousands more through web site articles. A total of 19 growers and 4 Extension Educators transitioned from conventional tillage to DZT during this project. Nine growers participated in educating conventional-till growers during the project by making presentations at conferences, twilight meetings or farm tours.


The extensive tillage practices used on vegetable farms in the Northeast are expensive and result in problems with soil compaction, soil degradation and soil erosion. Vegetable growers continue to compact their soils, break down the soil structure and mine the soil organic matter away every time they till the soil. Most farmers plow, harrow several times, cultipack or bed the plantings, and may also cultivate many times. Multiple tillage trips across the field are expensive and produce plow- and disc-pans which often prevents root growth beyond 8 to 12 inches deep and lead to soil flooding and erosion. Soil flooding, in turn, leads to crop disease problems, while surface runoff causes soil, pesticides and nutrients to leave the field and enter surface water. Constant tillage oxidizes soil organic matter (OM) away as CO2 resulting in the loss of soil structure, loss of soil microbial populations and reserve fertility. It also causes problems with surface crusting and lower seed germination rates, loss of soil pore space, and the inability of the soil to hold water during droughts or to drain properly during large precipitation events.

This project consisted of a soil compaction and OM survey and a sequence of outreach meetings and articles, all with the goal of hastening the adoption of zone tillage in CT and New England. Reduced-tillage growers and Extension educators partnered and used workshops, twilight meetings, conferences, discussion groups, newsletter/web site articles and case studies to disseminate zone-tillage information. Soil health base-line tests were conducted on new zone-till farms and standard soil tests and penetrometer readings were taken on farms across CT to help document problems such as low organic matter levels and soil compaction (i.e. plow-pans).

Project Objectives:

To achieve the goal of hastening the adoption of zone tillage in CT and New England, we expected to record preliminary soil health data and transitional challenges/benefits for CT growers converting to deep zone tillage; record compaction and organic matter data on at least 30 CT farms; have over 200 growers attend workshops, twilight meetings and conferences; reach over 1,000 growers through web sites, case studies and newsletter articles; and hoped to convert at least 10 New England growers to deep zone-till to serve as examples and mentor growers. All performance targets were met or exceeded during the three years of this project.

Only 2 vegetable growers transitioned to zone-till during the first year of this project. The initial slow adoption rate was partially due to a spike in fuel and steel prices, which caused the price of a new Zone Builder to double. We also learned through the course of this project that most growers need to hear about DZT on multiple occasions before converting to this new system for field preparation. It also proved to be very important for mentor growers to allow interested farmers to visit their farms and see and learn about DZT first hand. Thus far, every grower that has tried DZT loves it!


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Nelson Cecarelli
  • John Halfinger
  • Thomas Scott
  • Eben Weil


Materials and methods:

In 2008, we conducted 3 educational events on deep zone tillage: an introductory reduced-tillage farmer-to-farmer discussion group, a DZT twilight meeting and a ‘Soil Health and Deep Zone Tillage Conference.’ There were 20 individual presentations made at these 3 educational events. We also spoke about DZT at 5 additional farm tours and twilight meetings, published a newsletter article introducing DZT, conducted 20 preliminary Soil Health Tests on potential DZT farms, conducted a soil compaction and organic matter survey on 55 vegetable fields (53 CT farms), and identified/documented 22 potential benefits of using DZT compared with conventional tillage. Almost 250 people attended these events. However, we only converted 2 growers to DZT the first year due to dramatic fuel/steel/equipment price increases.

In 2009, 6 DZT educational events and 11 conference presentations were conducted reaching over 737 attendees. The 6 educational events included a half-day session at the New England Vegetable and Fruit Conference, 2 grower discussion sessions, 2 farm tours and a presentation in the SARE session at the USDA Outlook Forum in Washington, DC. Three DZT newsletter articles were published and mailed to 860 growers/educators and were posted on the UConn IPM Web Site. Four additional articles on DZT were published in the New England Vegetable & Fruit Conference Proceedings (800 hard copies) and the New England Vegetable Management Guide (1,500 hard copies), and on both respective web sites. Twelve additional Soil Health Tests were conducted on three new DZT farms to provide baseline data, 5 DZT growers were surveyed and raved about the new system, and 8 new grower-identified benefits of DZT were documented. By the end of 2009, a total of 12 farms were equipped to use DZT, and Extension Educators in all 6 New England states and beyond (i.e. Nova Scotia) were promoting the new reduced-till system.

In 2010, we made presentations at 5 conferences or workshops and 3 farm tours or twilight meetings which were attended by 368 people. We also wrote and had funded a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant on DZT, had a magazine article published, 4 newsletter articles, and created/displayed 5 posters. A total of 19 growers and 4 university research farms were using DZT or had purchased or constructed a zone tiller by the end of this project. Two of the farmers owned 2 zone builder machines and several had purchased or constructed additional machinery to compliment their new reduced tillage system. Nine growers participated in educating conventional till growers during the project by making presentations at conferences, twilight meetings or farm tours.

Research results and discussion:

Standard soil and organic matter tests with penetrometer readings were taken on 55 vegetable fields (53 farms) across CT between June and August 2008, primarily to assess soil organic matter content and compaction problems throughout the state. Forty-six conventional fields were compared with 9 reduced-till fields (DZT fields were not included). Eighty-nine percent of the conventional fields had a plow-pan at an average depth of 11 inches, while 98% showed some evidence of a plow pan forming (multiple penetrometer readings at/over 300 p.s.i.). Only 33% of the reduced-till fields had plow pans and these fields had almost twice the organic matter as the conventional fields (7.5% vs. 3.9%, respectively).

The first 5 farmers using DZT described 30 benefits that this technique provides over conventional tillage and we expect new converts to add to the list. These 5 growers identified the following potential benefits of their new tillage system: reduced fuel, labor, and machine hours; reduced chemical/nutrient runoff and soil erosion; soils that warm faster than conventional or no-till; elimination of compacted layers (plow pans); improved drainage; deeper, healthier crop roots; reduced disease incidence (less Phytophthora and black rot); fewer planting delays; better water infiltration (turns wet holes into productive ground); can plant wet fields in wet seasons (increased acreage); can avoid wet areas when planting (fewer stuck machines); conservation of soil moisture in dry spells; increased organic matter, soil structure and beneficial organisms (i.e. earthworms); reduced dust and noise; fewer annual weeds; fewer rocks to pick; eliminates dead furrows; better seed emergence and yields; improved crop quality (straighter/longer carrots, cleaner pumpkins and butternut, no dry tip on sweet corn); and rental of land trust/municipal property which prohibits conventional till. We have also succeeded in interesting Extension Educators in all 6 New England States (and beyond) in joining in our mission of helping us spread DZT technology throughout the region.

Research conclusions:

The verification process was built into this grant, as one of the methods was to follow the implementation process of some of the farmers through the first couple of years and record grower-identified benefits of DZT and help them overcome challenges. Grower contact included one-on-one consultations at the individual farms, phone calls, emails, joint-authored case study articles, and recruiting grower participation for twilight meetings, discussion groups and presentations. The first five growers who transitioned to DZT also participated in a survey and volunteered to post their contact information and receive visits from interested growers. The project leader talked with 16 of the 19 DZT growers and all New England Extension Educators who adopted DZT during the project.

The verification process was largely successful because it allowed the project leader to track the individuals who adopted the new system and assist them with suggestions and recommendations. By working closely with some of the DZT growers, and staying in contact with others, the project leader received the names and some contact information of new DZT growers and confirmation that growers found the new system beneficial.

Some of the immediate impacts of this work on farmers include: improving their awareness of the problems with excess tillage on soil health; eliminating erosion problems on hillsides, reducing fuel and N use in field preparation, cutting field preparation time, improving profitability, and providing access to land trust and municipal land that they would be banned from if using conventional tillage. After positive experiences with one grower, the town of Wallingford, CT added a requirement that farmers must use zone tillage to rent their municipal property. This was enacted to help eliminate the possibility of soil, pesticide and nutrient runoff into the town water supply. The use of DZT also helped a farmer in Concord, MA win a rental agreement with the town to help prevent erosion damage and runoff. The Universities of CT, MA, VT and RI now own and use DZT equipment and some are lending their machines to growers to accelerate the adoption rate of this reduced tillage system. Extension Educators in each of these four states have now received grants to advocate and investigate DZT technology.

Adopting DZT will also benefit growers in the future by helping them adapt to climate change in the Northeast, where long term forecasts call for conditions to get warmer and wetter. DZT provides better site drainage and allows growers to work and plant wet fields, without putting a rut in them, because machines are supported by the undisturbed cover crop roots. DZT also helps crop survive in dry conditions by retaining more soil moisture and allowing plant roots to penetrate to much deeper levels.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Conferences and conference presentations

Boucher, J., J. Idowu, A. Rangarajan, J. Capron, G. Ayres, N. Cecarelli and T Scott. 2008. Deep Zone-Tillage & Soil Health Conference. UConn, URI, Cornell University and SARE. 1 December 2008, Sturbridge, MA. (attendance 75).

Idowa, J. 2008. Improving Soil Health. Ibid.

Rangarajan, A. 2008. Zone-tillage for Large Seeded Crops. Ibid.

Cecarelli, N. 2008. Zone-tillage on the Cecarelli Farm. Ibid.

Ayres, G. 2008. Zone-tillage on FreshAyr Farm. Ibid.

Rangarajan, A. 2008. Zone-tillage for Small Seeded Crops/Root Crops/Organic Crops. Ibid.

Capron, J. 2008. Equipment Adjustments & Planters. Ibid.

Boucher, J. 2008. Results of CT Soil Compaction Survey & Zone-till Observations. Ibid.
Cecarelli, N., T. Scott, G. Ayres. 2008. Grower Panel. Ibid.

Durgy, R. and J. Boucher. 2009. Soil Compaction and Reduced Tillage on Organic Farms. CT NOFA Annual Conference. 21 February, Windsor, CT (20 attended)

Boucher, J., 2009. Weed Control Using Zone-Tillage. Connecticut Farm Fresh Cooperative Association Annual Meeting, 7 February 2009, Glastonbury, CT (39 attended)

Boucher, J. 2009. A Sustainable Approach to Working with Vegetable Farmers. USDA: Ag Outlook Forum. Feb. 26-27, Arlington, VA. (80 attended).

Cecarelli, N. and J. Boucher, 2009. Do’s & Don’ts of Deep Zone-Tillage in Vegetables. Connecticut Vegetable & Small Fruit Growers’ Conference, 22 January 2009, Vernon, CT (175 attended)

Boucher, J. 2009. Deep Zone-tillage: What is it and What are the Benefits. New England Vegetable and Berry Growers’ Association 574th Meeting, 9 January 2009, Chicopee, MA (100 people)

Boucher, J. and C. Bornt (Session coordinators/moderators). 2009. Grower Experiences with Deep Zone Tillage. New England Vegetable & Fruit Conference and Trade Show. 16 December 2009. Manchester, NH. (138 attended)

Boucher, J. 2009. Why Deep Zone Tillage/Vertical Tillage. Ibid.

Cecarelli, N. 2009. Transitioning to Deep Zone Tillage. Ibid.

Scott, T. 2009. Stabilizing Profits on Our Farm. Ibid.

Ayres, G. 2009. Zone-Till 12 years Later. Ibid.

Sweet., G. 2009. Why We Switched from Conventional-till to Strip-till. Ibid.

Boucher, J. and Nelson Cecarelli. 2010. Deep Zone Tillage for Dairy. Crop Production Services Dairy Workshop. 23 March 2010, Storrs, CT. (30 attended)

Cecarelli, N. and J. Boucher. 2010. Transitioning to Deep Zone Tillage. Crop Production Services Dairy Workshop. 23 March 2010, Storrs, CT.

Boucher, J. 2010. Deep Zone Tillage. Mid-Atlantic Fruit & Vegetable Conference, 2 February 2010, Hershey, PA. (120 attended)

Boucher, J. 2010. 30 Reasons to Switch to Deep Zone Tillage. Scotia Horticultural Congress. 25 January 2010, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada (45 attended)

Boucher, J. 2010. IPM for Pest, Crop and Farm. Long Island Agricultural Forum, 14 January 2010, River Head, NY. (90 attended)

Manual, Proceedings, Abstracts, Web Site and Magazine Articles

Boucher, J. 2009. A Sustainable Approach to Working with Vegetable Farmers (abstract). USDA’s 2009 Ag Outlook Forum Speakers Handbook: Global Agriculture & Rural America in Transition. USDA: Ag Outlook Forum. Feb. 26-27, Arlington, VA. p. 80. www.usda.gov/oce/forum/

Boucher, J. 2009. Why Deep Zone Tillage/Vertical Tillage. Proceedings of the New England Vegetable & Fruit Conference and Trade Show. December 15-17. Manchester, NH. p. 147-150. www.newenglandvfc.org.

Ayres, G. 2009. Zone Tillage – 12 Years Later. Proceedings of the New England Vegetable & Fruit Conference and Trade Show. December 15-17. Manchester, NH. p. 151-152. www.newenglandvfc.org.

Sweet, G. 2009. Adapting to the 21st Century: Switching from Conventional Tillage to Strip Tillage. Proceedings of the New England Vegetable & Fruit Conference and Trade Show. December 15-17. Manchester, NH. p. 153. www.newenglandvfc.org.

Boucher, J. 2009. Reduced Tillage to Improve Soil Health. p. 11-12 In, 2010-2011 New England Vegetable Management Guide. J. Howell, Editor. New England Coop. Ext. Sys. Pub. pp. 280. www.nevegetable.org.

Wooly, D. 2010. Deep Zone Tillage Can Help in Soil Health. Fruit & Vegetable Magazine. Based on a presentation by J. Boucher and interview. April 2010. pp. 2. (www.fruitandveggie.com)

Discussion Groups

Boucher, J., N. Cecarelli, W. Collins, T. Jones, J. Halfinger, E. Weil. 2008. Introduction to Reduced Tillage for Vegetable Growers: Farmer-to-Farmer Discussion Group, January 2008, Vernon, CT. (18 attended)

Hazzard, R. and J. Boucher. 2009. DZT Grower Grant Advisory Group Meeting. 26 March 2009 Westminster, MA. (10 attended)

Boucher, J. and C. Bornt. (Discussion Leaders). 2009. Farmer-to-Farmer Discussion Group on “Grower Experiences with Deep Zone Tillage.” New England Vegetable & Fruit Conference and Trade Show. 16 December 2009. Manchester, NH. (45 attended).

Twilight meetings/Farm tours

Boucher, J. 2008. Implementing IPM Training on the Caturano Farm. USDA NRCS Connecticut Farm Tour, 23 October, 2008, Durham, CT. (15 administrators & farmers – including the National Director of NRCS, A. Lancaster; State NRCS Conservationist, D. Zehner; and CT Ag Commissioner, P. Perrelli).

Boucher, J. 2008. IPM, Reduced Tillage & Perimeter Trap Cropping. Jones Family Farm Tour, 30 September 2008, Shelton, CT. (for UConn Provost Nickels, Vice Provost Bull, Dean Weidemann and other administrators). 10 attended.

Boucher, J. 2008. Cucurbit Disease Control/Tomato IPM/CT Growers using Zone, tillage, Vegetable Twilight Meeting at URI, August 18, 2008, URI Agronomy Farm, Kingston, RI (35 attended)

Los, L. and J. Boucher. 2008. Orchard Management and Zone-Tillage on CT Vegetable Farms, Quinnebaug Valley Fruit Growers’ Summer Meeting and Farm Tour, June 24 2008, Palazzi Orchards, E. Killingly, CT (20 attended)

Boucher, J., N. Cecarelli, T. Scott, Eben Weil, and R. Kszystyniak. Zone-Tillage on the Cecarelli Farm, Annual Vegetable Growers’ Twilight Meeting Series, June 5, 2008, Northford, CT (70-80 attended)

Dzen, D., Boucher, J., L. Los and R. Coles. 2009. Dzen’s Farm Tour. Northeast IPM Center Advisory Council Annual Meeting. 4 November 2009. Ellington, CT (30 attended)

Boucher, J. and N. Cecarelli. 2009. Class Trip/Cecarelli Farm Tour, Northford, CT on 9/11/09. SAPL 017/PlSC 212 Vegetable Production. Department of Plant Science. 3 credits. Instructor: G. Berkowitz. (20 students)

Hazzard, R. 2009. A Farm Day on DZT. UMass Research Farm, 16 July, Deerfield, MA.

Boucher, J. and G. Hamilton. 2010. Zone Tillage and Soil Health Farm Twilight Meeting. 2 June 2010, Wilson Farm, Litchfield, NH. (50 growers/educators)

Boucher, J. 2010. DZT farm tour for Nova Scotia Educator and Vegetable Grower Association President. 19-20 May 2010. (8 attended)

Boucher, J. and N. Cecarelli. 2010. Class Trip/Cecarelli Farm Tour, Northford, CT on 9/17/10. SAPL 017/PlSC 212 Vegetable Production. Department of Plant Science. 3 credits. Instructor: G. Berkowitz. (25 students)

Newsletter/website articles and case studies

Boucher, J. 2008. Soil Health and Deep Zone Tillage, Crop Talk: UConn’s Commercial Vegetable and Fruit Crops Newsletter, Vol. 4, No. 1: 2-4. www.hort.uconn.edu/ipm/. circulation 860.

Holm, D. 2009. Deep Zone Tillage: Improved Cultivation Options for a Cold Climate. Innovations, Winter 2008/2009, p. 8-10. (based on interview, articles and SARE report by J. Boucher).

Boucher, J. 2009. 2008 Compaction and Organic Matter Survey Results for CT Vegetable Farms. Crop Talk: Commercial Vegetable & Fruit Crops Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp 1-3. www.hort.uconn.edu/ipm/.

Boucher, J. 2009. Measuring Soil Health Before Converting to Deep Zone-Tillage. Crop Talk: Commercial Vegetable & Fruit Crops Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp 3-5. www.hort.uconn.edu/ipm/.

Boucher, J. and N. Cecarelli. 2009. Case Study: Deep Zone-Tillage, Cecarelli Farm, Northford, CT. Crop Talk: Commercial Vegetable & Fruit Crops Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 3, p. 1-5. www.hort.uconn.edu/ipm/.

Boucher, J. 2010. Survey Results: Growers Very Happy With Deep Zone Tillage. Crop Talk: Commercial Vegetable & Fruit Crops Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 1, p. 1-3. www.hort.uconn.edu/ipm/.

Boucher, J. and T. Scott. 2010. Case Study II: Deep Zone Tillage at Scott’s Yankee Farmer, E. Lyme, CT. Crop Talk: Commercial Vegetable & Fruit Crops Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 2, p. 2-4. www.hort.uconn.edu/ipm/.

Boucher, J. 2010. Deep Zone Tillage Growers/Educators/Equipment Dealers. Crop Talk: Commercial Vegetable & Fruit Crops Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 2, p. 7,11. www.hort.uconn.edu/ipm/.

Boucher, J. 2010. Reporters Comments by County. Crop Progress & Condition. USDA New England Ag Statistics. 24 May, p. 3. (650 receive)

Additional Grants

Boucher, J. 2010. Bringing Deep Zone Tillage to CT & New England Vegetable Farms. CT Dept. of Agriculture/USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant. 11/1/10-12/31/13.

Since 2009, Extension Educators in MA, VT and RI have also received grants in DZT.


Concklin. M, and J. Boucher. 2010. Deep Zone Tillage Improves Soil Health. CT Vegetable & Small Fruit Growers’ Conference, 20 January 2011 Vernon, CT. (175 attended) www.hort.uconn.edu/ipm/.

Concklin. M, and J. Boucher. 2010. Deep Zone Tillage Benefits and Challenges. CT Vegetable & Small Fruit Growers’ Conference, 20 January 2011, Vernon, CT. (175 attended) www.hort.uconn.edu/ipm/.

Concklin. M, and J. Boucher. 2010. Deep Zone Tillage Equipment. CT Vegetable & Small Fruit Growers’ Conference, 20 January 2011, Vernon, CT. (175 attended) www.hort.uconn.edu/ipm/.

Concklin. M, and J. Boucher. 2010. Deep Zone Tillage Grower Experiences. CT Vegetable & Small Fruit Growers’ Conference, 20 January 2011, Vernon, CT. (175 attended) www.hort.uconn.edu/ipm/.

Concklin. M, and J. Boucher. 2010. Steps to Implementing Deep Zone Tillage. CT Vegetable & Small Fruit Growers’ Conference, 20 January 2011, Vernon, CT. (175 attended) www.hort.uconn.edu/ipm/.

Outreach effectiveness

The initial Reduced-tillage discussion group held in Vernon, CT in January of 2008, had a limited audience (18 by invitation) but succeeded in convincing two growers to buy a DZT machine and one to partner in this grant as a DZT mentor grower. The 2008 twilight meeting at Nelson Cecarelli’s farm attracted about 75 people and at least 2 growers who attended eventually purchased a DZT machine. The DZT and Soil Health Conference in Sturbridge, MA in December of 2008 succeeded in introducing 75 more growers to DZT and some of the soil improvements that the new system could help provide. After a second grower advisory/discussion group meeting in MA and a January 2009 New England Vegetable and Berry Grower Association talk, at least a half dozen MA growers purchased machines. After Nelson’s DZT talk at the 2009 CT Vegetable & Small Fruit Growers’ Conference, 22 growers out of 175 stated on the evaluations that they would adopt DZT and at least 1 or 2 have purchased a machine. One grower, who swaps land for rotation purposes with a neighbor, prepared and planted the neighbor’s sweet corn using DZT to maintain a reduced tillage system on his own land and to encourage the neighbor to buy a machine of his own. The neighbor did purchase a machine and has participated in two educational events as a DZT mentor grower. Additional growers purchased machines after the NEVFC session and discussion group in Manchester, NH in December of 2009 (138 and 45 attended). The first 5 growers who adopted DZT listed the following methods as the best ways for Extension to get DZT information to farmers: small localized meetings at farms, visit growers and talk about DZT, newsletter articles, networking between growers and email/letters. All 5 of the early adopters visited a DZT farmer or multiple DZT farmers before purchasing a machine and this continues to be an important step in the conversion process. To aid this effort, we posted contact information for these 5 growers on the web and they have all entertained visits from new farmers interested in DZT. Initial efforts by Extension to lend machines to growers have not proven to be an effective method of getting growers to purchase a machine of their own. Perhaps this will change with continued efforts.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

In 2008, N. Cecarelli reported his highest yields ever on 55 acres of sweet corn using zone-tillage in a very dry season. Yields increased by 50 bags per acre over previous record highs: worth $26,125 ($475/acre). Fuel savings were estimated at $32/acre, totaled $1,760, and will increase as oil prices rise. Nelson’s fuel delivery man actually complained that he wasn’t using near as much fuel as he once did. In 2010, some of Nelson’s fields yielded as much as 325 bags per acre: almost twice the state average. This grower attributed the following factors to the increased yields: soil moisture preservation and higher germination rates when planting in dry conditions, ability to plant wet fields during rainy years, and formally unproductive “wet holes” turning into productive ground.

In 2008, Tom Scott found that he saved 3.25 gallons of diesel fuel per acre by using DZT. Currently, diesel prices are approaching $4/gallon, which translates to $13 per acre in fuel savings. He also reduced his labor and tractor time by one hour per acre ($30 per acre). In 2009, he reduced his fuel consumption and field preparation time more by hitching his planter to his Zone Builder and both preparing and planting the field in a single pass. A grower in NY who keeps meticulous books calculated that he saved $56 per acre for fuel, labor and nitrogen.

In 2009, Wilson Farm in Litchfield, NH almost eliminated Phytophthora damage from his pumpkins in the wettest year ever, after having a near-total crop failure in 2008. In 2010, the Wilson Farm in Lexington, MA purchased a second Zone Builder to help break up the plow pan under raised-beds. Their manager reported the best quality carrots, beets and lettuce they had ever grown.

Farmer Adoption

Our most important performance goal was to convert at least 10 New England growers to deep zone-till by the end of the project to serve as examples and mentors, and to help accelerate the adoption of DZT in New England. Nine growers participated in educating conventional till growers during the project by making presentations at conferences, twilight meetings or farm tours. The PI followed the progress of the first 5 growers to transition to the new system closely to document benefits and challenges that they faced and to help them overcome the latter.

A total of 19 farmers and 4 educators are now using DZT in New England. Additional growers and educators have adopted DZT in PA and Nova Scotia as a result of this work. VT educators have lent their machines to others interested in DZT for them to try before they buy. At least 12 growers borrowed DZT machines in 2010. Researchers at MA intend to loan their machine to growers to try in 2011. Two growers own more than one zone builder: one for large-seeded vegetable crops and a second to use with raised-bed systems. Some growers have constructed their own machines out of existing equipment on the farm, while others have made adjustments to improve the efficiency of the machines they purchased, or purchased additional equipment to compliment their reduced till system. Example of equipment adjustments/purchases include: adding hydraulic lifts to the depth wheels so that the machine can more easily travel on the road; adding shims to reduce the spring reset tension to compensate for rocky ground; adding fifth-wheel style hitches to pull their planter to both prepare the ground and plant in one pass; adding no-till disks to their side-dresser to help incorporate nitrogen and reduce volatilization; and purchasing grain drills or no-till drills to complete their transition to reduced tillage.

The PI has personally contacted 16 of the growers and all of the educators using DZT. All of the growers who have been contacted have stated that DZT is faster, easier, and less expensive than conventional tillage and none of them plan to return to their old tillage system. They are all happy or “thrilled” with their new system and make statements such as “it feels like I’m cheating when I plant corn because it is so fast” and “I would never go back to conventional tillage” and “we grew the best carrots I ever produced.” Several have had the highest yields of their lives during their first DZT season and one that has been using the system for 4 years has had unprecedented yields each year since he switched systems. Most growers have also experience crop quality improvements as well, such as cleaner pumpkins and butternut squash, less blackrot and Phytophthora problems, longer and bigger carrots and beets, and no dry tip on sweet corn.

The first 5 growers to adopt DZT were surveyed at the end of 2009. They all said they saved field preparation time, fuel, machine hours and maintenance time using DZT and improved their yields. One grower took the time to plow and harrow one square acre and DZT another, and measured the time it took and the fuel it used. He reduced his field preparation time from 1.5 to 0.5 hours (67%) and his fuel consumption from 4.5 to 1.25 gallons (72%). He then constructed a hitch for his planter so that he could prepare the field and plant in a single pass and reduced his time and fuel even more (83% and 78%, respectively). Those measurements match what I have seen in the literature. They all felt that they improved their yields in 2009 because of their ability to plant wet fields on time with the new system. One grower experienced much better seed germination in a spring drought during 2007 using DZT. They also commented that there was an “increase in organic matter and general soil health” and that it was “alleviating compaction” and providing “much better drainage.”

In January of 2011, as I was leaving a conference, a grower approached me and asked about whether he should switch to DZT. After I provided a brief reassurance that it was the right move to make, we were interrupted by another grower’s question and the first farmer headed for the door. When I caught up to him by the door a minute later he was surrounded by three DZT converts who were telling him that he just had to switch to DZT because it was much faster, easier and less expensive than what he was currently doing. I have always thought that when enough growers try this system, it will start to sell itself, and I finally got to witness it happening first hand. I predict that there will be 50 DZT growers in New England within two years and over 100 by 2015! I am hopeful that one day there will be more striped, mulched DZT fields in New England each spring, than bare, brown conventional-till fields, with soils exposed to the elements.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

Research from small plot, strip plot, or split field studies seem to show that DZT and conventional tillage have similar yields; however, in almost every case that we followed, yields seemed to increase dramatically on a whole-farm basis using DZT. The reasons for this discrepancy need to be investigated and quantified.

Growers report reduced levels of Phytophthora using DZT which needs to be quantified. The same is true for black rot on cucurbit crops and dry tip on sweet corn.

One DZT grower using liquid N (applied 7-8 inches below the crop row) experienced some yellowing and stunting of sweet corn due to a rapid decline in pH (from 6.2 in areas where crop was green to 5.2 in damaged areas). Low soil OM levels may have contributed to this problem because the soil lacked the ability to buffer the acidification process caused by a single large application of N. Deep-soil, liquid-N applications seem to work in heavier soils in NY. Research should investigate why there was trouble with this application method in the lighter soils of New England and how to alleviate the problem.

One of the most remarkable transformations we witnessed on growers farm’s that use DZT occurred in “wet holes” or low areas prone to “ponding” or flooding after heavy rains. Nelson Cecarelli had a 9-acre field with a 1-acre wet hole in the middle that always posed an obstacle to cultivation, side-dressing and spraying operations. This wet area always produced stunted crops that failed to mature on time and were never harvested. After three years of DZT, and in the wettest season on record (2009), the crop in this wet hole was the same height and matured at the same rate as the crop in the rest of the field. If this is happening in all the wet holes throughout his farm, it may help explain higher yields on a whole farm basis for DZT growers, and why the yield increases are not detected in small-plot replicated studies which are generally conducted on good ground. It would be interesting to study the soil health effects that occur as this unproductive ground turns into productive ground.

Finally, follow-up Soil Health Tests should be conducted on DZT farms to document the actual changes in soil health indicators over 5 or 10 years.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.