A comparison of organic no-till and traditional tillage/cultivation systems on a small-scale vegetable farm

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2014: $2,344.00
Projected End Date: 03/14/2017
Grant Recipient: River Bend Farm
Region: Southern
State: Kentucky
Principal Investigator:
Maggie Bowling
River Bend Farm

No Final Report. Project not completed due to a number of issues encountered by the grant recipient. Grant project closed out and deobligated 12/17.

Annual Reports


  • Vegetables: cucurbits, tomatoes


  • Crop Production: no-till

    Proposal summary:

    River Bend Farm provides vegetables to customers in eastern Kentucky through both direct sales and limited wholesale accounts. We have opted to focus our efforts on intensive management from a relatively small acreage (approximately 2.25 acres under cultivation during the 2014 season) rather than increasing the amount of overall land in production. As a result, we are very attuned to both protecting our soil’s productive capacity as well as minimizing labor costs. Statement of Problem: We at River Bend Farm are committed to organic growing methods, but crop establishment and weed control on organic farms often relies on intensive cultivation. This intensive soil working is problematic from the standpoint of soil health, however. Research has demonstrated that extensive cultivation can foster a variety of ill effects including increased soil erosion, high levels of compaction, decreased soil biological function, and reduced soil organic matter levels. We find these conclusions disturbing. We have opted to use organic growing practices not only to avoid pesticide and herbicide residues, but also because we value the natural ecosystem functions provided by a healthy biological system. However, the detrimental aspects of traditional tillage and cultivation practices can eventually lead to decreases in soil health. While declining soil health is neither biologically or financially sustainable, until recently there were few alternative crop establishment and weed management solutions for small-scale organic producers. Statement of Proposed Solution We feel that the introduction of no-till techniques onto small-scale farms could address the aforementioned challenges associated with excessive cultivation. Our conviction in this matter stems from the development of an innovative organic no-till system developed over the past decade. This organic no-till approach is the picture of simplicity: The producer grows a heavy cover crop in the season before the cash crop is to be planted. When it is time for the cash crop to be planted, the cover crop is mechanically killed using a roller-crimper (a piece of equipment that breaks the plant stems but retains the plant residue intact on the soil surface). The cash crop is planted through the dead cover crop, which serves as a biological mulch. The dead cover crop mulch suppresses weed growth during the critical period of crop establishment, which eliminates the need for cultivation. This no-till system has enjoyed success in both experimental and on-farm applications for over a decade. Despite these successes, the equipment required to practice this system have been available only for large horsepower tractors. This lack of appropriately scaled equipment meant that it was not feasible for small acreage farmers to pursue this organic no-till system. This dearth of small-scale equipment has begun to change, however. Roller-crimpers and no-till seeders specifically designed for two-wheel (i.e. walk behind) tractors have recently become commercially available. While this no-till system has proven successful on large farms, research about the biological and financial implications of this method on small acreages is extremely limited. This has proven challenging because some research results originating from large acreage producers –particularly in regard to financial findings – may not be valid for smaller farmers. To address this knowledge gap, our overarching goal is to examine the soil health and financial implications of implementing an organic no-till vegetable system using two-wheel tractor equipment.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This project has two specific sub-goals:

    1. Measure potential yield differences between the organic no-till system and traditional tillage/cultivation practices;
    2. Calculate the economic implications of each production system by accounting for any observed yield differences and variations in labor hours.

    Large-scale vegetable farms currently practicing organic no-till have demonstrated success with tomatoes and winter squash. As such, we propose to use tomatoes and winter squash as our test crops in this trial. Specific methods follow:

    1. Crops tended with no-till practices will be the experimental treatment, while crops grown with traditional establishment and cultivation will serve as controls.
    2. At least 150 tomato plants will be transplanted in the experimental treatment, with an equal number being transplanted into the control treatment. Approximately 500 row feet of winter squash will be direct-seeded in the experimental treatment, with an equal amount being direct-seeded into the control treatment.
    3. All plots will be established into areas that are planted to an identical cover crop mixture.
    4. Experimental plot preparation will consist of roller-crimping the existing cover crop, and control crop plot preparation will consist of plowing under existing cover crop.
    5. Both experimental and control crops will be planted in the same field, and on the same soil type.
    6. Standard crop rotation will occur between the 2015 season and the 2016 season.
    7. All crop establishment and harvest activities will occur on the same day for both control and experimental crops.
    8. Gross physical characteristics (soil temperature, soil moisture levels) will be taken from each plot at weekly intervals throughout the growing season. Crops will be drip irrigated if necessitated by environmental conditions.
    9. Crop yields (weight) and labor hours will be tracked for all treatments throughout the growing season, and will be assigned a monetary value at the end of the season. These data will be used to compare the profitability of this organic no-till system using two-wheel tractor equipment to standard establishment and cultivation practices.
    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.