Problem and Justification: Small-scale vegetable farms (<15 acres) commonly depend on intensive, repeated tillage that is detrimental to soils and long-term productivity while continuing to struggle with weeds. For these farms, the consequences of heavy tillage are magnified by land constraints for sufficient cover crop windows and the high material and labor costs associated with organic mulches and amendments. These farmers represent an increasing majority of Northeast vegetable farms but there are few examples of successful reduced tillage (RT) and no-tillage (NT) management with scale-appropriate tools and equipment. These farmers have many concerns with reducing tillage, including weed and plant residue management, low soil temperatures and fertility, and poor crop establishment and/or lower yields. While RT strategies have been demonstrated to improve labor efficiencies and profitability on larger farms, benefits have been slow to accrue for smaller farms.
Solution and Approach: To advance adoption of RT on these small-scale vegetable farms, we will investigate opaque plastic tarps as a low-cost, labor-saving practice to reduce tillage intensity and add management flexibility. Despite farmer interest in tarping to address weed challenges, there has been little research that explores tarping as an RT strategy under a range of small-scale vegetable production systems. Our approach is designed to use tarps to overcome commonly cited concerns with RT. Our research and extension team, which includes our farmer advisors, will bring together expertise across the Northeast region (NY, ME, MA, PA) to take a whole-systems approach to advancing RT for these producers. Our integrated research and education effort starts with farmer-centered workshops using Dialogue Education (DE) strategies that facilitate peer-peer learning. Together, farmers will identify opportunities for RT, evaluate tarp rotation strategies to reduce risks of RT, and design individualized on-farm RT transition plans specific to their own goals. Subsequent farmer-led on-farm experimentation will be supported over multiple years through direct consulting, virtual discussion groups, webinars, and field days that help farmers evaluate and share their results, participate in knowledge sharing networks, and learn research findings to foster continued innovation of these RT systems. Using established permanent bed systems trials (NY, ME) with a history of different soil and crop management regimes, our research will explore how tarping, tillage and additional soil management practices change soil fertility, weed dynamics, and crop performance and the needed labor, equipment and other inputs required improve success of RT and NT for small-scale vegetables.
Performance targets from proposal:
Thirty participating small-scale vegetable farmers implement new tarp management plans to reduce their tillage intensity and report greater flexibility in bed management, 40 hours of labor savings, and an increase in net income by $1000 per tarped acre.