A farmer-researcher collaborative effort to design no-till systems appropriate for small-scale organic producers in Alabama and the Deep South

Project Overview

LS09-218
Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2009: $250,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Southern
State: Alabama
Principal Investigator:
Joseph Kloepper
Auburn University
Co-Investigators:
Dr. Jan Garrett
Auburn university

Annual Reports

Commodities

Not commodity specific

Practices

  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration
  • Pest Management: mulches - killed, smother crops, weed ecology
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture, permaculture, transitioning to organic
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil analysis, soil quality/health

    Abstract:

    The purpose of this project was for farmers and researchers to collaborate to develop effective strategies for organic no till management in small scale vegetable production systems. Since each farm is unique in its location, soil type, crops grown, and the inclusion of livestock into their farming operation, and since the farmer is the expert about his/her particular farm ecosystem, he/she should have the best chance at success in developing an organic no-till (NT) system. Researchers, on the other hand, have more flexibility to experiment with cover crops and planting methods without having to risk losing their income. This project attempted to combine the strengths of both parties: farmers chose their cover crops and cash crops with some advice from the researchers, equipment was supplied for the farmers’ use and combined with field trips to demonstrate no-till techniques, and researchers evaluated various cover crop and cash crop combinations on the research stations.

    Five small-scale farmers that practice organic production methods were chosen to participate in this NT research project. They represented a variety of situations and farming systems, some are certified organic, some Naturally Grown, some not certified, some are experienced, some are new farmers, but they are all committed to sustainable organic production methods.

    The collaboration for the present project involved site visits to all participating farms by researchers and farmers at the beginning of the project to view the site and to discuss the farmers’ plans. USDA-ARS and AU provided assistance to farmers with implementation of NT as needed. The farmers maintained the tillage treatments for the duration of the study and corresponded with researchers about problems and updates. Researchers visited the farms periodically throughout the year to assess progress and collect data. Field days were held at participating farms and the results of the project were presented at the Annual Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network conference the final year.

    Participating farmers in the state were assisted in the implementation of organic NT by providing them with equipment, technical information, and site specific recommendations. The Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network (ASAN) owns and manages a pool of NT equipment and a trailer for hauling it. The equipment: seed drill, roller, crimper, and transplanter, and the trailer, was made available for use by growers in the state. A walk-behind tractor with a flail mower attachment was added to the equipment pool by funds requested from this grant.

    Four of the five participating farmers achieved partial success at developing organic NT systems. They produced a good cover crop stand and planted crops into the residue. However, none of them experienced a high degree of success. The lesson that was learned was that organic NT vegetable production is very challenging the Deep South due to the rapid decomposition of the cover crop residue and the amount of space left between subsequent vegetable crop rows. The combination of these two factors leaves ample opportunities for weeds to invade and interfere with the vegetable operation. The residue, though not in sufficient quantities to suppress weeds, was present in sufficient quantities to interfere with NT weed management strategies such as mowing.

    The overall conclusion was that the common vegetable production row crop systems, as practiced in the Deep South, with aisles left between crop rows for harvesting and equipment passage is not conducive to organic NT with the tools that we presently have at our disposal, such as the cover crop species now on the market. There are no known living mulch alternatives that can withstand summer heat, drought, and traffic. At some point in the future, there may be crops that can be used in the aisles to suppress weeds in summer vegetable row crops.

    It became apparent during this project that a different strategy was needed for organic NT vegetable production. Field crops that are planted closely together can rapidly form a closed canopy and shade the soil which helps in weed suppression. Fall vegetable crops are not impacted by weed competition to the degree that summer vegetable crops are. Winter grains and cole crops are good candidates for organic NT systems.

    A new collaboration was established between Auburn University and the USDA-ARS National Soils Dynamics Lab to implement and manage long term organic vegetable tillage trials at E.V. Smith Research Station. This research is producing some promising results. The first year the NT plots did not perform as well as the tilled plot, but the second year the seed drill was adjusted so that the small kale seed made better soil contact and the result was that the no till yield was comparable to that of the tilled treatments. Cereal rye grain biomass was also similar between tillage treatments indicating that tillage is not necessary for winter grain production or for fall vegetable field crops in the Deep South.

    Some factors that may be responsible for the greater success of this NT cropping system compared to the vegetable row crop systems include the following. This experiment was planted as a field crop, with the rows close together. There were no aisles left unplanted for weeds to invade. The summer crop, sunn hemp, is drought tolerant and grew well without irrigation, and is very effective at suppressing summer weeds. We were growing is winter crops which are not impacted by weed competition to the extent that summer crops are and they did not require irrigation.

    A new implement was designed by Ted Kornecki, engineer for the USDA-ARS Soils Dynamics Lab (NSDL) for small-scale farmers to be able to implement NT: a roller/crimper for a BCS walk behind tractor. This implement has a patent pending and is offered for sale by Earth Tools.

    The roller crimper was demonstrated at the 7 field days held during the project period. Other methods of terminating cover crops were demonstrated as well: using a tiller with the tines unengaged, using the bottom of the front end loader bucket to lay down the cover crop, using a flail mower powered by a BCS to cut the cover crop, as well as a full size roller crimper powered by a category II tractor for farmers with larger areas in NT production. The other tool that is needed for small-scale NT production is a seed drill that can be operated by a small tractor.

    The results of this project have helped to identify the constraints to implementing successful organic NT vegetable production systems and the areas where more research and educational effort is needed. For example, growers need more information on cover crops and they need more encouragement to value their cover crops as much as their cash crops. Another important achievement of this project was the recognition that grain crops or field crops may be more appropriate for organic no-till systems in the Deep South and the progress made in developing a viable model.

    Project objectives:

    1. Establish a collaborative effort between farmers and researchers to identify NT production methods that are appropriate for a variety of crops, soil types, and farming scales suitable for organic vegetable production in the Deep South.
    2. Evaluate the effectiveness of various high residue cover crops and mixtures for ease of growth, maintenance of soil fertility, and weed control.
    3. Evaluate tillage treatments across various soil types, cash crops, and cover crops, with respect to soil fertility, weed control, crop yield, and farmer acceptance.
    4. Expand NT production practices in AL by assisting small-scale farmers in the state with the implementation of organic NT 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.