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

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: general silage crops
  • Fruits: melons, apples, peaches, berries (strawberries)
  • Vegetables: beans, beets, broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, cucurbits, eggplant, greens (leafy), peppers, radishes (culinary), rutabagas, sweet corn, tomatoes, turnips, brussel sprouts
  • Additional Plants: herbs, ornamentals


  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, mentoring, workshop, technical assistance
  • Energy: energy conservation/efficiency
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, soil stabilization
  • Pest Management: mulches - killed, mulching - plastic, cultivation
  • Soil Management: soil analysis, soil microbiology, soil chemistry, organic matter, soil physics, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: partnerships

    Proposal abstract:

    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. Our conventional and IPM 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 multiple times. Multiple tillage trips across the field are expensive and produce plow and disc-pans which often prevents root growth beyond 8-12 inches deep and leads to soil flooding and disease problems. Constant tillage also oxidizes soil organic matter resulting in the loss of soil structure and the inability of the soil to hold water, nutrients and pesticides, which may end up in surface or ground water. With bare-ground production, more organic matter is lost than can be replaced through the use of winter cover crops and by incorporating crop residue. Loss of organic matter can also cause the soil on the surface to plate, making an almost impenetrable barrier, which prevents seed emergence and leads to water pooling. As the farms are divided and handed down to new generations, new growers are pushed off the bottom land and onto the slopes, where they continue to use bare-cultivation practices that result in severe soil loss. In 2006, one grower actually resorted to building rock “bridges” every 100 yards or so, across four-foot-deep erosion ditches, so that he could spray his sweet corn for insect pests, and then, rebuilt them when they washed out. As land trusts buy up open land in CT, they often institute policies that prevent farmers from using excessive tillage to prevent further damage to the property. Such policies limit future vegetable production in a state where land is so expensive. As urbanization spreads across New England, farmers also have trouble with new neighbors along the farm boundaries who object to the dust and noise. Fuel prices continue to rise making multiple tillage trips cost prohibitive. Vegetable farmers in an increasingly- crowded region can no longer afford to farm using the same techniques that their father’s used. They must adopt reduced-tillage systems that are capable of addressing all these problems or become extinct in New England.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Deep zone tillage/strip tillage/vertical tillage systems can address all of the problems mentioned above and more. Unlike no-till, which relies on a heavy blanket of plant residue to protect the soil and delays the warming of the soil and crop growth in Northern climates, zone tillage uses a 5-inch-wide tilled strip to simultaneously break up plow pans, warm the soil and prepare a seedbed. A deep shank or subsoiler breaks up the plow-pan while fluted coulters cut a strip in the residue/cover crop, and rolling baskets helps break up clods to prepare the narrow seedbed. Most of the ground between the crop rows retain the heavy residue and is protected. The 5-inch-wide tilled strip is slightly raised, warms faster than covered soils, and does not allow water to build up enough speed to erode a slope.

    When combined with the use of cover crops, the constant accumulation of organic matter using this system reverses the deterioration of the soil, improves soil drainage, increases soil water and nutrient holding capacity, and allows beneficial soil organisms to thrive. A grower that switched to zone tillage this year in CT, reduced dust problems when preparing fields near a crowded neighborhood, preserved soil moisture which allowed his sequential plantings to go in on time, had better plant stands than his bare-ground fields, prevented dry tips on his sweet corn, and acquired new rental land from a land trust that doesn’t permit bare-cultivation. He also made fewer trips across the field with his tractor, saved on fuel and had his best yields ever, despite a prolonged drought. Although these benefits were not obvious is such a dry year, he also helped reduce his Phytophthora problem by breaking up the plow pan, added to his soil organic matter instead of mining more away, and provided insurance against soil erosion and the necessity of building more “stone bridges,” had it been a wet year.

    This project will consist of a soil health 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 will partner with and use workshops, twilight meetings, conferences, discussions groups, newsletter/web site articles and case studies to disseminate zone-tillage information. Soil health base-line surveys will be conducted on new zone-till farms and on an additional 30 farms across CT to help document problems sucah a s low organic matter levels and soil compacdtion (i.e. plow-pans).

    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.