Biointensive no-till farming in California: farmer-driven research and education on soil health, water efficiency and economic resiliency

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2020: $251,036.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2023
Host Institution Award ID: G112-21-W7899
Grant Recipients: University of California Berkeley; University of California Davis; Community Alliance with Family Farmers; Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Timothy Bowles
University of California Berkeley
Amanda Hodson
University of California, Davis
Sara Tiffany
Community Alliance with Family Farmers

7/15/2020: Adjusted end date per PI's request at onset of project. --JvS


  • Vegetables: greens (leafy)


  • Crop Production: no-till

    Proposal abstract:

    Small-scale farmers create innovative strategies for dealing with environmental and societal challenges, yet limited access to land and capital impacts their response capacity. One emerging, farmer-led innovation called “biointensive no-till” requires little capital investment and aims to enhance ecosystem health through a soil conservation ethos that reduces tillage, increases cropping density, and maximizes biodiversity. Farmers utilizing this method have reported promising outcomes for soil health, water conservation, farm profitability, and adaptive capacity to climate change. Yet agroecological research has not caught up, and limited documentation of these benefits exists despite increasing adoption across the state (Biointensive No-Till Symposium Report, February 2019). Furthermore, information on biointensive no-till has primarily spread through non-traditional channels such as social media and farmer-led courses. Producers have expressed a desire for an accessible and robust learning network, as well as for support from scientists in monitoring farmer experimentation. To address these needs, this project has been collaboratively designed with small-scale, limited-resource farmers in California to sustain economically and ecologically sustainable farms through research, education, and extension on biointensive no-till systems.

    Specifically, a coalition of researchers, non-profits, and partner farms will explore how management practices on existing biointensive no-till systems affect soil health (carbon, microbial activity, and biodiversity), water conservation (soil water retention), farm economic resilience (including labor costs, land security, distribution networks), and potential response to climate change scenarios (crop nutrient density, drought response, seed biodiversity). This research builds on existing farmer partnerships that have included co-created colloquia, field days, and preliminary on-farm and field station research. These initial findings will inform replicated experiments at partner farms and trials at producers’ existing no-till sites. Further, producers will guide the continuation of no-till experiments begun in 2017 at the Berkeley’s Oxford Tract Field Station and 2012 at the UC Gill Tract Community Farm. This extensive experimentation will help a growing network of farmers better understand how their management practices are impacting their soil, farm, and community.

    We will also establish a ‘community science’ training program through partnerships with regional community colleges and high schools to increase producer participation in research and education, ensure the scientific rigor of farmers’ observations, and share science-based extension. These partnerships are already well established in many of our cooperating producers and partners, and will expand to include regional training programs for students in soil science and agroecological research techniques. This will be coupled with on-farm field days and workshops. Ultimately, this set of nested programs aims to produce a thriving network of knowledge exchange between growers and their communities who span a range of traditional categories in agriculture (rural and urban, for-profit and nonprofit, volunteer and paid labor) but are united in their struggle against structural land and capital limitations.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Assess how producer-selected biointensive no-till practices on replicated field station and on-farm experiments impact functional dimensions of soil health identified by farmers as highest priority: A) Carbon stabilization and nutrient cycling; B) Microbial activity; C) Soil biodiversity, food web complexity and pest suppressive potential; D) Soil hydrologic properties and water retention. Years 1-3. (Bowles, Hodson, Rainey, Tiffany, Baurer)
    2. Compare the potential response of biointensive no-till farms to likely impacts of climate change in California through replicated field station and on-farm experiments that A) Evaluate drought response of model crops; B) Measure crop nutrient density for optimizing local nutrition; C) Evaluate how crop biodiversity impacts agroecosystems’ stress and heat tolerance. Year 2. (Bowles, Rainey, Tiffany, Baurer)
    3. Conduct an indicator-based analysis of economic resiliency through surveys and interviews across a rural-urban gradient investigating establishment cost and time, changes to inputs and labor, land tenure, impacts on total crop production, and distribution networks. Year 2. (Tiffany, Rainey, Rogé, Varas) 
    4. Implement a community science network through partnerships with regional community colleges and high schools to establish site-specific, farmer-led internships that feature monitoring of biointensive no-till practices on partner farms. Year 1. (Rogé, Varas, Tiffany, Kaiser, Kern, Whamond, Rainey, Bowles)
    5. Host a series of trainings through the community science network to hone on-farm and producer-driven measurements – including soil carbon, water inputs, and food web complexity – and offer technical assistance and resources to students and farmers evaluating these metrics. Years 1–3. (Rainey, Bowles, Rogé, Tiffany, Varas)
    6. Through workshops, events, written materials, and online learning platforms, share project findings and facilitate practical knowledge exchange on biointensive no-till adoption, implementation, and continued management. Years 2–3. (Rainey, Rogé, Tiffany, Varas, Baurer)
    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.