The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution; Review & Giveaway

The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution is an eye-opener for the gardener, farmer, or homesteader, who seeks to cultivate soil health wherever they grow. Andrew Mefferd was most obliging to send me a copy of his latest book for review and giveaway. It is my privilege to be able to offer you the chance to win a copy for yourself.

What is No-Till?

No-till is exactly what it sounds like: reducing or avoiding tillage in the garden or crop field. No-till is is about climate change, soil health, and farm profitability─it’s a way to improve all three at the same time. In the introduction of “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution”, Mefferd states:

Ultimately, no till is about the soil, and how improving soil health can also improve atmospheric health and farm bottom lines. Any one of these issues by itself is compelling enough to make us want to try no-till. The fact that no-till makes the connection between all three issues is what makes it so timely.

For example, if you only cared about farm profitability, and didn’t care about the soil or atmospheric health, no-till would still be worthwhile for improving farm efficiency and profitability. Growers who are happy with what they are earning, but want to grow in a more ecological method, will also be interested in no-till.

Avoiding tillage preserves soil structure and protects the soil by leaving crop residues on the soil surface. The improved structure and soil cover increase soil’s ability to absorb and infiltrate water, which in turn reduces soil erosion and run-off, and prevents pollution from entering nearby water sources. This creates an ideal environment for microbial life.

In “Cultivating Soil Health“, the first article in this series on soil, we discussed how plants use sunlight to convert carbon and water into carbohydrates. They use the carbohydrates to grow their roots, stems, leaves and seeds, and then exchange surplus carbohydrates for minerals and nutrients mined from the soil by the microbial life-forms. Carbon is the fuel source driving these interactions. By bolstering soil-life we’re effectively promoting the health of the crops we plant there, which means we can grow bigger (and more nutritious) vegetables and fruits, and we’ll have healthier, more disease-resistant crops.

No-till even lowers the barriers to beginning farmers, making it possible to start a farm without a tractor or even a rototiller. Runamuk is living proof of that. I don’t own a tiller and after buying Runamuk’s forever-farm I could not afford to pay someone to till a plot for our garden here. Yet through a combination of rotational grazing, occultation, and cover-cropping, I’ve managed to establish a fairly sexy 60ft x 100ft plot. If I can do it, anyone can.

Who is Andrew Mefferd?

Click image to purchase with Amazon.

Andrew Mefferd is a Maine farmer who spent 7 years in the research department at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. As part of his job there, he traveled around the world to consult with researchers and farmers about the best practices for greenhouse growing. From Johnny’s, Meffered moved on to become the editor and publisher of Growing for Market magazine. His first book was: “The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook“. Now he’s published a second book, entitled: “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution; High Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers”.

About the Book

Mefferd has written this book in a laid-back conversational tone, much like the way I write my blog-posts and articles. You feel as though you’re having a conversation with a friend or colleague, or sitting in on a presentation at an ag-conference. In the first part of the book, Mefferd has explained what no-till is, and all of the benefits and disadvantages associated with this method of growing. The second part of the book consists of the case-studies of 17 different farms who are using varying no-till techniques. It’s organized into chapters according to methodology: mulch grown in place, cardboard mulch, deep straw mulch, and compost mulch. Mefferd also highlights the use of plastic for occultation and solarization.

My Opinion

I really appreciate the way Andrew Mefferd has done the leg-work of visiting these farms to interview the farmers about their methods. In my own farming-journey, I’ve often found that learning from other farmers is a very powerful resource. Talking and discussing ideas with other farmers helps me improve my techniques or learn new skills. Sometimes, bouncing ideas off a peer helps me to muster the courage to try something new, or to take on a more intimidating project. While this book is not a step-by-step how-to manual, I do feel it’s worthy of a place on your shelf. What’s more, I feel this book should be shared with as many people as possible in order to spread the word about no-till farming and regenerative agriculture.

The Climate Solution

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to not only mitigate, but actually reverse global warming. At the same time, it provides solutions to other burning issues, such as poverty, public health, environmental degradation, and global conflict.

Read that last paragraph one more time, if you would─and think about what that means….

Regenerative agriculture is THE answer to all of the really big and burning problems humanity currently faces.

regenerative agriculture_definitionScientists have come to recognize that healthy soil plays an essential role in drawing down and sequestering carbon. According to the Rodale Institute, adopting these widely available and inexpensive organic management practices (deemed “regenerative agriculture“) would allow us to sequester all of our annual global greenhouse gas emissions (roughly 52 gigatonnes of CO2). These practices work to maximize carbon fixation, while minimizing the loss of carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect.

Rodale states that changing farming practices to organic, regenerative and agroecological systems can increase soil organic carbon stocks, decrease greenhouse gas emission, maintain, yields, improve water retention and plant uptake, improve farm profitability, and revitalize traditional farming communities, while ensuring biodiversity and resilience of ecosystem services. Rodale even goes so far as to say that regenerative organic agriculture is integral to the climate solution.

If you think this seems unlikely and impossible, Rodale has 3 decades worth of scientific data verifying these practices.

The Giveaway

Enter to win this copy of The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution! For 2 weeks, beginning Monday, July 22nd and ending at midnight on August 5th, I’m offering Runamuk followers the opportunity to win this book.

Regardless of where in the world you live, I am willing to send Mefferd’s book to you for FREE, because I want to share it with other growers. I want to inspire you, and the growers around you, to join the regenerative movement. No-till is an important tool in our arsenal of resources, and regenerative agriculture is how we ensure our children’s future on Earth.

Legally, participants must be at least 18, so if you’re younger, please recruit help from a parent or guardian to enroll. The winner will be drawn at random by Rafflecopter, who is hosting this giveaway for Runamuk, and announced on Wednesday, August 7th. No purchase necessary to play.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Possibilities

Andrew Mefferd’s “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution” introduces growers to the possibilities that no-till offers. It opens the door for new farmers, and advocates the sequestering of excess carbon to the soil beneath our feet as the solution to the climate crisis. Through regenerative agriculture we can avert global warming, improve our own existence, and preserve diversity on our planet for all creatures, great and small.

regenerative agriculture shifts the paradigmFarming can save us, folks. But not the kind of industrial farming we’ve been practicing these last 100 years. If we hope to leave our children any kind of legacy, we need farmers who are practicing these methods of regenerative agriculture. With only 2% of the population currently serving as “farmer”, we need lots and lots more people to step up and take on that crucial role. Read “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution” and join the movement today.

 

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the organic no-till farming revolution_review and giveaway

4 Strategies for Improving Soil Health: Garden, Farm, or Homestead

soil is more than just dirt

Growers have 4 key strategies for improving soil health in the garden, on the farm or at their homestead. Old-school growers may balk at the concept, yet studies show that focusing on soil health can increase the efficiency and profitability of a garden or crop-field, and provides an ecological benefit at the same time. What’s more, the health of the soil determines the health of the entire ecosystem, so by improving the soil, growers can provide an ecological benefit to the world around them.

Note: This is Part 2 in a series of articles and posts about Soil here on the Runamuk blog. Follow this link to read Part 1: Cultivating Soil Health.

soil is more than just dirt
Soil is so much more than just “dirt”! Photo via Food Tank─non-profit organization seeking solutions to nourish ourselves and protect the planet.

Try using these 4 strategies to begin improving soil health in your garden, or on your farm or homestead:

1. Reduce tillage:

the organic no-till farming revolution
Andrew Mefferd’s new book, which we will be giving away in the next few weeks!

Improving soil health is largely a matter of maintaining suitable habitat for the myriad creatures that comprise the soil food web. Every time we til the soil, we break up the soil aggregates and the life that exists within the soil is forced to start all over, re-building their homes and their population. Because organic residues decompose more slowly under a reduced tillage system, it lowers the soil temperature so that organic matter can accumulate. Simply by tilling less, we can increase our soil’s organic diversity and activity.

 

More and more, farmers are taking it a step further and turning to a no-til operation. Andrew Mefferd of One Drop Farm, for example, who recently published: “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High-Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers“.

Note: Check back soon for an upcoming book-review and giveaway!

2. Keep the soil covered:

cover cropping for soil health
Cover-crop of oats, field peas, and dwarf essex rape at Runamuk Acres.

Most people are thinking about erosion when they think about cover crops, but cover cropping does so much more than just “hold the soil”. Cover cropping decreases the breakdown of soil aggregates and increases the organic matter within the soil.

Soil microbes prefer a temperature somewhere around 75 degrees. Any colder and they tend to slow down; a little warmer and they’re on vacation─if the soil temperature gets too hot, you can even kill the microbes who live there. In a bare soil tillage system the soil temperatures can easily get up over 100 degrees!

In turn, this leads to an improvement in the soil structure and stability, increasing the soil’s moisture and nutrient holding capacity. Cover crops offers exactly the kind of habitat soil organisms are looking for.

3. Maximize plant diversity:

New research shows that plant diversity is the key to healthy soils.

A Lancaster University-led team of scientists produced new evidence that increasing plant species diversity can protect soil in grasslands by improving soil structure, thus maintaining the soil’s overall health.

In a series of experiments at field sites in the UK and Germany, scientist tested the soil’s structural stability when planted with a variety of grasses, herbs, and legumes. The researchers found that soil structure improved with higher plant diversity, and the diverse properties of different plant roots were the key factor in keeping soil healthy.

The reason for this is that plants’ roots excel at different things. Legumes are better at getting water into the soil and maintaining root-soil strength, while grasses have fine rooting systems that enhance the stability of soil─making it more resistant to erosion.

What’s more, different plants and their roots offer different habitats for microorganisms in the soil. By increasing the diversity of plant species in the garden or field, you’re inviting a broader spectrum of microorganisms to your soil, which increases your soil’s ability to ward off pests and diseases.

4. Manage Nutrients:

soil healthThe cooler soil temperatures found in a no-till or minimal tillage system promotes organic matter to accumulate, thereby increasing the soil’s microbial life. Yet, the activity of those microbes tends to be a little slower than when organic material is incorporated into the soil through conventional tillage. Surface mulch in conservation tillage systems takes longer to break down, and also impacts the mobility of certain nutrients─Nitrogen in particular.

Nutrients are usually stratified in conservation tillage systems because of the lack of substantial mechanical soil mixing. Stratification refers to the accumulation of soil nutrients in certain areas more than others. Nutrient levels tend to be higher near the soil surface where amendments are applied and where crop residues decay. This stratification can further influence rooting patterns, the availability of nutrients, and the effectiveness of herbicides (should you choose to use them).

It’s important to note, however, that studies have not found significant differences in the nutrient uptake of plants in these stratified no-till systems. Most issues associated with no-till and minimum tillage fertilizer efficiency can be overcome with good fertilizer management and a top-notch soil testing program (including taking more soil samples and getting an analysis annually) to accurately determine fertilizer rates.

Again, I encourage you to reach out to your local cooperative extension for a soil test kit. Spring soil tests provide a better indication of available Nitrogen than fall tests.

Work With Nature

It is important to remember that as gardeners, farmers, and homesteaders, we are actively participating in, and cultivating the natural processes at work around us. This farmer believes that─as growers─we have a responsibility to work with those natural processes, rather than against them. I believe that humanity has an obligation to care for, and look out for the other lifeforms we share this planet with. We have an obligation, too, to ensure the livelihoods of generations that come after us. Environmentally-conscious farming practices are how we do that.

Check back soon for the next article in this soil series! Subscribe by email to have the latest articles and posts from Runamuk delivered directly to your in-box! OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a glimpse into the day-to-day goings-ons at this Maine conservation farm!

strategies for improving soil health

Cultivating Soil Health: Garden, Farm, or Homestead

cultivating soil health

Cultivating soil health in our agricultural systems is vitally important─not just to our gardens and fields, homesteads and farms─but also to the ecosystems we coexist within. All of the life that exists on this planet is dependent upon our soil’s ability to host biological organisms. We’re incredibly fortunate that the conditions for life happened to align here on Earth, else we would not be here. It’s a marvel. A wonder. Promoting the health of our soils encourages life to flourish─both within the soil, and above it; and when life around us prospers, we will know more bountiful yields, and thus, we will prosper too.

cultivating soil healthAs I prepare to embark upon my first full-season here at Runamuk’s new (and forever) location, I’ve been reading up on soil, trying to gain a better understanding of what a healthy soil looks like, what the components are, and how I can create it. I’ve been gardening for more than 20 years now, yet I admit soil is still something that perplexes me. Maybe because it’s an entire world away, beneath our feet, and so much of what occurs there happens out of sight.

This is the first in a series of articles I’ve put together to help you (and me!) gain a better understanding of soil and how we can be cultivating soil health in our gardens, or on our farms and homesteads. Upcoming articles in this series include (but are not limited to): “4 Strategies for Improving Your Soil”, “Mulch on the Cheap – a Farm-Hack”, a guest-post* (topic TBD), and a review of Andrew Mefferd’s new book: “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution”. The whole series culminates in a giveaway of Mefferd’s book, so check back soon to get your name in for that!

Understanding Soil

We cannot talk about soil, without first talking about carbon. Carbon is the most essential element in soil fertility, aiding in the development of soil structure, water and nutrient retention, as well as the biological processes that occur within the soil. In sustainable agriculture you hear a lot about increasing the organic matter in the soil, but carbon is the fuel source driving that microbial network.

Modern agriculture is currently experiencing a carbon crisis. 50-70% of the world’s carbon in farmland soils has been off-gassed into the atmosphere through the practice of tillage, and farmers are increasingly struggling with soil fertility issues as a result. Still, so many farmers and gardeners still swear by the age-old practice of tilling the soil for cultivation. So much so, that often it’s not even questioned.

Tilling tears apart the organic fungal network within the soil and adds large amounts of oxygen to the soil, which then causes the organic matter to decompose at an unnaturally rapid rate. The farmer or gardener will see an immediate nutrient gain, but it comes at a significant long-term cost, for now the fungal network must be rebuilt before the microorganisms that feed the plants can return to work.

Soil is Habitat

It’s most important for the gardener or farmer to remember that soil is a habitat. This habitat isn’t just physical support to hold plants in place, it’s a whole world of lifeforms that have evolved together with plants over billions of years─and they are all reliant upon one another for their continued existence.

Above the soil, plants use sunlight to convert carbon and water into the carbohydrates that are the building blocks for their roots, stems, leaves and seeds. Below the soil surface, earthworms create tunnels, which the plants use as channels. These channels allow roots and water to penetrate deeper into the soil profile. Mycorrhizal fungi and a spectrum of microbial lifeforms create beneficial relationships with plants by bringing water and nutrients (especially phosphorous) to plants in exchange for energy in the form of carbon. Again, carbon is the fuel source driving the microbial network to digest minerals and make them available to plant roots.

Thus, the goal of good soil management is to maintain the right balance of minerals, organic matter, air and water to allow life to flourish both above and below the soil surface.

Note: This documentary called “Living Soil” is fairly inspiring, and full of useful information that will help you better understand soil and why it’s so crucially important. When you have a little downtime I highly recommend it.

 Cultivating Soil Health

In order to cultivate good, healthy soil, creating those ideal growing conditions for both plants and the soil-life plants depend upon, we need to know which practices to use. To determine  that we’ll need to know our soil’s unique characteristics. What color is the soil? What kind of texture and structure does it have? How deep is your top soil? What is the fertility level or the available nutrients? How well does it drain?

Most of these questions you can answer for yourself just by getting up close and personal with your soil, but a good soil test through your local cooperative extension will provide in-depth information about the available nutrients in your soil, as well as those that are lacking. If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to get the kit from the Extension office, take a soil sample (usually you’d collect a few samples from various sites on your property or across the garden plot into a bucket, stir thoroughly, then collect the sample from this bucket to send to the University for analysis). Pay the $15 and find out what you’re dealing with.

Working With Nature

working with nature
At Runamuk, I often use the broadfork in tandem with the laying flock when working the soil.

When you stop to examine the natural processes at work around us here on Earth, it becomes profoundly apparent how interconnected we all really are. Like plants are dependent upon pollinators for their reproduction─so too, are they dependent upon the life-forms within the soil. Every living thing on this Earth has a part to play, and it all starts with soil. As gardeners, farmers and homesteaders we are actively participating in, and cultivating natural processes; it’s important for us to better understand what those processes are so that we can work with them, not against them.

It is this farmers’ belief─that, as a stronger, and more highly evolved species, humanity has a responsibility to look out for the creatures and life-forms around us that don’t have the ability to speak for, or defend themselves. It is my belief that we need to step up and take responsibility for our actions─responsibility for our species─and start farming and living more ecologically.

Yet, even if those things do not matter to you, and you aren’t concerned with soil or environmental health, cultivating soil health is still beneficial for improving the efficiency and profitability of your garden or crop-field. There are farmers and gardeners out there who are using methods that promote life in the soil, and they’re having great success. You could start today; try it for yourself and discover the benefits!

Check back soon for the next article in this series on soil, or to enter to win a copy of “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution” in our up-coming giveaway! Subscribe by email to have the latest articles and posts from Runamuk delivered directly to your in-box! OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a glimpse into the day-to-day happenings on this Maine conservation farm!

Recommended Reading

Soil Health on the Farm – an interactive exploration of soil health and how to improve it. From sare.org.

Managing Soil Health: Concepts & Practices – via PennState University Cooperative Extension.

Soil Health Literature – via the Natural Resources Conservation Service

Soil Health Institute’s Resource Library – from the Soil Health Institute.

Soil Health; What is Healthy Soil – via the Rodale Institute.

cultivating soil health