Interview with Andrew Mefford, author of The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution

by: EJ on 03/11/2019

Organic no-till farming methods allow small scale farmers to use less machinery, be more efficient, have higher yields, build organic matter in the soil and address climate change challenges. In The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High-Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers, Andrew Mefford compiles current state of the art, farmer-developed best practice methods.


Photo credit: Andrew Mefferd

1. Why are no-till farms more efficient in terms of space? 

What I say about this in the book is: With less space devoted to paths, turnarounds, and headlands for equipment, farms can be more productive because more of the space is devoted to growing crops. For most of those systems using permanent beds, fertility can be concentrated on the growing area where it is needed. Seeds can be scattered at higher density than with cultivation because space doesn’t need to be left open for passes of the cultivator.

Another aspect that is mentioned in the book is a more efficient use of space over time. Some of the methods result in very fast bed turnovers (sometimes within 24 hours- some of the growers interviewed make it a goal to harvest and replant the same day). The less time spent on bed prep and tilling means the more time a given space can be growing a crop, getting more crop cycles in a given space over a season. Not having to wait for fields to be dry enough to plow with a tractor means growers can get an earlier start than otherwise.



Photo credit: Dan Pratt

2. What is the difference between occultation and solarization? When would you choose to use one or the other? 

Occultation is the French word for tarping, and solarization is tarping with a sheet of clear plastic. Both techniques can be used to kill the weeds growing on a bed without cultivation. The main difference is that occultation takes longer, while solarization can take as little as a day on a sunny day at least in the 70s F. Though it takes more time, occultation may result in a more complete breakdown (composting in place) of organic matter on the soil surface. Some growers use both. I would say occultation is the best if you have a lot of time (i.e. put an opaque tarp down in the fall on land that you want to grow on in the following spring), and solarization is useful when you need to quickly kill some weeds.



Photo credit: Frith Farm

3. Is there a role for animals to play in organic no-till? For example, chicken tractors or pig plowing?

Definitely, though I think chickens are going to leave the land smoother and more immediately plantable, whereas pigs left on a piece of land for long enough tend to change the surface of the soil, which may require more reshaping before planting again.

I made this Growing for Market article public so readers could see a story from the archives of Growing for Market, called “Chicken-till and occultation: No-till methods store carbon in the soil, not the air,” to read about how a grower is doing no-till with chickens.


Photo credit: Frith Farm

4. There is a lot of talk recently about the capacity for soil to sequester carbon and reduce climate change.  How significant do you think this can be world wide?

To put the contribution from tillage to global warming in perspective, I’m going to quote Kai Hoffman-Krull from the above article (and the foreword to the book), that “50-70% of the world’s carbon in farmland soils is off-gassed into the atmosphere due to tillage,” and “Tillage has contributed 792 billion tons of carbon emissions over the past 250 years. In comparison, humans contributed nearly 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere last year.”


Photo credit: Dawn Heumann

While no one solution is going to “fix” climate change, this shows that the contribution from tillage is not insignificant. It’s especially important since plants grow better with more organic matter in the soil. So, keeping carbon in the soil in the first place by not tilling, and sequestering what has been lost to the atmosphere by increasing organic matter, will both help plant growth and combat climate change.

On a personal note, lately I have been reading The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. This and many other things I have read about climate change have convinced me that we are well beyond the point of “stopping” it; at this point we are in damage control mode. In the face of the almost overwhelming size of problem, we all need ways to engage with the problem to keep from feeling helpless. The methods in this book offer a way in which any grower can be a part of the solution by sequestering carbon and building organic matter, helping the climate and the growth of their plants at the same time.





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