BIOINTENSIVE NO-TILL

While the definition of Biointensive No-till continues to evolve and shift, it refers to a way of farm management that follows a set of core principles including: 1) minimizing soil disturbance, 2) maximizing density of plantings in space and time, 3) maximizing on-farm biodiversity, and 4) farm with a soil conservation ethos to increase adaptive capacity to environmental and socioeconomic challenges. The experience of many farmers that have undertaken biointensive no-till systems at a small scale have demonstrated that these systems can be profitable while achieving a wide range of benefits including: 

  • Increase in organic matter 
  • Improved soil structure
  • Increased soil biological activity
  • Improved seedling emergence
  • Increased water infiltration
  • Increase water holding capacity (reduction in irrigation)
  • Increased crop yields 
  • Earlier sowing of crop
  • Reduction in fuel and labor associated with tillage 
  • Reduction in soil erosion

CAFF's Biointensive No-Till Project

In 2017 our Climate Smart Farming program launched a pilot project working with farms to study biointensive no-till organic vegetable production systems. This ecological farming system involves the integration of several different climate smart practices including reduced or no-till, compost, mulching, hedgerows, intercropping, high planting densities, and the use of efficient irrigation systems. The farms participating in this pilot project each have unique no-till systems, adapting the model to the conditions and challenges specific to their farms, soil types and climate. Along the way CAFF conducted annual soil monitoring and documented farmer experience. Over the course of this project, we have learned from our partners farms that observation, innovation and adaption are foundational to the success of these small-scale highly productive systems. 

In 2019 the CSF team partnered with five farms on a research trial exploring the effects of occultation on weed pressure, labor inputs, and crop quality indicators. Occultation, or the use of black plastic tarps to suppress weeds and decompose crop residue, is a practice that often fits well into biointensive no-till and small-scale reduced tillage systems. Click here to learn more about the research trial and experiences from farmers who use occultation.

Our Partner Farms

Hillview Farms

Lincoln, CA
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Singing Frogs Farm

Sebastopol, CA
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Project Results

After three to four years of sampling our partner farmers’ soils, sending samples to laboratories for chemical analysis, and performing statistical analyses on the data, we’ve been able to distill trends and draw conclusions.

One of the primary research findings was that soil carbon levels were significantly greater in each farm’s no-till plots than their control plots at both the soil surface (0-15 cm) and subsequent soil depth (15-30 cm). Furthermore, total carbon levels were not just greater in the no-till plots, but specifically the older no-till plots included in the research project. In other words, the longer the no-till practice had been established, the greater the soil’s carbon concentrations were. The positive sloping lines drawn through the green dots in the graphic to the left are visual representations of these findings. Scroll through the graphics below for more visualizations of the project’s conclusions. 

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An Increase
in Soil Health

Soil sampled from our no-till plots had greater levels of carbon, nitrogen, active carbon, phosphorous, and microbial biomass than soils sampled from our control plots

Soil Carbon at Depth

Not only did we observe significantly greater levels of soil carbon at the soil’s surface (0-15 cm), but at the subsequent soil depth (15-30 cm) suggesting the downward movement of soil carbon

The Age of Your
No-Till System Matters

Soils sampled from the project’s older no-till plots had greater levels of each soil health metric than the soil’s sampled from the project’s younger no-till plots

What's Next

Although CAFF’s Biointensive No-Till Project is in its final stages, we will be continuing this work in partnership with our colleagues at the UC Berkeley Agroecology Lab. This next phase of research and education will draw heavily upon the lessons learned through CAFF’s project. We are looking forward to expanding the network of no-till partner farmers, sampling a greater variety of soil health metrics, and collaborating with community-driven organizations to help facilitate educational workshops. 

Stay In Touch

Are you a farmer practicing biointensive no-till? Request to join our Biointensive No-Till Google Group by emailing: ecologicalfarming@caff.org

Interested in CAFF’s Biointensive No-Till Project Report? Click the button below to receive the report upon its completion. 

Peer-Reviewed Research

While no-till research and implementation is gaining momentum in both organic and conventional grain production systems (mainly in the Midwest), implementation in vegetable cropping systems has been a bit more elusive (4), (5), (3). Organic vegetable systems pose a unique challenge regarding tillage, as limitations surrounding herbicide use result in increased tillage over conventional systems. Furthermore, cover crops are often integrated into organic crop rotations to maintain fertility. Considering these factors and the central importance of soil organic matter, soil biology, and overall soil health in organically managed systems, there is a growing interest in integrating no-till practices into organic production systems.

Small-scale, biointensive, no-till vegetable production has gained popularity in recent years as a means of maximizing productivity while minimizing input costs and environmental impacts associated with organic farming (1), (2). This form of production integrates multiple practices that drive function at the landscape and ecosystem scale, including: heavy compost and/or mulch use, cover cropping, intercropping, crop diversification, immediate transplanting following harvest to minimize/eliminate fallow, and occultation. Occultation involves the use of reusable black plastic tarps or landscape fabric to control weeds and accelerate decomposition of soil (2). Occultation is simple, inexpensive, and requires a low level of management, labor and technical expertise. More research is needed to better understand the synergies and tradeoffs of biointensive no-till systems. Meanwhile, many farms are learning to optimize these systems for their farms through on-farm experimentation.

References:

  1. Fortier, J. M., & Bilodeau, M. (2014). The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-scale Organic Farming. New Society Publishers.
  1. Lounsbury, N. P., Warren, N. D., Wolfe, S. D., & Smith, R. G. (2018). Investigating tarps to facilitate organic no-till cabbage production with high-residue cover crops. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 1-7.
  1. Mirsky, SB, MR Ryan, WS Curran, JR Teasdale, J Maul, JT Spargo, … Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 27 (1), 31-40
  1. Mischler, R., Duiker, S. W., Curran, W. S., & Wilson, D. (2010). Hairy vetch management for no-till organic corn production. Agronomy Journal.
  2. Smith, A. N., Reberg-Horton, S. C., Place, G. T., Meijer, A. D., Arellano, C., & Mueller, J. P. (2011). Rolled rye mulch for weed suppression in organic no-tillage soybeans. Weed Science59(2), 224-231.