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) promoting holistic management that increases biological activity (fungi, bacteria, invertebrae), and 4) maximizing on-farm biodiversity. 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
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY?
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.
CAFF’s WORK IN BIOINTENSIVE NO-TILL
In 2017 our CSF program launched a pilot project working with farms to establish biointensive no-till organic vegetable production systems. This climate smart system involves the integration of several different climate smart practices including no-till, compost, mulching, hedgerows, intercropping and the use of efficient irrigation systems. The farms participating in this pilot project were trained by Singing Frogs Farm and are working to implement their own no-till systems, adapting the model to the conditions and challenges specific to their farms. CAFF conducts annual soil monitoring and documents farmer experience, adaptations and innovations throughout the process of implementing biointensive no-till into varied farming 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.
In addition to our on-farm research, CAFF has been working to bring together researchers and practitioners of Biointensive No-till Systems. Partnering with the Bowles Laboratory at UC Berkeley and the Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Development, CAFF hosted the first Biointensive No-till Symposium in February 2019.
‘What Does the Research Say?’ References:
- Fortier, J. M., & Bilodeau, M. (2014). The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-scale Organic Farming. New Society Publishers.
- 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.
- Mirsky, SB, MR Ryan, WS Curran, JR Teasdale, J Maul, JT Spargo, … Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 27 (1), 31-40
- Mischler, R., Duiker, S. W., Curran, W. S., & Wilson, D. (2010). Hairy vetch management for no-till organic corn production. Agronomy Journal.
- 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 Science, 59(2), 224-231.