Field of crops and cover crops with some rows flattened by a roller-crimper

What is No-Till Farming and Why Does it Matter?

Instead of using tillage to plow cover crops into the soil or chemicals to kill them, some farmers use a roller-crimper. This ingenious device simultaneously flattens the cover crop, preventing weeds, and plants the seeds of a new market crop through the residue and into the soil. Photo courtesy of the Rodale Institute

For too long, industrial farming has typically meant stripping topsoil of nutrients and laying it bare, leaving it at the mercy of erosion. The culprit: tilling. In the rush to maximize crop growth, farmers started churning up the soil when they planted each crop. But in recent decades, farmers are increasingly turning to the ancient technique of no-till farming, leaving soil intact, healthy, biologically diverse and thriving.

A green tractor tills a brown, dry field
A tilled industrial wheat field. Photo by RMBrown / Alamy

What is tilling in agriculture?

Tilling, also called tillage, is the action of breaking up and turning over the soil, incorporating whatever is at the surface with soil deeper below. Most often, this is done with a sled of rotating disks pulled by tractor. Farmers till to break up compacted soil, destroy weeds and bring nutrients to the surface before planting crops. Tilling can boost production in the short term, but in the long term, it degrades soil fertility, causes erosion and releases carbon from the soil into the atmosphere.

Hands holding a clump of dry soil and a clump of organic, rich soil
Conventional soil (left) vs organic soil. The conventional soil is stripped of moisture and nutrients. Photo courtesy of Rodale Institute

The benefits of no-till agriculture

No-till farming is more than simply leaving soil untilled. Farmers typically grow a cover crop for the soil, then destroy that crop (without turning over the soil) before planting seeds. The decaying cover crop forms a nutrient-dense protective mat over the planted soil, keeping the soil structure intact and protecting it from erosion and exposure. The sponge-like vegetation left at the surface preserves moisture, making irrigation far more efficient. Since the soil is largely undisturbed, the natural soil biome, chock full of microorganisms, continues to thrive, creating a nutritious soil matrix loaded with organic matter. No-till farming is a crucial part of regenerative agriculture, a method that strives to rebuild healthy topsoil by allowing nature to steer the course.

No-till agriculture is also easier on the farmer and cheaper, as cover-crop cutting and sowing seeds happen in one pass. Everyone wins.

Field with livestock and small shelter
No-till farmers often graze animals in their fields to help control weeds and build soils. The humane treatment of farm animals is one of the three pillars of Regenerative Organic certification. Photo courtesy of Rodale Institute 

What’s the difference between conventional and organic no-till farming?

While conventional agriculture does use no-till farming, those farmers typically use herbicides to kill off the cover crops. Also, they plant GMO varieties as their main crop—engineered to resist the sprays. Organic no-till farming, however, uses cover crops, animal grazing, crop rotation and special tractor tools like the roller crimper, which flattens the crop, producing a mat of rich vegetation that nourishes the soil and prevents weed growth. This means organic no-till farmers don’t have to use GMOs or synthetic chemicals to control weeds and other pests.

Shot of dry, cracked soil on the edge of a fallow field
Cracked, dry earth borders a fallow field. Fresno County, San Joaquin Valley, CA. Photo by Citizen of the Planet / Alamy

No-till farming and soil conservation

Churning the soil exposes healthy topsoil, drying it out and allowing it to blow away with the wind and erode in the rain. It kills the organisms that make up a healthy, balanced soil biome. No-till farming does, well, almost none of those things.

Mangos growing on trees in Nicaragua
A Sol Simple mango farm in Nicaragua, where no-till farming is standard. Photo by Amy Kumler

What are some examples of no-till farming?

We make several foods that make use of low or no-till farming in our Marketplace. Sol Simple, in Nicaragua, uses low and no-till methods and provides our Chile Mango and dried fruit snacks. Kernza®, a perennial grain featured in our pasta and beer, thrives as a no-till crop, and once it’s harvested, the mulch left behind can be eaten by livestock that fertilize the fields.

Tessa Peters stands with arms outstretched in the middle of a field of Kernza wheat
Tessa Peters, Director of Crop Stewardship at The Land Institute, celebrates a healthy field of Kernza in Madison, MN. Photo by Amy Kumler

The future is the past

We can fix agriculture. We can move away from the conventional farming methods that are stripping away the planet’s precious topsoil, reducing farming diversity to monocrops, and pumping tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The best part is we already know how—humans have practiced no-till agriculture since we first began farming some 10,000 years ago.

A wooden spoon scoops up pasta from a cast iron pot

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Sofia Aldinio