Soil conservation farming, also known as no-tillage farming, is growing in popularity. The suite of methods promotes leaving fields untilled, the use of cover crops, and other soil-enhancing practices. The use of cover crops acts as a “sink” for nitrogen and other nutrients, increasing soil’s organic matter, enabling it to more effectively absorb and retain water. (This helps with erosion). Converts to the method say it can reduce fertilizer use, can lead to larger yields, and provides some resilience in times of drought. Cover crops can also suppress weeds, which may reduce pesticide use.
Interest in the practice is growing. Government data suggests that no-tillage farming accounts for about 35% of U.S. cropland. And groups like the Environmental Defense Fund think that increasing the use of cover crops could help reduce nitrogen pollution in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River basins by up to 30%.
Critics say no-tillage and other methods are impractical and too expensive (it requires some new equipment).
But one of the biggest obstacles to adopting no-tillage may be tradition: for farmers used to neatly kept fields, it’s a different approach.
“One of the toughest things about learning to do no-till is having to unlearn all the things that you thought were true,” he said..
The University of California’s Jeff Mitchell works with California farmers interested in cover cropping and conservation tillage. Learn more about his research by visiting UC ANR’s Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation website here. The site features a video documentary and grower profiles, as well as research results. Mitchell’s work is part of UC’s Global Food Initiative, which seeks to harness the institution’s resources to address one of the most compelling issues of our time: how to nutritiously and sustainably feed a growing world population. Learn more here.