Why we don’t till or dig here. 19

Since the invention of the plow, nutrient density has plummeted. Plowing destroys soil habitat, exposes soil to erosion and leaching and oxidises soil carbon. The advent of the tractor made plowing easier on a large scaleand more destructive leading to an increased loss of topsoil and further reducing nutrient density. The process of soil degradation worsened with the more recent introduction of chemical farming. Chemical fertilisers are essentially salt, they destroy soil life and cause plants to grow quickly and look healthy but the plants are being forced to grow unnaturally. The salt in the fertilizer causes the plants to take up more water  swelling them and making them look plump and even healthier, however the vitamins and minerals in these plants which are essential to human health are greatly diminished.

Minerals in the soil are present in great quantities in the stone and other places inaccessible to plants directly. In a healthy soil plants form symbiotic relationships with soil living bacteria and fungi who secrete mild acids to dissolve stone and make minerals available. In exchange, the plant secretes sugars to feed this soil life. These relationships are absolutely essential for truly healthy plants and the health of those who eat them. It helps to think of a plant as a farmer who raises trillions of other organisms to sustain it.


Unfortunately it seems that the whole drive of modern agriculture has been aimed at eliminating this natural and essential soil life forcing farmers both conventional and to a great extent organic farmers to artificially apply more and more minerals to their growing cycle. This is a treadmill which increases costs and depletes soils.The many and varied organisms in our soils exist to perform a beneficial job which they perform better than we ever can and yet we have replaced this free source of fertility with our own labor and fossil energy reserves.


When soils were healthier people received all the vitamins and minerals needed from the naturally nutrient dense food they ate. Now to stay healthy people must supplement with commercially prepared vitamins and minerals.


Food for Humans can do better! We can produce food that is truly healthy. Almost all of the agricultural soils on earth have been  degraded and truly healthy food is very difficult to find but we can fix that in our small corner of the globe, We have the tools and the knowledge right now.


So what do we do to replace tillage?

We rely on the earthworms and fungi to build our soil structure and we do this be feeding and protecting them.

We farm using a system of raised beds which are made of compost. This does indeed require a very large amount of compost but it also builds a home for trillions of microrganisms and produces great vegetables. This large initial compost use has many other benefits such as reducing the weed pressure in the beds and allowing us to grow crops closer together.

Raised beds form the foundation of our farming system.

Raised beds form the foundation of our farming system.

This approach, when combined with plastic tarps, results in so little weed pressure that it is no longer an issue. The black plastic tarps cause  cause weeds underneath them to germinate and then die because there is no light. They are also very effective at preparing new ground for production.


The only semi tillage tool we use is a broadfork. This is a very gentle tool which does not destroy soil structure or invert the soil. We use it only for root crops to ensure that there is no hard pan that will interfere with their growth. Even the broadfork will be retired as the soil continues to improve.


A further key to feeding the soil life which drives our system is to keep living plant roots in the soil all the . This is a challenge to say the least. Our primary strategy is to use large transplants and put in one crop after another with only hours between the two. This gives us a lot more successional crops  while also keeping the soil life fed with the sugar secretions they require.


A word about cover crops!

We occasionally use cover crops on our beds but vegetables also carry out the same functions of feeding and keeping the soil covered. when choosing between a cover or a cash crop, all things being equal, we will always choose the cash crop because sustainability also applies to finances.


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19 thoughts on “Why we don’t till or dig here.

  • Aileen K. Foeckler

    Stephen, I am very interested in your system. My College Biology students would do well to learn about this method of sustainable farming.
    Can you send a slideshow or video (20 min max) as an introduction for my students? In addition, I will refer them to your website.
    Dr. Aileen K. Foeckler

  • Ciara

    Hi Stephen!

    I’m helping spread the word about a festival that will happen in Wexford County on the weekend of August 12 – 14. The festival is a celebration of our capacity to live a more sustainable life, to inspire people to consider ways of being, in community that are not entirely dependent on financial exchange. We consider our freedom to grow food for ourselves and exercise community values to be radically impaired by our dependence on the corrupt economic system we have been enslaved by and we would like to use this festival as a platform to encourage people to consider the opportunity we have to create a new paradigm. We will have a platform for different speakers throughout the festival. I am a huge fan of the work of Masanobu Fukuoka and believe the values he proffered to be a huge inspiration for this kind of alternative contemplation. I would really love it if you could visit us and do a speech about the importance of natural farming and the potential ease of no-dig farming. I will add a brief introduction to the festival here. In the domain space above I have put the link for registrations. The idea is to use art and music as a medium through which we can inspire a change of thinking. We have already had a huge response and there are some very interesting speakers lined up. If you use facebook please feel free to check our page there, otherwise, you are welcome to contact us for further information through the above email address. Thank you for your time and thank you for sharing you work. It was very inspiring to read.


    The Reincarnation project is a social /arts platform upon which we hope a new kind of festival ethos will emerge in Ireland. It is a celebration of creativity through connectivity. The festival will be operating on a gifting economy. There are 500 tickets available, which will be given for free to all registered participants. All of those who register do so with a project proposal in which they should state their offering and also, let the communications director know how many tickets they will require to bring that project to life. If they will bring a team of builders, how many people are on the team etc. The festival will be for registered artists only and as such it will be a private event. The entire festival will be a theater ground and your experience of this theater of artistic expression will begin at the entrance gates. It will be held on a very beautiful piece of land in a valley in Wexford County. The entire site will be a temporarily autonomous zone. There will be no financial exchange. All participants will be equal and each a co-creator of the experience. This is a festival created for the artists by the artists. Every person involved is considered equal. It will be brought to life by commitment, to our potential as creators of experience.

      • Laura

        Hi Stephen,
        I’m a farmhand and I’m arguing with my boss about using pyganic. I wish we wouldn’t but he says there is no other way to save our crops from aphids, etc. Tried ladybugs but said they didn’t really work. Also, how big of a scale do your techniques apply to? We cultivate about 10 acres. And lastly, how do you justify using all that black plastic? Is it actually plastic or is it made of conventional corn cellulose? And without a tractor you must lay it down by hand, right? How do you do that efficiently? Ok and actually one more question, can you please tell me an example of your vegetable rotation without the use of cover crops? Thank you very much, I appreciate your willingness to share all this info.

        • Stephen Post author

          Hi Laura,
          I will preface this by saying that i certainly don’t have all the answers and i am relatively new to this system of farming.
          Pyganic is an insecticide but it will also kill your beneficial insects and the pests will return first, it is a treadmill.
          most pests feed on incomplete proteins in you plants, is you have a pest problem then look to your plants health, it is not easy to resist the quick fix but i would get a sap analysis of the effected plants and find out what nutrients the plant is deficient in, then use foliar applications to boost the plants immunity, john kempf of advancing eco agriculture is at the forefront of that kind of work.
          I am not sure how big the system i use could be but i am small because i am doing this on my own without outside labour… at least for now. 10 acres of tractor cultivation could be compressed down to 3 or so acres without dropping production if appropriate techniques were used.
          The black plastic is UV treated silage plastic which will last for years, the thin strips covering beds is landscape fabric which will last much longer, the plastic allows me to eliminate tillage and that is enough justification, it also reduces leaching and remember that sustainability starts with the farmer making the farm work for them.
          I lay the plastic by hand and it really isn’t much work on a small scale, i use pegs to hold down the edges rather than bury it.
          I will eliminate the plastic in a few years when my beds are nearly free of weeds.
          I don’t rotate my vegetables, it is unnecessary with healthy soil as are cover crops, that doesn’t mean i always grow the same thing in the same place but i make my decisions based on other factors such as weed pressure or rooting depth.
          Hope this helps.

    • Stephen Post author

      Thanks Farmer John, i think no-till/ no dig is definitely the way forward, I never really used tillage because it didn’t make sense to me, i do own a small rototiller but it has never really been used, what specific kinds of information would you like?

  • Pete

    I am raising grassfed pigs, beef, and chickens on a pasture that I use my Keyline Plow on. Minimal disturbance of the topsoil and deep cultivating of the soil 22inches below to capture optimal rainfall and with compost tea involved we have a great progression of a fine soil.

  • Monique Bird

    Hi Stephen,
    How did you start off your beds originally, was the ground workable already or was it “raw” unworked ground. ? Did you just lay the compost on top of the original ground and plant directly into that.

    • Stephen Post author

      Hi Monique, i simply laid compost 6″ thick over the existing pasture grass in the shape of raised beds and covered it all for as long as possible to kill the grass and weeds, couldn’t be simpler. Works like a dream.