If you were to fly over this part of northern Ohio at this time of year, you’d swoop down over broad patches of green and brown: greening woods and pastures interspersed with newly plowed fields. It’s time for farmers to plow under the remains of last year’s crops — big plots of corn and soy residue, mostly — and to till the ground into a finer texture for this year’s planting.
Every morning when I drive out to the farm, I inevitably see at least one giant machine working its way slowly through a distant field, churning up dust. And gradually, the landscape I pass on my journey is leveling out, ready for a new year’s growth to begin again.
While the no-till method has gained a great deal of attention in recent years, I confess I haven’t seen a whole lot of it applied in the areas I most frequent. There are, of course, benefits to avoiding tilling — chiefly, the reduced loss of topsoil that occurs when dry earth is churned up.
However, the no-till method often also involves the abundant use of herbicides, something that is not welcome in the organic farming methods I’m trying to learn. Yes, there are organic versions of no-till; sorry, I am not an expert on them. I myself have tried not to work the land too heavily each year in my own gardens, knowing that it’s best not to disturb that rich top layer too much, but tilling is still often the first step to preparing a new plot and creating better soil tilth.
No, I don’t really know a whole lot, which is another reason why I am trying to listen and to ask questions and to observe this year.
In an effort to boost the soil’s fertility, Dave uses cover cropping — using rye grass — to increase nitrogen levels, prevent erosion on sloping fields, suppress weeds, and improve the soil’s tilth. And though rye grass can be crimped and left to wither while another crop is planted through it, I suspect that that method works better for grains than it does for specialty crops like vegetables. So come spring, Dave heads out to till the fields that have rye grass, using either the walk-behind tiller for small areas or the tiller attached to the tractor for larger plots.
Over the past week or two, he has had to till a couple of areas twice, just to work the rye grass under and to break up some of the remaining soil clumps, before we could move in and plant potatoes. But the results have been worth it, as the tilling has left behind soil that is easily worked by hand. (Since we’re doing the planting all by hand, often on hands and knees, that is a definite plus.)
So in discussing garden plans with my friend Jen, we agreed that a thorough tilling of the plot we wanted to use would be a good first step. The area hadn’t seen a cover crop, of course, but tilling did help to break up the sod and loosen the soil for us. I requested a second tilling for the area we have earmarked for potatoes, so soon I think we’ll start planting. (I’ll also be bringing in a truck load of compost to help give us a better start, since we don’t have the advantage of the years of increasing soil fertility and tilth that Dave has on his farm.)
After all that hard work of tilling — none of which I actually did — it seemed appropriate to spend one day’s lunch break at the farm lolling in the grass and looking up at the beautiful blue sky, appreciating the wonders around me and being thankful that I finally took this step toward farming. My farming hero, Gene Logsdon, has expressed in his writing many times the sentiment that if you don’t have time to lounge in a hammock on your farm and appreciate what all is around you, you’re doing it wrong. Today, I did it right.
And I’ll be hard at work again soon enough.