No More Plows: Exploring the Case for No-Till Farming

by Evan DeMarco on Oct 11, 2022

No More Plows: Exploring the Case for No-Till Farming

Did you know that plowing—a time-honored farming tradition over the last few decades—is worse for the land than anyone realized? Unfortunately, plowing leads to soil loss and degradation, poor crop quality and the release of more carbon into the atmosphere.

Plowing and tilling, which flip the top layer of soil over, breaks up the ground and brings “newer” soil to the surface. We used to operate under the assumption that this was a good thing…until we found out that it’s actually much worse for the environment.

Here’s a quick guide to why eschewing plowing and tilling can lead to a healthier planet.

Why is plowing and tilling so bad, anyway?

When fields are plowed and tilled, it breaks up the top layers of soil and flips them over. The plant matter, which was once on top of the soil, decomposes. This produces methane and carbon dioxide, greenhouse gasses which then enter the atmosphere and stay there. This increases global warming. Conversely, if you don’t allow the methane and carbon dioxide to escape, it stays below the soil. This is called carbon sequestering.

Furthermore, plowing and tilling contributes to the rapidly eroding topsoil layer. Plowing and tilling ultimately compacts soil and destroys its structure. Healthy soil requires water infiltration as well as root development. And when the structure is harmed over time, it results in compaction. Ultimately, it destroys microorganisms, which live in the top two inches of the soil and help plants root and develop.

This ultimately leads to the desertification of the land, over time. Soil is swept away—or it may become too acidic, alkaline and/or salty to support crop growth.

These tips can help improve your crops

Whether you’re working an industrial operation or your own backyard victory garden, these tips can help you enrich your soil and improve your crop yield.

  • After the harvest, spread plant residue: When you harvest your crops, there will still be plenty of organic residue left over. Plan for your spring planting by evenly distributing the residue left over. First, it helps prevent erosion during the remaining fall and winter months. Second, the organic matter will break down equally across the soil, which helps distribute nutrients appropriately. It can also provide ground cover for your fields over the colder months.
  • Try a cover crop: Instead of plowing and tilling to break up the soil, try cover cropping, instead. Choose a cool or cold-season plant to prevent erosion, improve water retention and increase the organic matter in your soil. Soil is less likely to compact when plants are actively rooting within it. Research a cover crop which will complement your warm-season harvests.
  • Get the right equipment: Consider your planting equipment. If you’re in a suburban backyard, chances are you’re not planting a large amount every year, and you won’t need more than a spade or trowel. If you’re planting on a larger operation, however, your equipment is particularly important. No-till drills are just one way larger farms plant efficiently, without tilling or plowing.
  • Treat it as a process: Adopting a no-till operation might not produce immediate results—and that can lure newcomers into thinking their efforts have had no effect. However, you’re most likely to see results after a period of years. As you help improve soil quality and water retention, you’ll probably also notice some other benefits, like reducing the need for fertilizer or time tending your garden. Track the results over time for a better idea of what effect you’re having. Try to track your results over time—if you see more earthworms and other organisms in the soil, you know you’re on the right track.

Supporting no-plow, no-till farming

If you want to encourage the no-plows-allowed movement, make sure to shop at farms who embrace these measures. Visit a local farmer’s market and ask about their methods, or call food suppliers to find new leads.

On a state and federal level, it’s always helpful to call your representatives. Farmers in the United States often receive significant government support. Advocating for better ecological processes doesn’t just net better, more nutrient-dense food—it can also be a key part of climate change activism.

Whether you decide to embrace these methods in your own backyard, or simply patronize farms who do, avoiding plowing and tilling can make a big change for our planet.