Video Clip: Small-Scale No-Till Using Compost as Mulch from Vegetable Farmers and their Sustainable Tillage Practices


Vegetable Farmers and their Sustainable Tillage Practices [DVD]. V. Grubinger. 2007. University of Vermont Extension. Available for purchase at: (verified 31 Dec 2008).

This is a Vegetable Farmers and their Sustainable Tillage Practices video clip.

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Jay and Polly Armour, Four Winds Farm. Gardiner, NY.

Audio Text

I’m Jay, my wife Polly Armour and we farm at Four Winds Farm here in Gardiner, New York. We have a 24 acre farm of which about 4 acres is in a market garden. We sell primarily through a 30 member CSA and at 2 regional farmers markets. When we started farming here in 1988 we used conventional tillage: plow, disk, rototill. And about 10 years ago through a serendipitous relationship with a not-for-profit we figured out a way to do no-till farming, raised beds on a large scale. We farm four acres of vegetables without using a rototiller. We put compost on top of permanently formed beds and then we plant right into the compost. Some crops we plant directly into the compost. Things like lettuces, beets, carrots, parsley, various herbs, basil. Some of the crops that we plant you transplant like your tomatoes, your peppers, your onions, leeks. We plant the transplants right into the compost.

After doing it for a number of years we’ve seen less weed pressure, we have a lot more free time during the summer, we end up spending more of our time actually just harvesting than we do just trying to deal with weeds and a lot more relaxed environment. The first section of the garden we converted to raised beds we did sort of the backyard garden way using a shovel. After that we figured out a way to use a tractor mounted adjustable back blade that then was able to convert large parts of the garden, you know, acres at a time into raised beds. And that has allowed us to convert a four-acre garden into permanent raised beds.

Coming from a conventional background I had a hard time adjusting to the idea that we don’t need to till every year, but as long as you don’t walk on the soil, or you don’t drive a tractor on the soil, you don’t compact the soil, it will stay nice and loose and you can get away with not tilling year, after year, after year.

We’re adding a great deal of compost on to our fields at least initially and you might think that’s going to add to the weed burden but since it’s composted manure, the weed seeds have been killed during the composting. And what we're doing in the garden, is we’re covering up the soil, the soil that has the weed seeds in it, we’re putting a layer sort of a blanket of compost that doesn’t have a lot of weed seeds in it and we’re sealing that off so we have a much lower weed pressure here. The one weed that we do have a problem with is dandelion, because the seeds blow in rather than are there naturally. Sometimes other airborne seeds can come too, thistle, milkweed, but those usually aren’t a problem if you can get on them right away.

During the wintertime our cows and sheep stay up here in the barnyard. Since they’re up here we’re able to collect their manure, this time of year in the spring time I come in with a tractor, we dig out the manure that’s collected in the barn and pile it up in this pile here and mix it up with horse manure that I bring in from another farm. The cow manure is just a little too heavy, a little too wet to get generating any heat. So the mixing it with the horse manure will give us that heat that we’re looking for. This is a pile I made a couple of weeks ago, we can put this thermometer right on in here and check the temperature, something I do everyday, just to monitor the temperature. After the manure’s been sitting here for about 5 months, I load it into a rear discharge manure spreader that helps mix it up aerate it and then I pile it up over here. It will sit here for the about 6 or 7 months during the course of the winter. The following spring, we use it as finished compost, it goes right on to the garden.

Here’s one of our raised beds that hasn’t been tilled in 5 years, you can see how light and fluffy it is - I can put my and right into it. The soil maintains good tilth and as easy as I put my hand in the plants can put their roots right down. This last got compost last spring, a year ago, we’re not going to put any compost on it this year, because it doesn’t need it. In the beginning when we first started doing this, and also when we first turned over new ground, we put on a lot of compost, sometimes a couple of inches thick, but since then we’ve really cut back, we’ve found that we don’t need as much in subsequent years and also we don’t want to put too much down because then that’ll increase the amount of phosphorus we’re putting onto the soil.

This video project was funded in part by the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (USDA).  

Published June 3, 2011

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