Is it possible to grow vegetables using no-till farming?

At various workshops and meetings I’ve often heard statements along the lines of “no-till approaches are all very well for broadacre cropping (e.g. grain crops), but no one uses them for vegetables” – to the point where I just assumed that there must be good reasons for not doing it.

Can it even be done, even if only by dedicated permaculturists willing to put in huge amounts of effort?  Well, yes it can, but not just through huge amounts of manual labour and on a small scale.  There are people our there successfully doing mechanised no-till vegetable production.  This article by Dr Mark Schonbeck on the Rodale Institute’s website tells the story.

Dr Ron Morse in a field of cover crops [Rodale Institute web site]

According to the article, Dr. Ron Morse, a professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia has been working for more than two decades on soil-conserving systems for vegetable production.  This parallels efforts by Pennsylvania vegetable grower Steve Groff (in an article by Marni Katz) over the same period on his Cedar Meadow farm. The permanent cover cropping system that he has developed helped to eliminate tillage on 175 acres of pumpkins, tomatoes, sweet corn and other vegetable crops on his Cedar Meadow Farm. Not only has this approach reduced cultivation costs and improved yields and quality, it has also helped  manage the soil erosion from the farm’s sloping topography.

“You could not pay me to till my land anymore,” Groff says. “Soil erosion has gone from 15 tons per acre, per year, to almost nothing. Organic matter [in the soil] has gone from 2.7 percent 15 years ago to 4.8 percent this year, and yields have improved 10 percent.”

You can find a list of other articles about Steve Groff’s farm here.

Ron Morse (1999#) has attributed the progress and acceptance of no-till vegetable production in the US to advances in no-till planters, development of techniques for managing high residue cover crop mulches and the acceptance of (and improvements to) integrated weed management techniques.

However I think there are a lot of other factors involved, including: farmer attitudes to the “bottom line”, i.e. whether they are mainly profit-focussed or have an eye on the triple bottom line; farmers’ willingness to be different to their peers (i.e. operating outside the norm); and ability and willingness to deal with a different suite of pest problems arising from the use of cover crops.

No-till vegetable farming has been practised in Australia for around 20 years (e.g. Rogers et al. 2004#), but does not seem to have caught on widely.  However there was a study of seven trial sites at different latitudes in Australia (including one at Zeibarth’s farm at Laidley in the Lockyer Valley), published in 2006, that also reviewed a range of studies on the application of the approach in Australia.  Unfortunately it seems from a quick reading of the report that glyphosate was used to kill the cover crops at most if not all of the sites.  However, the report does include an assessment of the use of a combination of Organic Interceptor (a certified organic acceptable herbicide) and flame treatment, but concluded that only glyphosate gave acceptable long-term weed control – though clearly there are farmers in the other articles that I’ve provided links to here who are able to deal with this issue.

You can find a balanced and fairly comprehensive evaluation of the organic no-till approach here and here, providing you with a pretty comprehensive range of considerations to bear in mind when deciding whether to attempt an organic no-till approach to growing vegetables.

One thing to bear in mind though is that a lot of what has been published relates to large-scale vegetable production.  People who are looking to produce vegetables for family consumption with a surplus for bartering or giving away will be likely to have a different take on the pluses and minuses of the approach.  Steve Groff’s summary might be worth considering:

“… for the grower who does his homework, the no-till system offers significant advantages. No-till growers typically save money by reducing water use in irrigated systems, reducing cultivation equipment and fuel costs and minimizing inputs, such as herbicides and fertilizers.

In addition, Katz quotes Ron Morse who pointed out that growers often realize increased yields through soil moisture conservation and enhanced quality, particularly for crops that lay on the ground. At the same time, there are increased costs in equipment and seed for managing the cover crop.

“A grower has to be really careful to understand the system and do it right,” Morse notes. “It works if you do it right, and there are a lot of advantages.”

Unlinked Sources

# Morse, Ronald D. “No-till vegetable production—its time is now.” HortTechnology 9.3 (1999): 373-379.

# Rogers, G.S., Little, S.A., Silcock, S.J. and Williams, L.F. 2004. NO-TILL VEGETABLE PRODUCTION USING ORGANIC MULCHES. Acta Hort. (ISHS) 638:215-223



Imported Weeds and Invasive Exotic Plant Species

The use of “weedy” species, together with the use of non-local species of unknown weediness, incites very heated debate in permaculture circles, inspiring a lot of name-calling and pseduo-science.  My own view is that the promotion of known invasive, or potentially invasive, species as part of the permaculture approach is highly irresponsible and arguments for their use are often couched in language that approaches the mysticism or spirituality that is supposedly “banned” in serious permaculture.  (You can see my views on the use of Leucaena here.)

Of course, the topic of invasive species overlaps with the consideration of “weeds” as an element of food productions activities.  I’m not going to go into that here, but the eXtension website has an excellent article on weeds in agriculture (An Ecological Understanding of Weeds) that incorporates both the negative and positive aspects of weeds in agriculture.  Well worth reading – much of it reads as if it was written by an well-informed permaculturist.  In fact the author, Dr Mark Schonbeck, is credited by the the Virginia Association for Biological Farming as combining “deep scientific knowledge, practical farming technique and policy smarts”.  I recommend googling his name – it will turn up a plethora of interesting and informative articles.

Dr Schonbeck’s article also deals with invasive species, under the heading of Imported Weeds and Invasive Exotic Plant Species.  Among other things this part blows out of the water the permaculture argument that for a species to become invasive in an ecosystem there must have been a vacant niche in the ecosystem.

Below is the text of that part of the article (with what I think are the really telling points underlined by me), but I really recommend you read the whole article for its information about the place of weeds in food production systems.  Remember that the weed/invasive species referred to are in relation to the US, though it is interesting how many are familiar to us in Australia.

Many of a region’s most problematic weeds are those that are not native to the region, or even the continent. These exotic plant species often grow more vigorously in their new habitat than they do in their area of origin, where certain soil organisms, herbivorous insects, climate patterns, and/or competing vegetation keep them in check. Kudzu (Pueraria thunbergiana), imported from Japan as a forage crop, is one dramatic example whose enormous vines can cover and kill large trees in the southeastern US. However, a small (4–18 inches) perennial weed called purple nutsedge (Cyperus rotundus), which has invaded the southern United States, causes much greater losses in cultivated crops (even sugarcane and coffee trees), and is considered the world’s worst weed (Holm et al., 1991).

Some of our major agricultural weeds were intentionally brought to the United States from overseas to provide food or forage. European colonists carried common lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) to the New World as a vital source of early season greens that prevented scurvy and other nutritional deficiency conditions. Common lambsquarters has spread around the globe and is now listed as the world’s 10th worst agricultural weed. Livestock farmers imported bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon, 2nd worst weed), johnsongrass (Sorghum halapense, 6th worst), and quackgrass (Elytrigia repens, a major weed of vegetable crops in the northeastern US) to this country for their utility as forages. Other serious exotic weeds were first planted as flowers and other ornamentals, and subsequently spread from cultivated gardens into surrounding farmland and/or natural ecosystems. Still others arrived by accident as a seed contaminant in imported crop seed, feed grain, foods, bedding plants, or other materials.

Many exotic weeds have become “naturalized” over time, and are now part of a region’s agricultural weed flora that must be managed (not necessarily eradicated) to protect crop yields. However, some newly introduced plants growing in the absence of the natural enemies with which they evolved may spread unchecked, choking out native vegetation as well as invading pastures or cultivated fields. Imported weeds that threaten natural ecosystems and/or rangeland over wide geographic areas are designated invasive exotic plant species or invasive exotic weeds, and often become the focus of regional or nationwide coordinated eradication efforts. Examples include water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) and purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) in wetlands; Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), musk thistle (Carduus nutans), spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), and St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) in rangeland; and autumn olive (Elaegnus umbellata) and tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissimus) in eastern deciduous woodlands. Classical biological control—the introduction of herbivorous insects or microbial pathogens that are natural enemies of these weeds in their native lands—has been used with considerable success to combat some invasive exotic weeds.

Arrival of a new invasive exotic weed on an organic farm is one instance that may justify efforts to eradicate the new arrival. Early detection—combined with an understanding of the ecology of the weed—is vital for successful elimination of the invader.

Edible and Useful Plants

Was just searching the internet for information on what is used to inhibit sprouting in onions (and potatoes) in Australia and came across a series of well written and informative articles on useful and edible plants by Penny Woodward.  Well worth having a look at.  She includes some unusual and interesting members of the onion family and herbs as well.  She has written a series of books (available for purchase through her website) which look interesting too.  Unfortunately she doesn’t have a subscription link to her blog, offering only advice on new material via Facebook and Twitter, neither of which I use.

Haven’t definitely nailed the anti-sprouting issue yet.  But I did discover that, like many fruits, onions can be stored for long periods before appearing in the shops.  It’s time we had a “harvest date” advice on fruit and veg.  It appears that the most common approach is some formulation of Maleic Hydrazide, often as Potassium Maleic Hydrazide.  I don’t have time to chase it up further right now, but it appears that while the potassium salt might be relatively harmless, one can’t say the same for Maleic Hydrazide, particularly in relation to its impact on aquatic organisms.  If anyone has detailed information on what is used in Australia, how it’s used, and what the impacts are please add a comment.

If you’re having any problems loading the new header photo please let me know.

Don’t be fooled by the coal seam gas industry’s advertising

I love The Conversation.  There isn’t a morning goes by that I don’t find at least one enlightening, fascinating, or just plain interesting article in their daily serve of articles – though I do suspect that it could be bad for my health.  Sitting with the laptop on my knees over breakfast for two hours can’t be good.  Memo to self: get up more often; and spread reading of The Conversation over the day.

Today’s “must share” story is about the three myths that the coal seam gas industry wants to have us believe as part of their campaign to sell the idea that it’s in Australia’s national interest to allow a massive expansion of coal seam gas activities.  These are:

Myth 1: The gas industry is a big employer

Rather than the 100,000 jobs that they claim were created in their industry last year, CSG employment is too small for the Australian Bureau of Statistics to measure as a separate category.  Even the combined employment in the whole oil and gas industry as at November 2013 was only 23,200 – whereas Bunnings employs around 36,000 people Australia-wide.

Myth 2: More CSG will stop the gas price rises

There is a considerable difference between the Australian domestic gas price and the price in international trade.  The domestic market will be competing more and more with that international price as export volumes increase.  Any of you who use gas in your home will have seen very significant rises in gas prices over the last five years – well, the impact of international trade contract prices hasn’t really begun to bite yet.  CSG will only bring down domestic gas prices if there is such a glut of gas in the international market that prices crash, leading to flow-on effects in the domestic market.  This might happen eventually, but not any time soon.

Myth 3: CSG can act as a low-emission “bridge” from coal to renewables

This is a longstanding argument from the CSG industry, along the lines of “Don’t worry, it’s just a transition phase, and luckily it has a lot less emissions than burning coal”.

But is it just a transition fuel – what would the lifetimes of CSG-burning power plants be, and would they be likely to be abandoned before that lifetime expired (or while there are still supplies of CSG available)?  Wouldn’t the resistance from industry and government to moving to renewables be just as great in relation to CSG resources and infrastructure as it is to the transition from coal?

As for the lower emissions from burning CSG – yes, natural gas, including CSG, does have lower emissions when it is burned to produce electricity.  However the process of extracting CSG turns out to substantially reduce its emission reduction benefits.  Fugitive emissions, including those resulting from leaks out of the ground associated with hydraulic fracking, have not been properly assessed in the approval of Australian CSG operations.  In the United States, studies on shale gas have found that fugitive emissions rates are substantially higher than from extraction of conventional natural gas.

Anyway, this is a rather long-winded introduction to the article in The Conversation, where you’ll find a whole lot more information, as well as links to further sources, including a just-published report, Fracking the Future, which sets out a lot of background information on this issue.

There’s nothing new under the sun

If you are at all concerned about sustainable energy supplies and the need to get off the fossil fuel powered electricity path you can’t have missed what some solar PV groups are calling a proposal to “tax the sun”.

What it comes down to is that the Australian Energy Market Commission has issued a report highlighting what they see as the need for new tariffs for every solar home connected to the grid because, they seem to be saying, grid connected solar homes are “free-riding” on those electricity consumers who don’t input solar-generated electricity into the grid.

In a longish article on the issue published in REneweconomy, Giles Parkinson said:

AEMC chairman John Pierce on Wednesday [October 9] unveiled a “strageic priorities” document that highlights solar PV as one of the most pressing issues for the electricity industry – both for providers and consumers – and suggests that network tariffs in particular do not reflect the reduced use of the grid caused by solar households.

“Distributed generation is blurring the traditional delineation between consumers and producers of electricity,” Pierce said in a speech to the East Coast Energy Outlook conference in Sydney

“One source of stakeholder concern is that network costs of consumers with rooftop solar PV are subsidised by other consumers because the full costs and benefits of distributed generation (such as solar PV) are not reflected in the prices consumers pay for electricity.”

The solar industry is outraged by the singling out of solar, because they say it is clear that the greatest cross subsidy in the electricity industry goes to users of air-conditioners: The government white paper conceded that each $1,500 air con system imposes five times that amount in network costs on other users.

Now is starts to seem like AMEC has got their strategy out of the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which Wikipedia describes as a US  forum for politically conservative state legislators and private sector members [read organisations] to collaborate on model bills, i.e. draft legislation, often serving the interests of the private sector members, that members can customize and introduce for debate in their own state legislatures.  The website ALEC Exposed is dedicated to uncovering the doings of ALEC, its corporate connections, and its funding sources.

In what a recent article in The Guardian calls “a sweeping new offensive against renewable energy”, ALEC proposes that governments penalize homeowners who install their own solar panels—casting them as “freeriders” who are not paying for the infrastructure they are using. In effect, they say, all the other non-direct generation customers are being penalised, and instead homes with grid-connected solar PV  should be paying to distribute their surplus electricity on the grid.

The article reports that this is a part of a larger anti-renewable energy strategy which will promote a suite of model bills and resolutions aimed at blocking Barack Obama from cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and blocking state governments from promoting the expansion of wind and solar power.

If the AEMC is copying the ALEC strategy, stand by for more or the same here in Australia.

The Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) was set up by the Council of Australian Governments through the Ministerial Council on Energy in 2005.  It is is the rule maker and developer for Australian energy markets, and also provides advice to Ministers on how best to develop energy markets over time.

I can’t help wondering whether the AEMC is as independent as it should be as a statutory commission set up by government, given the similarity of its stance on grid-connected PV generation to that of the ALEC.  Or, if it really is acting independently in this regard and the similarity to the ALEC stance is coincidental, whether its terms of reference might not be too much focused on maintaining a stable market for the large energy generators and distributors, and not enough on the best outcomes for the country in the long term.  There is also the question of whether the AEMC regards the totality of the multitude of grid-connected electricity generators as a valid player in the market – or are they seen as “collateral damage” in moves to maintain profitability for the traditional players?

What’s behind the major weakness in governance in Australia? And why does it matter?

The following is reblogged from today’s issue of The Conversation.  It describes the major governance factor preventing good decision-making that would lead to sustainable use of Australia’s resources – at all levels, from local government right through to national.

It is affecting our economy, our environment, our quality of life, and our individual finances – and it is destroying the future for our children and grandchildren.  Yet the tools that we need to change the situation are now available.  This should be the major election issue, but it isn’t even on the radar for either of the major parties or the majority of the minor parties.

A more sustainable Australia: measuring success

By Carl Obst, University of Melbourne and John Wiseman, University of Melbourne

A more sustainable Australia. As the 2013 election campaign continues, we’ve asked academics to look at some of the long-term issues affecting Australia – the issues that will shape our future.

How successful is Australia? You’d think we’d have a fairly easy answer to that – you could get it by looking at our gross domestic product, or GDP. But over the years we’ve gained a number of other success indicators, from health and wellbeing, to the environment, and they often tell a different story.

In 1968, US senator Robert Kennedy observed that GDP “measures everything … except that which makes life worthwhile”. These days not many experts believe GDP is enough to measure whether a country is succeeding.

It’s obvious that we should be using a winder range of progress measures. The real question is why we still struggle to bring those measures into decision making. Why don’t we take it for granted that all decisions must balance economic, social and environmental factors as a matter of course?

Why do we struggle?

People have a collective lack of willingness to think long term, beyond five to ten years. This is the normal state of humanity – we dislike change. This approach works well when external conditions pose no obvious threat. But this means we can end up like the frog in hot water, which doesn’t realise the water is warming until it’s too late.

We tend to assume that whatever is the case now will remain the same. This leaves us in a difficult position when some of the things we depend on, such as functioning environments and societies, gradually deteriorate.

Another problem is that these problems are collective, rather than individual. This means that when resources are used by everyone – such as ocean fisheries, or the atmosphere – self-interest always wins out and the resources suffers. This, known as the tragedy of the commons, continues to be a major problem for global resources.

We also fear things we believe are complex. Our approach to complexity is to divide it up: we find it easier to consider economic, environmental and social aspects independently. We can become quite expert in each one. But we lose the ability to consider all factors simultaneously. It makes it difficult for leaders to make balanced decision when these aspects have all become separated.

Reinforcing this separation, we have developed information that does not support balanced, integrated decision making. For example, over the past 50-60 years economic information has had a significantly larger weight in decision making, notwithstanding the significant increase in the amount of social and scientific data over the same time period.

Combined with the tendency to short attention spans, this leads to more weight being placed on information about current activity (such as income and consumption) rather than longer term drivers of change such as the condition of public infrastructure, the environment and social capital. We have information on the condition of these assets but it tends to not be integrated or organised in a meaningful way. That makes it hard to use it efficiently in standard analytical and related frameworks – let alone broader public debate.

The consistent recording of trends over time provides information to assess past decisions, correct mistakes and visualise the future. In the wonderful words of Abraham Lincoln, “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how do to it”.

Developing the habit of recording past events in a structured and widely disseminated fashion also has the significant side effect of reducing apparent complexity. There is nothing simple about the economic system or the measure of GDP that we use to reflect its performance. But we are now attuned to it and thus, as a collective, see the economy through a different lens to the one we use for environmental or social issues.

How do we adapt our point of view?

One solution would be to change human nature. This is likely to be a tough ask. A more practical approach is to record trends in economic, environmental and social factors, on which we can base decision in the future.

Fortunately, new frameworks for this sort of data collection are being implemented in Australia and globally. In 2012 the United Nations statistics group adopted an international statistical standard: the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA). It integrates environmental data (such as flows of water, energy, waste, and emissions and stocks of natural resources) with the standard measures of economic activity.

This SEEA provides an information base for other indicators, such as resource efficiency and sustainable consumption, and inclusive and comprehensive wealth. It could also be used in standard analytical tools such as economic modeling and cost benefit analysis.

Further research has shown the potential to integrate ecological information with standard economic accounting. In particular, we need to consider environmental and economic data for small areas (such as forests, farms, or wetlands).

This integration of environmental, economic and social information at local scales could drive changes in the way we consider decision making at national and international scales. At local scales we deal better with complexity, since there are fewer unknowns and we have a greater interest in thinking for the long term since the impact of decisions and choices affect us directly.

Australia has a small yet strong tradition in environmental-economic accounting and has been a leading country in the development of the SEEA and other measurement frameworks. This work should be encouraged, supported and more actively co-ordinated to build nationally accepted histories of our relationships with the environment.

We need a comprehensive and regular Australian land and ecosystem assessment program along the lines of the recently commenced UK National Ecosystem Assessment. This would first entail dividing Australia up into regions of different land and ecosystem types, such as forests, agricultural land, wetlands, and coastal zones.

Then, using a variety of indicators we would:

  • assess the quality and change in quality of those ecosystems
  • assess the type and quantity of ecosystem services (such as food, fibre, air and water purification, and recreation) provided by those ecosystems.

While there are a number of related initiatives in Australia, these need to be co-ordinated, regularised and resourced through institutions. Maybe then we can stop thinking about the short-term, and start thinking about the future.

Thanks to the Sustainable Australia Report 2013 for inspiring this series.

Carl Obst was the editor and lead author for the United Nations System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) from 2010-2013 and continue to work on a consultancy basis for international organisations that are implementing the SEEA as an international standard.

John Wiseman is a Professorial Fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI), University of Melbourne.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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