No-till: Readings and action plan

Did you know that soil erosion is one of the biggest threats to the survival of humankind? According to the experts, depletion and degradation of the soil brought about the extinction of many ancient civilizations. And ploughing or tilling, second only to deforestation, is a prime culprit in accelerating soil erosion.

It probably makes very little difference to the planet whether we at Anilodharani plough or don’t plough our two and a half little fields. But it’s an interesting challenge. A few years ago, we had a shot at no-till farming. Unsurprisingly, given the lack of preparation, it was a complete failure. We’re now planning to give up tilling altogether, but this time with some experience and know-how under our belts. I’ve been reading up, watching videos, and learning a lot on the subject, while at the same time getting pretty confused because no one is prescribing for our conditions. This is a practical and very local problem, and can only be solved by practice, by trial and error of one’s own ideas as well as other people’s. Apart from a lot of articles on the internet that I sadly didn’t keep track of, here are some of the books I’ve read.

Growing a revolution: Bringing our soil back to life by David R Montgomery. I first downloaded a sample of the author’s earlier book, Dirt: The erosion of civilizations, on my Kindle. This gave me a good idea of his thesis and I decided to plunge straight into the sequel, Growing a revolution which seemed more promising for my purpose. Among all the gloom and doom out there, this is a very positive book. The author, a geologist, sets out to see for himself how farmers across the world are switching over to conservation farming. An interesting and cheering finding is that we don’t have to wait for the forces of nature to erode rocks and create new soil. We can do it ourselves by putting back into the soil all the organic matter that we take out. We’re talking human time, not geological time. There’s a lot of good news, about good people doing good work and making a difference. Montgomery firmly believes that the tide is turning and that we can save the planet and ourselves quite easily, if only we can reach the critical mass of willing people. Still, by the time I got to the end of the book, I felt a little dissatisfied. Because: 1, Most of it is preaching to the converted. I honestly can’t see anyone buying this expensive book if they weren’t already convinced of the evils of tilling. And I doubt if many people in the developing world have access to such books in their local library. Montgomery has marshalled tractorloads of data to prove his points, which is quite wearing. And 2, his globetrotting never brought him to our neck of the woods. The nearest he comes to it is Africa. So very little, of the little that has practical value, is relevant to our conditions. And a huge chunk of the book is about enormous (tens of thousands of acres), mechanised farms in the US. Their no-till seeding is carried out by giant machines that apparently tiptoe around lightly as a fairy. With my piddly four acres and no machines, what can I hope to learn from them? Only that there is hope.

Teaming with microbes: The organic gardener’s guide to the soil food web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis. This is a great book, light hearted (as you can see by the pun in the title) and yet very serious about the science of the soil. Part 1, The basic science, describes in detail the soil food web and the denizens of the soil (bacteria, archaea, fungi, algae and slime mould, protozoa, nematodes, arthropods, earthworms, gastropods, reptiles, mammals and birds), their life cycles, and the part each plays in maintaining soil health. I found this part fascinating. It was like diving back into middle school, which is the last time I even heard of many of these animals. And this is the first time I ever heard of archaea, which apparently might be the oldest form of life. They became a kingdom unto themselves, in the wake of research in the 1970s that differentiated them from the bacterial kingdom. The third kingdom is the eukaryotes (which includes plants, fungi and animals like us). Did you know you were a eukaryote? Well, you are – by virtue of having cell membranes and nuclei. Part 2 of the book, Applying soil food web science to yards and garden care, is supposed to be the practical part. However, like Montgomery’s book, this fell short of my expectations. Apart from being aimed at temperate zone gardeners, it all seems very high tech to me. Even the ‘simple’ recipe for compost tea, which sounded like my cup of tea, involves an air pump running on electricity (gasp!) for 24 hours. So Part 2 is pretty much a washout. But made up for by Part 1, which is an education, no less.

Homegrown humus: Cover crops in a no-till garden by Anna Hess. This is a concise little book, which is as practical as anyone would want. Basically, cover crops are living mulch. They protect the soil from direct sun and rain, erosion, weeds, etc. At the same time, they provide benefits to the crops you grow among them: they fix nitrogen, attract pests away from the vegetables, draw out nutrients from the depths, and so on. Hess describes her favourite cover crops as well as suggesting others that might work better elsewhere. She details the best conditions for sowing, cultivating and harvesting each, and how to use them as a medium to grow your main crop. Though these cover crops are mostly temperate zone species, the methods used look feasible enough for tropical areas, if one can identify appropriate species.

Luckily, Kailash Murthy provides an answer to this question. A very successful no-till farmer practising rishi kheti or natural farming in Kollegal (not far from us, though luckier in terms of rainfall and proximity to the Kaveri), he has had great results using horsegram as a cover crop. I found this video interview very enlightening, and hope to visit his farm soon.

Apart from all the reading, actual preparations for our experiment began in December. We harvested only the heads of our ragi crop, leaving the plants standing. Over the months, these have fallen over and decayed. There’s also the remains of the avare beans that we planted in rows between the ragi, which should add nitrogen to the mix. This month, we bought two tractor loads of cheap old straw (no longer fit for fodder) from neighbouring farmers, who were glad to get rid of it. This we’ve spread over the field, and also half a tractor load of cow manure. The ground feels soft underfoot. If I were a plant I would certainly like this better than the hard dry earth. I’m hoping the first rains will turn it all into a nice black mulch. Then we’ll sow horsegram as a cover crop, and after that comes up, we’ll sow peanuts. Maybe we’ll make them into seedballs to foil the rats.

Honestly, though, I have a lot of doubts. I’ve never seen the kind of moist, crumbly black soil they talk about in those books anywhere. It seems it’s much harder to achieve in the tropics, where decay and dissipation are quick. Even our forest soils are hard and reddish or yellowish. Good agricultural soil in our parts is kemmannu, or red soil. You can tell a true farmer by the way he drools as he talks of its ‘kumkuma colour’. I bought a couple of tractor loads of kemmannu early on, then realised it didn’t have any organic matter either. The theory is that most soils contain enough of the essential minerals. It’s the bacterial and fungal action, assisted by the rest of the soil food web, that transforms these minerals into plant-available nutrients. Soil that is rich in organic matter is black, so that’s the kind of soil we’re aiming at.

When I was a child, I was fascinated by the golden locks sported by all the fairytale heroines. I hope my fascination with black soil isn’t another of those hopeless passions!

18 responses to “No-till: Readings and action plan

  1. Fascinating Harini! Packed with information and written with such warmth and honesty reflecting your love for earth and life. By the way, soil that I was used to while growing up In the North of India was so much more naturally dark …

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for your kind words, Kajoli. I guess you grew up in the great Indo-Gangetic plain before the so-called Green Revolution had wreaked its havoc on it. No wonder you got to see good soil! Now that you mention it, I remember the soil in Kerala, where I spent my teens, being soft and dark. Things seem to have been deteriorating when we weren’t looking.


  2. It is interesting to read your experiences (and experiments) on the farm. A couple of observations from our (my parents and I) in farming –
    1. On one of our farm (~5 acre) plots we mixed about 30 tractor trolley loads of cowdung procured from villages around our location and enriched the plot. That was done three cropping seasons back with one complete season of rain. It is yet to assimilate/mix well into the soil. These organic matter based enrichment processes seem slow. Which explains why inorganic nutrient enrichment (fertilizer) took over as a standard practice across the world.
    2. Tillage: I think it might be useful to try an intermediate step of reduced tillage. FAO definitions for your reference –
    Full Tillage – Substantial soil disturbance with full inversion and/or frequent (within year) tillage operations. At planting time, little (e.g., 30% coverage by residues at planting.
    No Tillage – Direct seeding without primary tillage, with only minimal soil disturbance in the seeding zone. Herbicides are typically used for weed control.
    With two/three different treatment plots, may be you’d be able to better infer what’s working and the downstream effects of tilling as a variable.
    3. With your practices, it appears that you are trying to increase the organic carbon in the soil. If yes, then this paper by Ratan Lal might be of relevance, especially point 6 (technological options) onward –

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    • Thank you, Tiwarisac! Really appreciate your advice, and love hearing about other farmers experiences! We really have very little arable land – some of it is rocky, some we have given over to trees, and one field is waterlogged in the rainy season. So the bit of land we are experimenting on is really quite little – not worth doing in stages. Plus, reduced tillage is difficult as we are at the mercy of some very macho tractor drivers ☺️

      I’m not very clear about carbon sequestration, I just want good soil that is hospitable to anything I plant. A permaculture friend told me that you need a lot of biomass in proportion to manure – like 10:1. Too much manure will take a long time to break down. The manure is supposed to provide the microorganisms, and the biomass their food, which they will break down. This is what I’m trying.

      Thanks for sharing that Ratan Lal link, looking forward to reading him. David Montgomery speaks very highly of his work.


      • On the biomass point – we left the previous crop’s residue on the farm itself. We have been doing cash crops mainly and a small vegetable patch. Typical of the region I’d say (Vidarbha) – soybean + tur dal; wheat; groundnut; chana. Learning with every cropping cycle. Thanks for the Montgomery reference. Looking up.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s lovely that you are working with your parents to improve your land. And so interesting to hear about your crop rotation. Not being religious or spiritually inclined, I think of my farming friends as my satsang. Thank you for sharing your experience and let’s compare notes now and then.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Reduced Tillage – Primary and/or secondary tillage but with reduced soil disturbance (usually shallow and without full soil inversion). Normally leaves surface with >30% coverage by residues at planting.

    Liked by 1 person

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