Our Summer of Reduced Tillage Research in Photos

The Cornell Small Farms Program continues to document our on-farm trials on tarping practices for organic vegetables.

What’s happening under tarps? How are weeds and soils changing? How do they fit in a vegetable rotation with less tillage? And how do we handle and troubleshoot the shortcomings? The current work of the Cornell Small Farms Program’s Reduced Tillage (RT) project is designed to answer this growing stack of questions about tarping. 

This was year seven of our ongoing, long-term permanent bed research trial, where we manage a sequence of crops over multiple years and insert different tarping and tillage practices in-between. Our field turns into a complicated management matrix where we compare tilled tarped plots to no-till tarped and all of it to untarped ground. Some tillage is deep, intensive, and makes a clean slate, some is shallow as we can go — then we ask if tarps can take care of the rest. We’re also layering tarps over other soil building practices, like compost, mulch, and cover crops. 

Off the research farm, we partnered with farmers and organizations in the area – demoing, testing new practices, and talking tarps to see how they can fit and improve systems on their own farm. 

On our Instagram @CornellSmallFarms we feature snapshots from our growing season, which are collated here as a photo essay.

SFQ rt april12

Ryan Maher/ Cornell Small Farms Program

April 12, 2021

Our reduced tillage research project helped support tarping bed preparate at Van Noble Farm with help from trainees in the Groundswell Centerr‘s Farmer Training Program. The tarped beds will be used to grow crops like peppers, cucumbers, and cilantro.

SFQ rt april30

Ryan Maher/ Cornell Small Farms Program

April 30, 2021

Our tarps are down and the beds are tucked in tight, as we begin year seven of our long-term reduced tillage experiment at Cornell’s Thompson Vegetable Research Farm.

We’re continuing to learn about tarping in reduced-till and no-till vegetables by comparing side-by-side to un-tarped beds. Hoping these tarps hold well and the beds get their rest for a couple more weeks ahead of our crop of lettuce.

SFQ rt may18

Ryan Maher/ Cornell Small Farms Program

May 18, 2021 

Our work on reduced tillage isn’t just on our research farm. We are supporting Nook and Cranny Farm as they start an ambitious farm trial looking at winter rye + strip tillage + tarps! Furrows are made and tarps are down to kill rye ahead of planting potatoes. They’ll be following changes in soils, weeds, and yields to see how tarps change the equation.

SFQ rt may21

Ryan Maher/ Cornell Small Farms Program

May 21, 2021

Our tarps are off and it’s time to plant! We are growing one crop, lettuce, under 18 different soil management conditions at the Cornell University vegetable research farm. 

Teamwork makes transplanting all the more fun, and today we had some help from organic farm coordinator Betsy Leonard and the Cornell Small Farms team, including director Anu Rangarajan.

SFQ rt june8

Ryan Maher/ Cornell Small Farms Program

June 8, 2021 

Our reduced tillage project was back at Nook and Cranny Farm to support their farm trial using winter rye + strip tillage + tarps. They worked to plant potatoes while measuring soil conditions. Before planting, tarps were used to kill winter rye (right) and are being compared to untarped and flail-mowed ground (left). 

SFQ rt june22

Ryan Maher/ Cornell Small Farms Program

June 22, 2021

It’s been several weeks since the first tarps came off at our long-term reduced tillage experiment at the Cornell University vegetable research farm. Now we’re weed counting, along with weed ID, in our lettuce beds before harvest.

This is one way to see how tarps measure up in our 18 different soil management conditions.

SFQ rt july14

Ryan Maher/ Cornell Small Farms Program

July 14, 2021

Cornell Small Farm’s soil health specialist, Ryan Maher, visited Matthew 25 Farm to share with some of the incubator farmers about using tarping in the field to improve soil health before planting. The Syracuse Refugee Agricultural Program, shared these pictures from the day.

SFQ rt july27

Ryan Maher/ Cornell Small Farms Program

July 27, 2021

Our muddy, water-laden tarps are now starting to shine as they’re holding beds weed-free without tillage as untarped beds green up. 

Soon tarps will be pulled back and we’ll be planting broccoli at our long-term reduced tillage experiment at the Cornell University vegetable research farm. 

SFQ rt august2

Ryan Maher/ Cornell Small Farms Program

August 2, 2021

One of our summer interns, Claire Norman, cheerfully moved broccoli seedlings out of the greenhouse to harden them off outside before going in the field. They will be part of our soil management research at the Cornell University vegetable research farm.

SFQ rt august10

Ryan Maher/ Cornell Small Farms Program

August 10, 2021

Too late for an Olympic pun? The first leg of this summer was lettuce, followed by a middle leg of tarping, before handing the baton off to broccoli!  As their summer with Cornell Small Farms comes to an end, our interns carried us down the home stretch with their help transplanting  the broccoli starters.

SFQ rt august28

Ryan Maher/ Cornell Small Farms Program

August 28, 2021 

The soils in our long term reduced tillage research trial finally dried out and gave us a window to cultivate — but only after some detailed weed counts to test how tarps could hold those weeds off. We then added another layer to our trial by putting straw mulch on some plots.


Ryan Maher

Ryan began with the SFP in the summer of 2013 and focuses on research and extension in soil health practices for vegetables. He is a Baltimore native with family and educational ties to CNY. After graduating from SUNY-ESF in 2003 he spent two summers training on diversified vegetable farms, first in SW Oregon and then in the Boston metro area. In 2007, he graduated from Iowa State with an MS in Sustainable Agriculture focusing on soils in native grassland restorations. He spent five years with the USDA-ARS in St. Paul MN, coordinating research on nutrient cycling in perennial forage crops. Ryan, his wife Jackie, and daughters Gia and Olive are happy to settle in CNY and enjoy the food, farms, forested hills, and water of the Finger Lakes region.