Reduced Tillage in Vegetables

Project Lead: Ryan Maher, Anu Rangarajan

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Many vegetable farms rely on intensive tillage practices. Tillage can be a critical tool for controlling weeds, preparing seed beds, and incorporating crop residue. But intensive and repeated tillage can also be detrimental to long-term soil health. Reduced tillage practices, along with rotations, cover crops, and amendments, can help move vegetable farms towards greater sustainability.

Our current work supports organic practices to manage weeds, cover crops, and soils with less tillage. We are working across a wide range of farm scales, from strip tillage systems to small-scale permanent beds.

Our goal is to help farmers implement reduced tillage practices that work for their own farm. We carry out field research experiments, work with farmers in on-farm trials, and support a network of farmers to share their experience. We are a collaboration among Cornell University, the University of Maine, and Michigan State University, partnering with extension services and experienced farmers across the region.

Project Resources

News and Updates

Our Summer of Reduced Tillage Research in Photos

By Ryan Maher | October 4, 2021

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…

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Join Our Farmer to Farmer “Tarp Talk” Webinars in March

By Ryan Maher | February 25, 2021

Tarps are clearly a multifunctional tool for small farmers and are being sized, sourced, and applied to fit the farm. How much can we ask of tarps, how are they…

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Learn About Soil Health at SFP-Organized Sessions During 2021 Empire State Producers Expo

By Kacey Deamer | December 17, 2020

Join us on January 12, 2021, to hear farmer experiences and research on cover cropping and no-till practices from around the region during the Soil Health Sessions at the virtual…

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About Reduced Tillage in Vegetables

Tarps on Permanent Beds

Reduced tillage practices minimize soil disturbance with targeted and appropriate soil disturbance based on farm goals. Reduced tillage means a decreased reliance on inversion tillage. It means less intensity, shallower depth, and less area disturbed, either in the bed, field or across the farm. It can also mean less frequent tillage, like finding opportunities in a rotation for land to rest for a year or more.

Practices take many forms. They may be system-wide, applied across the whole farm, or only fit in a part of the rotation for specific crops. They often maintain the benefits of some tillage for managing weeds, making a better seed bed or incorporating residues.  How they take shape on a farm can depend on farm size and soil characteristics, access to equipment or materials, farm skill sets, and labor availability.

Reduced Tillage in Organic Farms

Many organically-managed farms rely on intensive tillage. It can be a critical tool for controlling weeds, managing residues and killing cover crops. But intensive and repeated tillage is also be detrimental to long-term soil health. Reduced tillage practices, combined with crop rotations, cover crops, and soil amendments, can move vegetable farms towards greater sustainability. What practices can help organic growers build better soils? Improve labor and fuel use efficiency? And ensure long-term profitability?

Our current work is focused on developing successful organic reduced tillage methods to manage weeds, integrate cover crops, and build soil productivity. We are working across scales, from strip tillage systems to permanent beds and tarping.

Project Partners

We are a collaboration among Cornell University in Ithaca and Long Island, the University of Maine, and Michigan State University, partnering with extension services and a team of experienced growers.

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About 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.

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