Cornell CALS - College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Reduced Tillage in Vegetables

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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.

News and Updates

Why permanent beds?

By Ryan Maher | July 15, 2019

Permanent bed systems can help farms improve soil health at the farm-level. Rather than plow and harrow by the field, fields are divided into a set of beds and field…

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Reusable Black Tarps Suppress Weeds and Make Organic Reduced Tillage More Viable

By Haley Rylander | January 14, 2019

Research on the potential of tarps to reduce or even replace tillage by controlling weeds and decomposing crop residue. By Haley Rylander Introduction Organic vegetable farmers rely heavily on intensive…

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Conference Spotlight: SFP Presenting in Early 2019

By Kelsie Raucher | December 3, 2018

The Cornell Small Farms Program will be attending several conferences in early 2019. From presentations of our research to special events, you can connect with the our team and fellow…

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About Reduced Tillage in Vegetables

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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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