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New way to farm boosts climate, too

‘Organic no-till’ combines best of two methods and sequesters most carbon. But can it work consistently?

(Page 2 of 3)



In 2005, Mr. Mason purchased a 15-foot roller-crimper for $4,000 and decided to give it a try with a field of soybeans. He felt he was taking a gamble.

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“When you go out and roll a 120-acre field down and pray that it’s going to work, it’s a good portion of your income,” he says. “You’re taking a little bit of risk there.”

Mr. Mason says his results for that first year were “excellent.” His organic soybean yield was as good as his best conventional yields had been, and he was able to reduce his pre-harvest trips across the field in a tractor from eight passes (plowing, harrowing, planting, and multiple rounds of rotary hoeing and cultivation) to just one. He figures he is saving about $50 per acre in fuel and machinery costs alone. He has been using organic no-till for three years now, and says he would recommend it to anybody, at least for soybeans.

Corn has been a different story. His results so far with this crop have been disappointing, plagued by insects and poor yields. Across the country, USDA-sponsored research into organic no-till has been conducted in Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, and California. Experimenting with different variables of climate, soil, and crop variety, researchers have reported results ranging from excellent to abject failure.

The Rodale Institute and others have found it’s only possible to no-till a field a few years in a row before more aggressive perennial weeds start to gain a foothold. Mr. Moyer has been tilling two or three times every five years at the Rodale farm. Still, that represents a reduction in tillage of 40 to 60 percent.

Research continues on perfecting organic no-till, which is still a work in progress.

The Rodale Institute made news in 2003 when it released research results from its Farming Systems Trial – the longest-running side-by side comparison of conventional and organic farming in the country – that showed its organic (tilled) cropland was sequestering 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre per year. The high number surprised soil scientists because it showed that organic farming – even though it relies on extensive tillage – was outperforming no-till farming in terms of storing carbon. Since then, additional studies by other soil researchers have arrived at the same conclusion.

Agricultural practices that promote carbon sequestration can be “stacked,” says Moyer, so the idea now is to combine them into one farming system for the best results. Rodale researchers say stacking no-till farming, organic farming, and composting has the potential to sequester 3,000 pounds of carbon per acre per year, ten times the amount typically achieved through no-till farming alone.

Lee Burras, a soil scientist at Iowa State University, agrees that agriculture can help fight global warming, but he is tempered in his view of how large a role it might play.

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