Life Beneath the Soil

Life beneath the soil

For the market farmer, soil health is critically important. The soil is a generic term for the upper layer of the Earth’s crust. In fact, there are six soil layers that impact market farming and even big Ag via the life within the soil, the overall soil health, and the relationship therein. Inside we discuss the life beneath the soil and how those organisms affect soil health.

Soil Biota

Biota is the life – animal or plant – that exist in a specific habitat or environment. All the fish, plants, algae and other organisms in the Pacific Ocean would be the biota of the Pacific Ocean. Soil Biota is the organisms that live in the soil of a specific area or environment, such as your garden or market farm. For most plots of land, we are talking about organisms such as bacteria, Fungi, spiders, worms, arthropods – insects, spiders, crustaceans, etc., small rodents and mammals, etc. In short, there is a lot of life in the soil – Some of it good and some a little challenging for farmers and gardeners – all of it seems to be essential for growing food.

The Layers of the Soil from top to bottom

  1. Humus — In healthy soil, there is a thick layer of humus which is the off-cast parts of plants — leaves, bark, stems, fallen fruit, etc. It is in the humus where new soil is created and nutrients within top soil replenished. That process is in thanks to the soil biota and the hydrologic cycle — rain and water.
  2. Topsoil — a nutrient-rich layer — usually — where most plant roots are found. Larger trees and shrubs may have roots that extend as deep as the subsoil layer.
  3. The Eluviation layer — Often a sink for soil nutrients as they are carried down through the humus and topsoil layers by water. This is generally a small grained layer of soil particles.
  4. Subsoil — The subsoil layer is made up of tiny grains of rock, soil, and clay. There is not much organic residue in the subsoil layer, but it can be an excellent place for the natural storage of excess water – especially in areas with a lot of clay. This can also be a place where hardpan forms.
  5. Regolith — Upper Bedrock – a broken layer of bedrock – this is where bedrock begins to decompose thanks to physical and chemical weathering.
  6. Bedrock — The bottom layer of the soil is bedrock on which the upper layers of soil rest. Bedrock is exposed due to erosion. We see that naturally on the upper reaches of the mountains. We also see it farming in extreme cases where air or water erosion is uncontrolled.

Little Creatures with a Big Impact

Bacteria and fungi are microscopic, but both do a fantastic job converting organic compounds into nutrients. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria are literally the driving force behind life on earth through a process called the nitrogen cycle. The air we breathe is nearly 78% nitrogen, yet plants cannot use nitrogen in its gaseous form. There are a few ways that nitrogen becomes usable to plants and nitrogen-fixing bacteria are one of the most efficient means.

However, it is not just nitrogen that makes soil healthy. It is also aeration thanks in part to critters like earthworms, moles, voles, shrews, and even insect larva that help to “fluff” up the topsoil and humus layers so that air is available for all organisms to use. It is also about the ratio of organic matter in the soil to the amount of moisture that the ground holds. The humus layer helps the topsoil layer to retain water and by decreasing the amount of evaporation that occurs. In the humus layer are all kinds of organisms that help to reduce plant matter so that the bacteria and fungi can do their jobs. That is a natural, organic cycle. The plants grow, shed their fruit and leaves, which become the humus layer where the organism’s consume the debris and turn it into usable nutrients.

Supplements for Soil Health

In commercial farming, the humus layer is burned off or removed. Over time, the topsoil layer becomes compacted due to the reduction of organic material and the farmer must then supplement their lands with inputs — nitrogen-based fertilizers — because there is not enough life in the soil to regenerate the nutrients. Market farming does not have to follow this path. Many small farms are using other methods such as no-till to improve the condition of their soil. There are other tricks too, such as cover crops that utilize nitrogen-fixing plants. Nitrogen fixing plants are a symbiotic relationship between specialized bacteria and the plant. Together they help to absorb nitrogen or nitrogen components and then convert it into a usable material that the plant can use to grow.

Soil health is a relationship between many small organisms, the plants that grow in the soil and the amount of water available. The small farm can take advantage of these relationships to produce more food or flowers and use fewer resources.

David Stillwell organic gardener

About: David Stillwell is an organic gardener, entomologist, writer and student. David specializes in hymenoptera – bees, wasps, and ants, and the study of cecidology – Plant galls. He has a fondness for recognizing natural circles and energy webs that exist in nature — those interconnected natural systems such as food webs. He is a native of California and an advocate for conservation, locally grown, and farmer’s markets.

The Deeper Benefits of No-Till Farming – Part III

No till farming

Welcome to the third part of our series addressing the benefits of No-till Farming. In the early part of the series, we went over the physical changes of the land moving from tilled farming to no-till. We also looked at the ways the land and the farmer change during and after the switch. In this installment, we look at the deeper benefits of no-till and address some pitfalls in thinking about no-till.

On the farm, the deeper benefits of no-till means a proactive approach to building and maintaining soil. That benefit becomes a sustainable process by which a farm can continue to produce healthy and viable crops for generations.

The physical process begins with soil that is less compact – fluffier. Then two things happen. First, the moisture levels rise in the soil column and aggregates near the surface hold a higher moisture content. That action signals the second event which is the return of soil biota. Small organisms need moist soil to function, and tilling tends to dry out the soil causing a loss of soil biota.

These are natural systems that impact each other. When balanced they enhance. However, take one away and the others tend to collapse. This is where the relationship between the farmer and the land becomes real. As a steward, it is important to monitor these types of systems.

Complaints about No-Till

Drive down the road and look at abandoned fields. They are full of things growing on their own. A lot of farmers try no-till for a year and then abandon it because the yield was not what they thought it should be. Some never tried because they heard they would have to buy all new seed stock. When it comes to no-till there are many complaints. I find many of those stem from a misplaced relationship in growing. Many farmers have a relationship with their crop but not necessarily with the land – Crop focus. Got a problem? Add more inputs. That equation is not sustainable. The farther one goes down that row the higher the costs become and that means that on the end consumer level the prices have to go up.

Switching from tilling to no-till is a big change. In the first few years, you should be able to produce about the same amount, maybe a little less in the first year. You will also have to blend both till methods and no-till methods in the first couple of years. For example, increasing the use of inputs such as nitrogen. This is as much about dialing in the farmer as it is the crops. For many farmers, switching to no-till is not about going back to the “old ways.” Instead it is about learning a new way of farming.

The benefits of no-till really begin to emerge after the third year. That is because the relationship between the farmer and the land has grown. Also, during that time, the natural systems begin to return to a state where they are working together. This means the soil organics are causing the soil to be fluffier. It also means that soil biota is returning and thriving. This is the result of crop residue that is beginning to enhance soil nutrition. Also, the water level has risen in the soil column. Trying no-till for a year and giving up is wasting time and resources. In most situations, the seed stock you’ve been using should be fine.

What also changes is the skill set of the farmers. This is evident in the differences seen in weed emergence from till to no-till. Farmers are also seeing the benefits of improved soil nutrition and how water is better managed because of the organic material in the soil. And, they are seeing there is a decrease in heavy work, that they need fewer inputs, that weeds are naturally controlled, and that they have better accesses to fields earlier in the spring.

These are all benefits that are sustainable but they do not happen overnight. No-till is a sustainable way to improve soil health and that leads to improved crop health, better yields, and protection for the very resource that enables us to farm – the land.

Problems with Tilling

There are problems with tilling. There appear to be insects that are resistant to GMO crops. Weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup. Consumers are starting to show resistance to the use of both GMOs and non-organic crops by consumers. And there has been an increase at the end-consumer level for organic produce and meats.

Sustainable growing is leaning towards no-till. The benefits are just too good to ignore and as technology increases, we are likely to see a larger input from end consumers – one that is big enough to change farming.

David Stillwell organic gardener

About: David Stillwell is an organic gardener, entomologist, writer and student. David specializes in hymenoptera – bees, wasps, and ants, and the study of cecidology – Plant galls. He has a fondness for recognizing natural circles and energy webs that exist in nature — those interconnected natural systems such as food webs. He is a native of California and an advocate for conservation, locally grown, and farmer’s markets.

Part II – What to Expect When Going No-till

Welcome to Part II of This Series on No-till Farming.

We left off discussing the relationship of the land, what it produces, and the consumers who buy the end product. In this segment, we look again at relationships but we separate the land from the farmer. This is because there are two big things that happen in the successful conversion of farms from disc farming to no-till. First, the farmer changes and then the land changes. What this means is that the results are very dependent on how the farmer approaches this change.

The Land from Disc to No-till

It is kind of a blank slate – the land. Disc farming does many things, two of which are it breaks up the organic food webs and reduces organic matter in the soil. This is why plow and disc farms have thinner top layers usually with a compressed layer that acts like hardpan. Switching from disc to no-till essentially means that you have to undo all of the issues that disc farming creates. What you gain is better quality soil, a decrease in water and wind erosion, better saturation of rows from irrigation, better or equal crop yield, and eventually, fewer weeds. These are all end goals. So, what happens between the start and end goals?  Here is a snapshot of the first few years.

Years one-three – This is the big switch – Plan for success, but don’t expect a lot of what you do to change. Recordkeeping is a great tool – use it. For market farming the process of switching is a little different from big AG farms. The focus remains the same, building soil nutrients. Moving away from disc farming to no-till means you are moving away from the inputs needed to ramp a field up for spring growth. You should expect to increase nitrogen usage for the first several years. The soil is devoid of the organic means to produce nitrogen, but that changes over time and those costs decrease.

Equipment changes – the basic change is the removal of disc units and the implementation of drills or spike seeders. You also really want to pay attention to how you set up your drill so that it has the right pressure and depth. In no-till, the idea is to disturb the ground as little as possible. To that end, you switch from a tiller, plow or disc to a drill. The drill pokes a hole in the ground and your seeder seeds the hole. This method disturbs the soil biota the least and it keeps the soil aggregates larger, which means better water infiltration and improved soil hydration. The crop residue on the surface also helps the soil to retain moisture. As the years progress, the soil becomes better able to handle drought because the water saturates deeper.

The field prep from disc to no-till is basically to spread organic matter – the last crop – over the field. What begins to happen is that the soil biota begin to grow – the organisms that breakdown the crop residue multiply.

Weeds – You should not expect to see different types of weeds – At least not until year three. This is because no-till does not bring in new weeds and the soil on your vegetable farm already has an established seed bank. Some of those might be due to Roundup resistant weeds. In Big Ag you should expect to maintain a quality pre-emergent and post emergent herbicide program. That is a cost that will decrease as your no-till program becomes more established. One of the things you can do to speed up this process is to implement cover crops. For those of you who are running cattle, a smartly planned cover crop means mob grazing and that will not only help to cut down on weeds but will cut your cost for winter feeding too. Over time, weed control is helped by surface organic matter – mulch – which shades the seeds so that crop seeds get a head start and then they shade out the weeds. This can become 100% organic or you can continue with herbicide programs.

On smaller market farming operations, you have more control over dealing with weeds before they emerge. Occultation helps a great deal with weed control, but that is a process that is more difficult to manage and too costly for larger operations.

Management – You could expect a drop in yield for the first two years. You might be surprised with a larger yield. Much of that is dependent upon weather and crop management. Start with good recordkeeping and you might need a scheduling software app to help. Especially with market farming an app helps with crop management, planning and scheduling. You will also want to look at weed patterns – what is emerging and when. This is perhaps one of the biggest issues when switching from tiller, plow or disc to no-till. These are all changes that are going to impact both disc and no-till farming. They key really is recordkeeping. You want to focus on keeping track of things like weather and crop success and failure. Recordkeeping also helps with understanding seed selection. There is no reason to change what you plant or the seeds. There isn’t a disc type seed or a no-till seed. In both situations you want seeds with vigor – Good spring growth and root development. The factors that affect seed growth and yield are weather, soil quality, and water. Test plots help you determine what works on your land and what does not. All of this boils down to good recordkeeping, both for marketing farming and Big Ag.

Trust in what you do and what occurs. If there is a problem, understand it, solve it, and learn from it. The real benefits of no-till show up from year three onward. It will take that long for the land to transition, and from year three those benefits increase. The better you manage your crops the better the outcomes should be. Think of recordkeeping as data collection and the better your data the better the answers it can provide.

You will have to set up the land as you make this transition. Part of what that means is fertilizer. A plowed acre is missing much of the biota that would convert crop residue to usable nutrients for the next crop. The soil tends to be denser because it is missing the organic matter that eventually breaks down into soil.  These are a few of the challenges that you face in the first year. To overcome this requires good crop management.

Seed Selection – We touched on this a bit and you hear a lot about seed selection in no-till. Most of it is bunk – marketing from seed sellers. Grow test plots and go with what your farm proves. Never mind about the nay-sayers and those people who tried no-till once and never looked for solutions to the problems of transition.

A disc managed farm has relied on artificial inputs to help make up for the lag that mother earth has. Through better management of the crops you plant you gain a sustainable base from which to grow your farm. This process changes both the farmer and the land. What emerges can be quite remarkable.

David Stillwell organic gardener





About: David Stillwell is an organic gardener, entomologist, writer and student. He specializes in hymenoptera – bees, wasps, and ants, and the study of cecidology – Plant galls. He has a fondness for recognizing natural circles and energy webs that exist in nature — those interconnected natural systems such as food webs. He is a native of California and an advocate for conservation, locally grown, and farmer’s markets.

What is No-Till Farming?

No till soil sample

By David Stillwell

No-till farming is just as the name describes it is farming without tilling the ground. The system goes a bit deeper and is very much at odds with conventional farming. In this blog, we look at what is no-till farming and what it is not.

In the Beginning

When we arrived here we found fertile valleys and plains. We grew food, cotton, and crops. We grazed cattle, built cities, and grew our population and economy, but not without cost. That which we found fertile became depleted. We faced hardships such as the Dust Bowl. The way we farmed changed and modernized. Fewer people began to farm larger chunks of land, hand tools were replaced with machinery and chemicals replaced the natural cycle of replenishment and farming grew into Big Ag.

Today, not all consumers are onboard with the methods of Big Ag and many are going organic. What is changing is the way consumers buy food and with that change the market is shifting. Large market segments are turning away from mass produced food and embracing organically grown foods – non-GMO, hormone and antibiotic free (ranching.) People are embracing old-school ways of growing – farm to table, micro-farming, home gardening, market farming, and many others. A portion of those consumers are turning away from Big Ag and focusing on environmentally improved ways of growing vegetables & flowers and in the process, some small farm growers are embracing those challenges by taking up a position of caring for the land.

What is No-till Farming?

No-till farming is a series of relationships – with the land, with the food, with the crop, with a way of life. It is a return to a more natural way of growing food and one that embraces a responsibility – a stewardship and heritage – of the land. This is a return to sustainable small farm growing and food production and it is driven by several factors – consumer concern over genetically modified crops, their demand for organic foods, healthier lifestyles, and the understanding that populations are growing as is the demand for both food and land. There is also a bit of realization that the farther one goes with Big Ag the more one spends on inputs – fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, equipment, etc. What we are seeing is a resurgence in market farming, small farm businesses that are family owned, organic gardening, and growing crops that meet end-consumer demands for healthier lifestyles and that are not big companies. Consumers are putting their money where their ethical and environmental concerns are and that is driving changes in agriculture. Those include organic food, sustainable farming, small farm growing and not with corporate farms that do not stack up to their environmental concerns.

The Natural Cycles

Nature has a way and in the natural cycles the food webs support life. The plants take in energy and convert it to a usable format. Some organisms eat the plants and those organisms are then consumed. What remains is consumed by smaller organisms – insects, fungi, bacteria – and as the food becomes smaller it is broken down into elements such as nitrogen. That process is not fast and modern farmers “help” push their crops by introducing artificial fertilizers. In that process the farmer becomes less reliant on nature and more reliant on the chemical companies that manufacture fertilizers. What is lost are those “small” benefits from the soil – the biota, organic compounds, and soil structure. The idea that land must lay fallow to regenerate is not an idea that meshes with efficiency. You can just add fertilizer and the field is ready to go. No-till is about using the natural cycles to produce crops that are healthy, naturally sustainable, and trusted by the end-consumer.

Modern Farming

In modern farming, the farmer relies on inputs – fertilizers, herbicides, genetically modified seeds, etc. With no-till, the focus is on natural cycles and that means caring for the land and the biota that sustains it – earthworms, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, etc. We have seen in modern farming the loss of land through subsidence – the sinking of land. Generally, subsidence in farming is about erosion – The soil is washed or blown away. There is also the shrinking of soil through the loss of natural organisms, organic residues, etc. No-till land has a thicker surface soil layer than tilled farmland and that is because the soil is “fluffier” and less compact. Those attributes mean that the soil is able to better retain water on the top level and that there is less compaction of the soil layers between the top layer and the sub soil layer. That is important because it means that water can percolate down into the sub soil layer where plants access it on hot days and during times of drought. The organic material in soil also helps to keep the wind from blowing the soil away. When you drive through farm country during end of harvest you see clouds of dust kicked up by machinery stilling fields. Not only does that diminish air quality it causes soil loss. No-till helps to decrease soil loss and increase the benefits from those smaller organisms.

So, what is no-till farming? In short, it is the building of a positive relationship between the farmer, the land, and the consumer. Next month, I’ll follow up with a second in this series on No Till – What to Expect.

David Stillwell organic gardener

About: David Stillwell is an organic gardener, entomologist, writer and student. He specializes in hymenoptera – bees, wasps, and ants, and the study of cecidology – Plant galls. He has a fondness for recognizing natural circles and energy webs that exist in nature — those interconnected natural systems such as food webs. He is a native of California and an advocate for conservation, locally grown, and farmer’s markets.




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