Until recently in human agricultural history, soil tilling was done by hand. Eventually, machine technology advanced so that tilling machines could be manually pulled by animals. Today, a wide variety of motorized and fully mechanical tilling machines exist. While these machines have helped cultivate nutritional soil for millennia, is tilling necessary? Today, let’s take a look at the history of tilling and better understand: what is no-till farming?
Plant science is complicated, but the basics are not. At the end of the day, plants only need a few key ingredients to grow. Let’s take a look at some plant biology basics to get a better understanding of why tilling may be useful.
Unlike animals, plans do not “eat” other organisms for their nutrients. Well, some do, but that is a rare exception. In order for plants to survive, they still need to take in essential elements. Among the most important are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). These are commonly referred to as a group: NPK. Most fertilizers will have all three of these elements in varying amounts, depending on the type and purpose of the fertilizer. Nitrogen is present in abundant amounts in all proteins and is an important element in chlorophyll. Phosphorus is necessary for the main source of chemical energy in plants, ATP. Last, potassium is necessary for water movement and salt retention.
Very obviously, plants need water. Some plants require a small amount of water. Others require a massive amount of H2O. Regardless of how much water a plant needs, they all use it for the same basic purposes: rigidity, transportation, and electrons. First, the water helps plants to stand upright so their leaves can be exposed to the sunlight. Second, important salts and sugars dissolve in the water allowing the plant to traffic them to various locations. Third, in order to carry out photosynthesis, plants need a source of electrons. All of these vital functions are accomplished by water.
Like water, sunlight is another plant necessity that is required in varying degrees for different plants. Like you learned in high school biology, plants use the energy of the sun’s rays to turn the carbon from CO2 into glucose and O2. The plant will use this sugar both to build itself (cellulose) and for energy.
Before we dive into no-till farming, we need to understand why farmers and gardeners would employ tilling in the first place.
While there can be many benefits, tilling doesn’t come without its downsides. There are several reasons why farmers may shy away from religiously tilling their fields.
So then, what causes some farmers to employ no-till techniques? There are many reasons why farms of all sizes may choose to go no-till.
In short, tilling represents part of a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Issues such as monocropping, slash-and-burn, and fertilizer run-off all contribute to the degradation of our soil. Tilling is no different. No-till farming may yield fewer crops in the immediate future, but it is a positive step towards sustainable farming.