Tillage Free

Shepherd's Grain R&D > Tillage Free

Do Not Disturb

Disturbing soils in agricultural systems works against nature’s processes of building resilient and productive plant-producing soils. To the extent that we fight against those natural processes, we engage in unsustainable practices that will lead to soil degradation and erosion. We understand the soil to be a vital natural resource that is critical to preserve for generations to come. The key is to work with nature, not against it.

“With rare exceptions, the fields of all countries have been made to bear their crops without the least reference to the interests of future generations.” ― David R. Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations

A common theme among all Shepherd’s Grain growers is that soil must be preserved for generations to come. They are stewards of the land, and they take that role seriously, knowing they will pass the baton on to the next generation of farmers. The history of civilizations shows the destructive power of tillage. Shepherd’s Grain growers are about the business of not repeating those past mistakes, and also set to the task of rebuilding soils that have been degraded in the past.

The section below hits the high level reasons why Shepherd’s Grain growers are dedicated to being tillage-free. Please follow our blog as we explore specific issues related to sustainable agricultural practices.

There are three primary modes of soil erosion: Wind, Water, and Gravity.

Soils that have been tilled and/or left exposed to the elements are prone to gradual destruction. Wind lifts up the topsoil and sends it flying into the air. Water from rain or snowmelt grabs hold of topsoil particles, mixing it into a chocolate milk-like appearance, and deposits it off the field and into the water drainage. Gravity erosion occurs on hills when soil structure is compromised and weakened to the point that gravity forces the soil out of place and down the hill. This kind of erosion in hilly areas is exacerbated by tillage equipment that works as the agent to compromise soil structure, and the equipment itself can spring soil up in the air, which then lands downhill from where it was.

Soil can only be built if it stays in its place. The issue of erosion is the most obvious concern when it comes to agricultural sustainability. Soil is a resource that is easy to lose and it is easy to lose quickly. It takes far longer and much more work to rebuild. Once soil has been eroded to the point where it is unproductive, “desertification” is the terminology we use to describe the process. All soils on the earth will become unfarmable, unproductive, and like a desert if soil erosion is not stopped. Some areas have soils that are very deep, and the erosion process may take thousands of years before the soil is gone. Other areas have more shallow soils, and are at the brink of desertification right now. Whether the erosion process takes thousands or tens of years, Shepherd’s Grain growers are committed to sustainability and the systems necessary to prevent erosion of their fields.

Soil biology is the lifeblood of soil. Without it you just have dead dirt. The biology that lives in the soil, from earthworms to arachnids to microscopic bacteria and fungi, is a critical component of sustainable agricultural systems. The biology naturally improves soil structure, and works to provide crops with the nutrients they need to be fruitful. When different species of soil biology live together in balanced populations, soil finds its resiliency in difficult times.

Tillage destroys the habitat that encourages healthy and balanced populations of soil biology. It does this by destroying soil structure and exposing the soil biology to lethal climatic conditions. For the same principles that you can’t live on the planet Mercury, healthy soil biology populations cannot thrive in soils that have been disturbed.

Sustaining optimal physical characteristics of soils is important to long-term sustainability. A plant’s roots must be able to grow according to design in order for them to most efficiently get the nutrition that the rest of the plant needs to be productive. Water is precious to growing crops, and it must be efficiently and securely stored in soil. Tillage over time causes layers of compaction in soil that makes it difficult for roots to penetrate. Tillage destroys pores on the soil surface that allow water to infiltrate the soil, and instead the water evaporates. These are but a couple of examples of the importance of building and maintaining sound physical characteristics of soil.

Soils hold nutrients that are valuable to the production of healthy plants. Those nutrient levels in the soil must be maintained at certain levels in order to maintain the sustainable generating activity that takes place in the soil. Maintaining healthy soil biology habitat by not tilling the soil goes hand in hand with conserving soil nutrients and optimizing their ability to become available to the plants. Tillage destroys soil biology habitat and volatilizes nutrients that could otherwise be used by crops.

Why is Shepherd's Grain not certified organic?

Ideally, perfecting the art of combining organic production methods while upholding the commitment to being tillage-free is a great goal, and Shepherd’s Grain invests in research that leads toward that goal. Shepherd’s Grain believes that sustainability of our soils is a higher priority than meeting organic certification criteria. Tillage is at the center of virtually all organic production methods, and remaining tillage-free is a non-negotiable for Shepherd’s Grain. In short, most organic agriculture at scale sells soil degradation and erosion in exchange for being pesticide free. Shepherd’s Grain promotes the opposite approach: Preserve and build soils, then work toward perfecting organic practices in a tillage-free environment.