To till or not to till?

Why do we till? Tilling for many people is synonymous with the way we practice agriculture nowadays. If I asked you to picture an agricultural scene, chances are you've probably pictured a big tractor hauling something metal and heavy through a field.

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There are countless things we do by rota everyday, without really taking a moment to think about why or how we're doing them, just because everyone else is and it seems like the done thing to do. The question is – could tilling be one of those things? Could something that is so emblematic of farming actually not be the best way of doing things, or – worse- could it even be harmful?

Why till?

Tilling, in one form or another, has been practiced for millennia, with forms of tilling even being documented since ancient Egyptian times.  As with all agricultural practices, tilling has gone through centuries of technological developments, moving from using simple hand-held tools and animals drawn ploughs, to the hefty high tech tractors we see today. These developments have allowed us to work the soil harder, longer, deeper and much more efficiently.

There's many good reasons why tilling at first seems like a great idea, which is why it gained such traction in agriculture in the first place. Initially, it was thought that by grinding up the soil into finer particulates, tilling made nutrients more easily accessible to the plant. And, at first glance, all seems well. Soil after tilling is fluffy and clean, plants are easily planted and seem to thrive in their new homes. But after time and on closer inspection, things aren't all rosy in the gardens after you till...


Why did the fungi leave the soil?

Because there wasn't 'mush-room'!.... Or was it because of tilling?

Tilling is a philosophy grounded predominantly in the idea that soil is mainly just a physical and chemical substrate. However, it does not take into account the biology that underlines the functioning of healthy soil. And the idea of no-till farming is largely due to exactly that biology- namely, an invisible ally called 'fungal mycelium', of which you can find literally miles and miles in just a spoonful of healthy soil.

This mycelium works in a multitude of ways to help plants, and therefore farmers, out. It helps unlock natural nutrients, rebuilds soil structure, aerates the soil and exponentially increases the water retention of the soil. Crucially, certain kinds of beneficial fungi make what is known as 'symbiotic relationships' with plant roots. Through these associations, fungi exchange carbohydrates and minerals for simple sugars produced by the plant and exuded through their root systems. In this way, fungal mycelium help to nourish plants. Mycelium has also been shown to play a crucial role in the transfer of water to plants, as well as other molecules such as enzymes in response to problems. In this way, ferrying nutrients, water and information, mycelium acts as the neural network, or, as Paul Stamets puts it, the 'internet' of the soil. However, tilling breaks up the long strands of fungal filaments, destroying the helpful mycelium and all the benefits along with it.

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Tilling practices also kill off other kinds of crucial soil microbiology. For example, tilling kills earthworms who play a crucial role in soil health, through aerating the soil with their burrows and digesting soil which creates nutritious humus. 

Furthermore, tilling, by turning and mixing the soil, breaks up all natural layering of the soil pulling finer soils up to the surface of the soil leaving it vulnerable to erosion, which washes away all the crucial nutrients we need for our plants to grow. This also works to compact the soil, which creates the anaerobic conditions in which plant pathogens thrive. The turning and exposing of soil also leaves it vulnerable to water being lost through evaporation which, especially in a Mediterranean context like Greece, is the last thing you want to see with such a scarce and important resource.

The reality of implementing no-till

It's not always easy to put ideology into action. No-till techniques require patience and it's clear that after centuries of working our soils, things won't happen overnight- instead, we have to rely on the old adage that 'good things come to those who wait'! Furthermore, no-till as a technique poses many technical challenges, from designing new affordable technologies such as no-dig seeders to building up biological knowledge of our soils. Clearly a lot of work is required to design new innovative approaches and techniques that allow farms to be run efficiently without the use of tilling.

However, we have taken inspiration from many encouraging studies that have emerged throughout the past few years, showing numerous benefits from practicing no-till agriculture. For instance, researchers from a 21 year study in Germany reported that implementing these practices slashed energy inputs by between half and two-thirds, drastically reduced pesticide and fertiliser inputs, increased biodiversity levels and improved water retention.

To begin our no-till experience, we have been hard at work here at Mazi creating a no-till vegetable garden, through the layering of our soil with manure, cardboard and woodchips, which will be added to year on year. We are also working to extend this philosophy across all of our land, implementing strategies help to rebuild and repair our degraded soils and experimenting techniques to help us run our farm without the help of a plough. We're excited to see how our soil quality will change over time and to share our progress with you as our project develops.

As always, thanks for reading our blog – we really appreciate the 'morel' support!

Tash