Growers and researchers have shown that reduced-tillage production systems are effective in maintaining yields and profitability while promoting sustainability.
No-till systems, where growers plant cover crops rather than till the soil, and strip-till systems, where they till only a narrow strip where the vegetables or fruit trees are planted, have become fairly common for items such as pumpkins and winter squash.
But they’re often overlooked when growing other items, such as tomatoes.
Research dating back a decade or so from the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Md., shows the benefits of using conservation tillage with tomatoes, says Gordon Johnson, vegetable and fruit specialist for the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension in Dover.
“We included that production system in our recommendation books,” he says.
Implementing a no-till or strip-till program where it makes sense can be a “nice addition to a diversified, sustainable farm with a heavy cover crop base,” Johnson says.
Others also have proven the worth of reduced-till systems with tomatoes.
Guy Moore, whose family owns Larriland Farm in Woodbine, Md., and who serves as president of the Maryland Vegetable Growers Association, grows primarily on silt loam soil, which he says is very productive but must be treated carefully.
A grower can ruin the land if he tries to work it while it’s wet, Moore says. But a no-till system and cover crop make working a wet field easier.
Larriland Farm is a 280-acre U-pick operation that features 4 acres of roma, cherry, round and yellow tomatoes.
Weekends are the farm’s busiest days, but even a rainstorm on Thursday night won’t prevent visitors from going into the field on the weekend, thanks to the no-till system.
Moore does his first planting on black plastic and his second planting, when temperatures begin to warm, with a no-till system.
Conservation tillage yields are similar to those achieved on black plastic, he says. Moore uses a homemade no-till transplanter based on a design of a modified conventional transplanter developed at Virginia Tech.
Dave Meyers, senior agent for the University of Maryland’s Anne Arundel County Extension, says he’s a “real strong proponent of strip-till production” because limited tillage in the plant zone provides many of the benefits of no-till and conventional till systems.
“We’re seeing some significant gains in that,” Myers says.