Vegetable Crops

No-till Vegetable Production

No-till vegetable production: soil health, weed control, and crop yields

Article by Shuresh Ghimire, Extension Vegetable Specialist, UConn Extension

Building healthy soils, integrating cover crops, and managing weeds are key elements of vegetable farms. The use of no-till and cover crops provide a wealth of soil benefits thereby improving the productivity of the farming systems. However, due to limited agricultural land, farmers often have increasing pressure to keep greater portions of their land in cash crops. Cover-crop based no-till practices allow farms to gain the benefits of cover crop rotations while still earning a financial return from the land.

No-tillage cropping systems are known to provide many benefits to soils that can improve crop productivity. Those benefits include better soil aggregate size and strength which means better soil structure, better infiltration, lower bulk density, better water holding capacity, decrease in erosion, and improved water quality. Other benefits include higher cation exchange capacity, which results in higher soil nutrient holding capacity and greater potential mineralizable nitrogen (increased soil nitrogen bank). Additionally, no-till contribute to increased organic matter (carbon) which serves as a food source for soil microbes. Soil microbes are responsible for the decay of organic matter and cycling of both macro-and micro-nutrients back into forms that plants can use.

Though no-till systems offer a multitude of soil building as well as weed control benefits, implementation is limited, particularly in cooler climates like New England with shorter growing seasons. Correct management of cover crops used in no-till practices is critical because mismanagement can lead to undesired consequences, including serious weed issues rather than effective weed control.

No-till and cover crop acres were increased significantly in Connecticut from 2012 to 2017. No-till acres was 18,153 acres (487 farms) according to 2017 Census of Agriculture, which was 54% increase from 2012. The cover crops acre was ~22,000 acres in 2017, which was 7.6% greater than 2012 (Soil Health Institute, 2019).

In this article, I present farmers’ experience and some research evidence that show the use of no-till and cover cropping can provide a wealth of soil benefits thereby improving the farm profitability.

Bryan O’Hara and Anita Johnson have been growing vegetables for a livelihood since 1990 at Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, Connecticut. Over the last twenty plus years of intensive vegetable growing at the farm, they constantly sought ways to improve the health and vitality of crops and soils.

no till vegetable production“We slowly moved into no-till over the course of many years with experimentation. So, I do like to caution people to make sure it works for you before you put your whole farm into a new system because there are a lot of details.” Bryan says “We switched into no-till because we saw very strong improvement in crop health, less disease pressure, quite stunning results in plant disease and insect resistances, and very reduced need for weed control. We also saw the improvement in soil structure that resulted in much less irrigation needs. All of which resulted into greater profitability because crops were more vigorous, easier to harvest, stored better, and needed less labor.”

An experiment in Blacksburg, VA, tested the effects of three cultivation techniques (conventional-till, strip-till, and no-till) on ‘Gladiator’ pumpkin production, weed pressure, soil moisture, and soil erosion in 2014 and 2015 (O’Rourke and Petersen, 2016). Overall yields were higher in 2015, averaging 20 tons/acre, compared with 17 tons/acre in 2014. In 2014, pumpkin yields were similar across tillage treatments. In 2015, the average fruit weight of no-till pumpkins was significantly greater than strip-till (13%) and conventional-till (22%) pumpkins. Weed control was variable between years, especially in the strip-till treatment. Soil moisture was consistently highest in the no-till treatment in both years of study. Conventional-till pumpkin plots lost ~9 times more soil than the two conservation tilled treatments during simulated storm events. The 2015 yield advantage of no-till pumpkins seems related to both high soil moisture retention and weed control. Research results suggest that no-till and strip-till pumpkin production systems yield at least as well as conventional-till systems with the advantage of reducing soil erosion during extreme rains.

Jamie Jones of Jones Family Farm in Shelton, CT practices no-till pumpkin production.

no till vegetable productionFigure 2 taken in mid-April shows winter rye with an herbicide strip where the pumpkins will be planted in June.  “We will roll the rye with a roller crimper when the rye starts shedding pollen, averaging sometime late in May”.  Jamie says “We planted this winter rye late September or early October in the last fall. It followed a cover crop of sorghum sudangrass that was planted after the strawberry field was turned under in early July”.

Another research was conducted at University of Massachusetts Amherst to evaluate the nutrient cycling and weed suppressive benefits of forage radish (Raphanus sativus L. longipinnatus) cover crop mixtures to develop an integrated system for no-till sweet corn production (Fine, 2018). Treatments included forage radish (FR); oats (Avena sativa L.) and forage radish (OFR); a mixture of peas (Pisum sativum subsp arvense L.), oats and forage radish (POFR); and no cover crop control (NCC). Fall-planted forage radish cover crops showed successful weed suppression and recycling of fall-captured nutrients. Results indicated that POFR and OFR provided improved N cycling and sweet corn yield compared with FR and NCC. Early season N from decomposing cover crop residue was sufficient to eliminate the need for N fertilizer at sweet corn planting, thereby reducing input costs and risks of environmental pollution.

Steve Munno, the Farm Manager at Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge, CT, also uses cover crops and no-till to improve the soil health for organic vegetable production. “The combination of peas, vetch and oats works great in the no-till system”. Steve Munno says “With a single sowing of this cover crop mix in late summer we see significant accumulation of biomass throughout the fall from the peas and oats, an excellent winter cover protecting the soil, vigorous spring growth of vetch which produces more biomass and provides flowers for pollinators, plus nitrogen fixation (peas and vetch) and organic matter build up for the following crop”.

no till vegetables at massaro community farmLounsbury et al. (2018) tested whether reusable plastic tarps, an increasingly popular tool for small-scale vegetable farmers, could be used to augment organic no-till cover crop termination and weed suppression in New Hampshire. The authors no-till transplanted cabbage into a winter rye (Secale cereale L.)-hairy vetch (Vicia villosa Roth) cover crop mulch that was terminated with either a roller-crimper alone or a roller-crimper plus black or clear tarps. Tarps were applied for durations of 2, 4 and 5 weeks. Across tarp durations, black tarps increased the mean cabbage head weight by 58% compared with the no tarp treatment. This was likely due to a combination of improved weed suppression and nutrient availability. Plastic tarps effectively killed the vetch cover crop, whereas it readily regrew in the crimped but uncovered plots. However, emergence of large and smooth crabgrass (Digitaria spp.) appeared to be enhanced in the clear tarp treatment. Although this experiment was limited to a single site-year in New Hampshire, it showed that use of black tarps can overcome some of the obstacles to implementing cover crop-based no-till vegetable productions in northern climates.

Bryan also shares his experience using tarps “Black and clear tarps are often superior to tillage events as some weeds can survive the tillage events, but tarps are really effective at giving us weed free surface to begin planting or seeding into”.

Download a PDF of this article.

References

Fine, J.S. 2018. Integrating cover crop mixtures and no-till for sustainable sweet corn production in the Northeast. Masters Theses. 637. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/masters_theses_2/637

Lounsbury, N., N. Warren, S. Wolfe, and R. Smith. 2018. Investigating tarps to facilitate organic no-till cabbage production with high-residue cover crops. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems:1-7. doi:10.1017/S1742170518000509

O’Hara, B. 2020. No-till intensive vegetable culture: pesticide-free methods for restoring soil and growing nutrient-rich, high-yielding crops. Chelsea Green Publishing, U.S.

O’Rourke, M.E. and J. Petersen. 2016. Reduced tillage impacts on pumpkin yield, weed pressure, soil moisture, and soil erosion. HortScience 51:1524–1528.

Soil Health Institute. 2019. Progress report: Adoption of soil health systems based on data from 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture. Soil Health Institute, Morrisville, NC.

Helping Connecticut Farmers Succeed: A Collaborative Journey

Billy Collins on farm
Billy Collins at Fair Weather Acres. Photo: Winter Caplanson

“Educating farmers in sustainable, profitable and environmentally-sound food production practices benefits every man, woman and child in the country directly, on a daily basis, by helping to maintain a safe and secure food source. Knowledge of effective IPM practices helps prevent excess application of pesticides by otherwise frustrated growers,” Jude Boucher says.

The name Jude Boucher is synonymous with vegetable production in Connecticut. Jude joined UConn Extension in 1986 as the Extension Educator for vegetable crops Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

Jude provided cutting-edge solutions to growers on pest management and crop production problems, keeping them competitive on the local, regional, and national level. A multi-faceted approach is used in vegetable IPM that reaches a vast number of growers, not only in Connecticut, but; throughout the Northeast. During the growing season, Jude worked with numerous farms to improve their business and address crop issues as they arose. From conventional to organic farms, new farmers to experienced farmers; Jude worked with everyone and improved their economic viability and production.

Diversifying a Traditional Farm

Jude assisted Fair Weather Acres in Rocky Hill in diversifying and building resiliency to the challenges Mother Nature provided. The farm is over 800 acres along the Connecticut River. Jude advised Billy and Michele Collins on ways to diversify their marketing efforts and the number of crops they grow, after flooding from Hurricane Irene in 2011 washed away much of the crops, and left the farm in debt.

Originally, the farm received IPM training on three crops: beans, sweet corn, and peppers. With diversification, Billy began producing 55 different varieties of vegetables. Jude taught him pest management for his new crops, and the Collins hired an Extension-trained private consultant to help monitor and scout pests and implement new pest management techniques.

“I encouraged and advised Michele on developing a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) venture on their farm and introduced them to other successful CSA farm operators,” Jude says. “Michele started the CSA with 120 members in 2012, and – through a variety of methods – has exceeded 500 summer CSA shares.”

Michele and Billy give back to Extension by speaking at state and regional conferences, hosting twilight meetings, research plots on their farm, and UConn student tours. “Jude has been an integral part of the growth and diversification of our farm. His extensive knowledge and passion for agriculture, coupled with his love of people and farmers in particular, made him an unrivaled asset to Connecticut agriculture,” Michele says. “Jude taught us, advised us, and offered us unlimited guidance in many areas including IPM, alternative farming concepts, marketing, and agribusiness just to name a few.”

Building a New Farm

Oxen Hill Farm is a family enterprise in West Suffield that began when the Griffin family inherited an idle hay and pasture farm with the intent of creating an organic vegetable and cut flower farm.

“Besides small-scale home vegetable and flower gardens, they had no experience operating a commercial vegetable and cut-flower business,” Jude says. “They signed up for training with me, and the first year, 2009, started with an acre of organic vegetables and cut flowers.”

Despite the challenges of their first year, they expanded their business in 2010, growing from 36 CSA members to over 150. Oxen Hill enlarged their acreage onto their parents’ home farm, to almost 20 acres of crops, and learned to grow everything from artichokes to zucchini. The farm continues to flourish.

Finding a Better Way

Jude worked with farmers throughout the region on deep zone tillage (DZT). “DZT allows a grower to prepare a narrow seedbed, only inches wide, rather than exposing the surface of the whole field to wind and rain,” Jude explains. “Farms can also till deeply, right under the crop row to loosen any hardpan that has formed after years of using a plow and harrow. This allows the soil to absorb and retain more water and allows the plants to extend their roots deeper into the soil. The system also improves soil quality over time.”

Due to his work, there are Extension programs in every New England state advocating the use of DZT, and over 45 growers in the region have switched to DZT. Although he retired in 2017, the work of Jude carries on in the farmers across the state. They organized a grower’s organization, and are looking forward to working with our new vegetable crops Extension educator, Shuresh Ghimire, who started on July 1st.

Article by Stacey Stearns

Vegetable IPM Class of 2016

IPM class
Photo credit: Jude Boucher

Each year, UConn Extension Educator Jude Boucher helps commercial vegetable growers find sustainable solutions to pest problems. The program emphasizes healthy soils, balanced plant nutrition, proper pest and beneficial identification, scouting and monitoring techniques, preventative management strategies, reduced-risk pesticide selection application, and resistance management.

Farmers apply to become part of the program, as space is limited to 12 farms per year. Those accepted into the program receive weekly, or every-other week farm visits from Jude, as he provides education and guidance for the specific challenges the farm is facing. This year’s farmers are from 9 different towns, with operations varying from 2 to 120 acres of vegetables, with over 40 different vegetable crops being grown.

“This group were all so young,” Jude says, “they gave me confidence that we do have some talented young farmers getting into the business and willing and able to take over for the next generation.”

Jude Boucher: A Lasting Impact

By Stacey Stearns

testing soil
Jude Boucher testing soil.

 

The name Jude Boucher is synonymous with vegetable production in Connecticut. Since joining UConn Extension in 1986, Jude has made a profound impact on the industry as the Extension Educator for vegetable crops Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Jude received his bachelor’s degree in Entomology from the University of New Hampshire, his masters in Entomology from Virginia Tech, and then earned his Ph.D. at UConn in Plant Science.

Jude provides cutting-edge solutions to growers on pest management and crop production problems, keeping them competitive on the local, regional, and national level. “Educating farmers in sustainable, profitable and environmentally-sound food production practices benefits every man, woman and child in the country directly, on a daily basis, by helping to maintain a safe and secure food source. Knowledge of effective IPM practices helps prevent excess application of pesticides by otherwise frustrated growers,” he says.

Jude has a multi-faceted approach to his Extension education program that allows him to reach a vast number of growers, not only in Connecticut, but, throughout the Northeast. During the growing season, he works with numerous farms to improve their business and address crop issues as they arise. From conventional to organic farms, new farmers to experienced farmers; Jude works with everyone and improves their economic viability and production. In 2015, he worked with 18 farmers one-on-one throughout the state on a weekly or every other week basis.

As the co-editor of Crop Talk, a quarterly newsletter on vegetables and small fruit, science-based updates reach a circulation of approximately 1,000 people. Crop Talk provides growers with a calendar of upcoming events and workshops, and articles on cutting-edge production practices. Each year, Jude co-chairs the Connecticut Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers’ Conference in January. The conference is widely attended, with over 300 people and 30 exhibitors. He has served on the steering committee for the three-day New England Vegetable and Small Fruit Conference and Trade Show for many years, and as General Chairman from 2013-2016. This biennial conference has outgrown its location twice, and has a reputation as the conference to attend throughout the Northeast, with up to 1,800 attendees.

A weekly pest message is produced and emailed to his list serve, posted on the IPM website, or recorded as a message farmers can call in and listen to. In 2014, Jude was unable to get into the fields to gather crop scouting and monitoring data to share with the hundreds of growers who depend on the pest messages because of a late-season ski accident. His message became reports from the farm, with over 25 of his previously trained IPM farmers contributing throughout the summer.

Jude adopted a hybrid to this plan in 2015, which included his own scouting reports as well as those from his trained farmers. The weekly pest message now includes more photographs, equipment for small farms, trellis systems, and high tunnel production systems.

Diversifying a Traditional Farm

Jude has assisted Fair Weather Acres in Rocky Hill in diversifying and building resiliency to the challenges Mother Nature provided. The farm is over 800 acres along the Connecticut River. Jude advised Billy and Michele Collins on ways to diversify their marketing efforts and the number of crops they grow, after flooding from Hurricane Irene in 2011 washed away much of the crops, and left the farm in debt.

Originally, the farm received IPM training on three crops: beans, sweet corn, and peppers. With diversification, Billy began producing 55 different varieties of vegetables. Jude taught him pest management for his new crops, and the Collins hired an Extension-trained private consultant to help monitor and scout pests and implement new pest management techniques.

“I encouraged and advised Michele on how to develop a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) venture on their farm and introduced the couple to other successful CSA farm operators for additional consultations,” Jude says. “Michele started the CSA with 120 members in 2012, and – through a variety of methods – has exceeded 400 CSA shares, and expects to reach 500 summer shares in 2016. In 2013, they started offering separate fall CSA shares to their customers, and that now has over 400 members.”

Michele and Billy give back to Extension by speaking at state and regional conferences, and by hosting twilight meetings, research plots on their farm, and UConn student tours.

“Jude has been an integral part of the growth and diversification of our farm. His extensive knowledge and passion for agriculture, coupled with his love of people and farmers in particular, make him an unrivaled asset to Connecticut agriculture,” Michele says. “Jude has taught us, advised us, and offered us unlimited guidance in many areas including IPM, alternative farming concepts, marketing, and agribusiness just to name a few. Without Jude’s support and encouragement through our difficult years after the storm, we would not have such a positive outlook on the future of our business. We hope Jude will continue to offer his exceptional assistance for years to come.”

Building a New Farm

Oxen Hill Farm is a family enterprise in West Suffield that began when the Griffin family inherited an idle hay and pasture farm with the intent of creating an organic vegetable and cut flower farm.

“Besides small-scale home vegetable and flower gardens, they had no experience operating a commercial vegetable and cut-flower business,” Jude says. “They signed up for training with me, and the first year, 2009, started with an acre of organic vegetables and cut flowers.”

A deluge of rain during June and July taught the family many hard lessons about late blight on tomatoes and wet season pests, but they also effectively combatted weeds without herbicides, improved strategies to market their produce, and developed techniques to preserve produce with proper sanitation and post-harvest handling.

“Despite the challenges of their first year, they expanded their business in 2010, growing from 36 CSA members to over 150,” Jude continues. “They also enlarged their acreage onto their parents’ home farm, to almost 20 acres of crops, and learned to grow everything from artichokes to zucchini. They learned how to prevent or combat caterpillars on their broccoli, leafhoppers on their beans and potatoes, blights on their tomatoes, and many other pests that all wanted a share of their crops.”

The farm is entering its fifth year of USDA Organic Certification through the Baystate Certifiers, and has expanded to over 120 acres, residing at the home farm and land purchased in 2014. The cut flower business remains at the inherited farm, and also caters to weddings, floral arrangements and retail sales.

Finding a Better Way

Nelson deep zone tillage machineCecarelli of Cecarelli Farm in Northford and Wallingford contacted Jude for advice on transitioning to deep zone tillage (DZT) after multiple severe rainstorms in 2006 left 4-foot deep erosion ditches in his sweet corn fields. Jude, Nelson, and Tom Scott – of Scott’s Yankee Farms in East Lyme – researched the options, and co-wrote a pair of grants to document the benefits and problems of using DZT versus conventional field preparation.

“DZT allows a grower to prepare a narrow seedbed, only inches wide, rather than exposing the surface of the whole field to wind and rain,” Jude explains. “Farms can also till deeply, right under the crop row to loosen any hardpan that has formed after years of using a plow and harrow. This allows the soil to absorb and retain more water and allows the plants to extend their roots deeper into the soil. The system also improves soil quality over time.”

Jude organized conferences, workshops and twilight meetings on DZT and published many articles and fact sheets to help growers get started with this form of reduced tillage. The three of them have made presentations at various state and regional workshops and Nelson and Tom have both continued to seek ways to improve their farms, and worked with Jude to mentor other farmers on DZT. There are now Extension programs in every New England state advocating the use of DZT, and over 45 growers in the region have switched to DZT.

Although the grant has ended, Jude and Nelson are researching soil quality in DZT fields. Jude continues working with different farmers on IPM, bringing economic viability to farms throughout the state, and securing the future of our local food systems

Extension Educator Honored

Boucher Receives 2015 AAUP Service Excellence Award

Boucher
Jude Boucher on a Connecticut vegetable farm.

It was recently announced that Jude Boucher will be receiving the Service Excellence Award from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) on April 6th at a ceremony in the Old Appropriations room of the State Capitol building in Hartford.

Jude is the Extension Educator for vegetable crops integrated pest management (IPM). His objectives are to provide Connecticut and New England vegetable growers with cutting-edge solutions to their pest management and crop production problems to keep them competitive on the local, regional and national level. IPM is a sustainable approach to managing pests, including insects, weeds, and diseases. IPM practitioners base decisions on information that is collected systematically as they integrate economic, environmental and societal goals. This flexible program can accommodate the changing goals of agriculture, commerce, and society by using biological controls, cultural control, mechanical control, chemical control and others.

Through his sustainable agriculture work with vegetable growers, Jude keeps Connecticut producers current on the most innovative agricultural technology to ensure farm profitability and economic viability of the industry. The positive benefit of his work extends beyond the farm, to the families, products, consumers and the environment.

Jude’s professional service to the agriculture industry, outreach efforts on behalf of UConn Extension and leadership in the department have been exemplary. His contributions have led to program excellence in vegetable production throughout the region. Through his work, vegetable producers have developed more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices that will enhance their economic viability for generations. To many Connecticut residents, Jude is the face of UConn. Congratulations Jude for receiving the 2015 AAUP Service Excellence Award.