When there was heavy rain, topsoil on a sloped piece of John Halfinger’s farm in Higganum would wash away.
Especially when the field was tilled to prepare for planting, rain would carry away the soil – and the nutrients it held – off into catch basins and waterways. There was a time when Halfinger stopped planting on that piece of land just to protect the topsoil.
Then he tried a different approach. He stopped plowing the field before planting, and started growing cover crops – crops that cover fields between when main crops are harvested and planted again.
Now Halfinger Farms, known for its pick-your-own daffodil farm, will host a no-till equipment sharing program organized by the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments agricultural council.
The council is buying a seed drill, a roller crimper and a transplanter to share among a small group of farmers as part of a pilot program, which they hope will serve as a successful model for similar cooperative programs around the state. The equipment would be available to farmers in the River COG region, and the council is also looking for available, farmable land for the program.
Halfinger was part of a similar program run by Connecticut Resource Conservation and Development where a group of farms shared equipment designed to help farmers plant crops on fields that have not been tilled. The idea is to give farmers interested in adopting no-till practices a chance to see if it works for their farm, without having to buy expensive, specialized equipment first.
For Halfinger, a seed drill he borrowed from the program was the missing piece. Traditionally, farmers till their fields to churn up the soil before they plant their crops – digging up weeds and making it easier to get seeds in the ground. A field that hasn’t been tilled has a harder surface, so the seed drill punches a hole in the soil so the seed can be planted.
Planting cover crops had been “hit or miss” without the drill, Halfinger said. But over the past few years since they’ve been able to use a drill, they’ve been able to cover their fields more evenly, without bare spots – which has been a big help to slow erosion, he said. Now, Halfinger Farms is “all in” on cover crops, he said.
“There’s several of us who had never been able to use that, and now we had the use of it, and we were able to say, ‘This is what we need, this is worthwhile,” Halfinger said. “Our goal is to be like that program for the farmers down here in the river valley to see the benefits of no-till.”
Farmers see benefits of soil health, slowed erosion
Increasingly, farms across the U.S. have moved away from traditional tilling as research and practice have shown “conservation tillage” practices like no-till reduce erosion and improve soil. A survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that between 2006 and 2016, use of conservation tillage has increased 36 percent and accounts for a third of all U.S. farmland – with no-till being the most popular method.
Monique Bosch, soil health technician for the Connecticut Northeast Organic Farming Association, said that one of the main things she teaches in soil health presentations is that farmers and gardeners should disturb their soil as little as possible, and to keep it covered with living plants for as much of the year as possible.
Soil looks like just dirt, but inside the dirt is a microscopic ecosystem that creates a symbiotic relationship with the plants growing from the soil. When soil is tilled, that ecosystem is disrupted. No-till farming and cover crops are meant to keep that symbiotic relationship going year-round, Bosch said.
Under a microscope, the difference between soil that has been tilled and soil that has not is immediately clear, and showing farmers that difference is convincing, she said.
“That seems to really be gaining traction,” Bosch said. “The light bulb really goes off when you can physically see the life in your soil.”
Josh Bristol is a fifth generation farmer at Bristol’s Farm in Canton, and he participated in the same equipment sharing program as Halfinger, organized by Connecticut Resource Conservation and Development.
Bristol’s Farm grows vegetables, strawberries and corn, mainly outdoors on about 15 acres. Bristol said they were interested in cover crops to keep up the health of their soil, and the seed drill helped them get a nice, even cover on their fields.
In just a few years, they’ve seen a difference in the organic matter in their soil, and have less erosion with a tight cover crop holding the soil together in the off-season.
Topsoil lost from a farm field is hard to replace, and the nutrients it holds wash off with the soil, ending up in waterways instead of being taken up by crops, Halfinger said. Keeping that topsoil intact also helps the field hold onto water, instead of having it run off.
High cost slows adoption
For Bristol and Halfinger, the equipment sharing program was a way to test out new equipment and new practices without making a major investment first.
Cost is a major barrier for farmers looking to adopt no-till practices. Farms run on thin margins, and new equipment is expensive. No-till seed drills cost thousands of dollars – a prohibitive amount for someone who isn’t sure the practice is right for them.
Surveys from the Northeast Organic Farming Association found that education and the cost of transitioning to a new practice were key reasons that farmers interested in using no-till practices didn’t make the switch.
Not only is the equipment expensive, but they need to learn how to use it, and they need to get through a few challenging years of hard, erosion-prone soil and weeds to reap the benefits of no-till – a healthier, more productive soil, the paper written by Caroline Rozell found.
The study also found that farmers learned best from other farmers, which is another reason no-till proponents see these equipment sharing programs a good option for spreading no-till practices.
“One of the benefits of no-till and keeping the soil covered is you can save money on fuel and fertilizer, but it’s not an easy transition,” Halfinger said. “Especially if you’ve done the same thing for 30 or 40 years.”
But a change in how Connecticut funds farm equipment may have opened the door to new possibilities.
Amanda Fargo-Johnson, programs director at Connecticut Resource Conservation and Development, said they received a USDA grant to set up two equipment sharing hubs in 2018 – each offering a seed drill and roller crimper to a handful of farms.
This year, state lawmakers changed the Farmland Restoration Grant program to allow for cost-sharing on farm equipment for farmers to implement “climate-smart” agricultural practices, like no-till.
The lack of funding for equipment has been a hurdle for farmers and groups to set up equipment-sharing programs, Fargo-Johnson said.
“There wasn’t really a way for farms to get assistance for equipment,” Fargo-Johnson said. “Now we’re hoping that in the future we’ll see a larger increase in the availability of these types of equipment for farms in Connecticut.”
The participating farms and no-till advocates are excited about the possibility that equipment sharing can bring more farmers on board with the practices, but Halfinger knows the RiverCOG program alone can only do so much – it’s one seed drill for the entire valley, he said.
But he hopes it will inspire similar programs, just like Fargo-Johnson’s program inspired him.
“I’m hoping there will be enough interest in it where town ag commissions or a group of farmers can get together and make a co-op,” Halfinger said. “These are just the baby steps, but the goal is to have farmers be able to access equipment without breaking the bank.”