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Conservation tillage for organic agriculture: Evolution toward hybrid systems in the western USA

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 February 2012

John M. Luna*
Luna and Associates, Agro-Ecological Consulting, 24663 Ervin Road, Philomath, OR 97370, USA.
Jeffrey P. Mitchell
Department of Plant Sciences, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA.
Anil Shrestha
Department of Plant Science, California State University, Fresno, CA 93740, USA.
*Corresponding author:


Organic farming has been historically dependent on conventional tillage operations to convert perennial pasture leys to annual crop rotations, incorporate crop residues, compost and cover crops, as well as to mechanically kill existing vegetation. Conventional tillage, however, has long been known to lead to soil degradation and erosion. A recently developed no-till organic production system that uses a roller–crimper technology to mechanically kill cover crops was evaluated in two states in the western United States. In Washington, pumpkins (Cucurbita spp.) grown in a no-till roller–crimper (NT-RC) system produced yields 80% of conventional tillage, but with fewer weeds. However, in California on-farm research trials in organic cotton (Gossypium barbadense L.), tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill.), eggplant (Solanum melongena L.) and cowpea (Vigna unguiculata (L.) Walp.), the no-till system produced virtual crop failure, or yields less than 20% of the standard production method. The major problems associated with rolled cover crops in California included reduced crop seedling emergence, planter impediment with excessive residue, lack of moisture and delay in transplanting of vegetable crops due to continued growth of cover crops, in-season crop competition from cover crop regrowth and impracticability of using cultivators. Further, excessive dry residue during summer in California can present the risk of fire. In both California and Oregon, considerable success has been demonstrated with zone tillage (strip tillage) in conventionally produced field and vegetable crops. In a replicated Oregon trial, the organic strip tillage treatment produced 85% of the broccoli (Brassica oleracea L.) yield compared to a conventional tillage treatment. Our studies suggest that the zone tillage concept may offer opportunities to overcome many of the agronomic challenges facing no-till.

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