The couple approaches farming with permaculture growing methods, mimicking nature and natural systems. Once their beds are established, they move to no-till and the soil is disturbed as little as possible. After every harvest, compost is added, roots are left to decompose, and the life in the soil is maintained within the beds. They do not use pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers.
When Root Renaissance Farm began, it was a grass field, heavily compacted from the hooves of ruminant animals. The land had been overgrazed and beaten down. To begin farming vegetables right away, the Schurz’s needed to do an initial till to fluff the ground up. Now that the beds have been in production for several years, they avoid tillage altogether, using broad forks to flip the beds in between crops. Cory Schurz explains, “We take a broad fork, we loosen up the ground, add amendments, and we’re constantly adding organic matter from there on out.” They leave the roots behind as they are good organic matter and contribute positively to the health of the soil. Schurz says, “If we have the opportunity, we leave the roots in the ground for as long as possible. Roots obviously go deep and when they die back, they leave air pockets [in the soil].”
Weed and pest control are major issues for farmers reducing tillage. Doing a pass with a tiller turns over and buries weeds, giving the seeded crop enough time to establish before weeds pop back up again. Other mechanisms for weed control need to be implemented for farmers adopting no-till. Schurz says, “We do passive weeding and cover our beds with tarps. In our pathways, we use a lot of wood chips.” In the winter, they put the farm to bed by covering beds in tarps. Schurz explains, “Come springtime, we pull the covers. If we have time, we’ll leave the beds, and if there are any weed seeds on them, we let that germinate and then either cover them again or flame weed.” These methods help minimize weed pressure and competition for their cash crops.
Wood chips serve multiple purposes on the farm. Not only do they help to control weeds, but they also aid in moisture retention. Schurz says, “I dig my path at least a foot deep and I fill that up with wood chips. It maintains moisture in the beds for so much longer, and I’m watering less.”
A major challenge is that no-till farming is labour-intensive. Schurz says, “Because we’re working in clay and it was compacted, it’s still a bit of a battle to get the broad fork in.” Establishing new beds can be labour-intensive but over time, the goal is the reduce labour costs and intensive work. Schurz says, “Once you get things established and you have your wood chips down, it’s mostly weeding. I have beds now that require very little broad forking.”
Minimizing soil disturbance is a good step toward building healthy soil and creating a resilient, climate-friendly system. However, reducing tillage or transitioning to completely no-till can be daunting. Schurz says, “Planning is really important. My greatest advice is to learn as much as possible before you start and be disciplined enough to go back and reread because you forget a lot.”