Working the Soil is What Farmers Do

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA 

Farmers get attached to their soil for good reason. No soil, no business. They have to treat it right, and there are lots of groups and movements telling them so. They may be overstating their case, however, if farmers are starting to feel guilty, defensive or ashamed whenever they pick up a shovel or fire up the tiller.

A SPIN farmer in Hawaii recently wrote:

Quick question for ya’ll …

I grow arugula here on Maui as you know. You also know it’s essentially a quick crop to grow. I plant it in sections at different times, so I always have available product for sale. My question is with regards to overtilling. After each harvest, every 6 to 7 weeks, I till the area (depth of 5″ +/- inches, composting old plant into soil) and reseed for the next crop. I’ve been reading about the issues of soil disturbance in doing so, but how is this to be avoided? Mahalo for your thoughts.

Agriculture disturbs the soil, always has and always will. You can’t plant without some type of soil disturbance. If you think rototilling is too harmful to the soil, you can pull the spent plants by hand instead of tilling in. Then you can use a hand tool, such as a three pronged cultivator, to bed prep. Then rake the bed, so it is level. So using hand tools, even on acre-size plots is do-able, if you feel the trade-off in time and effort is worth it.

If the question relates to a decrease in productivity, you should consult with a soil expert. But most often it stems from a philosophical concern. Wally has been cropping some of his backyard plots with a tiller for over 20 years and the soil remains healthy and productive. He loses no sleep over soil disturbance.

If the thought of working the soil disturbs you, you might want to consider a different line of work.

SF photo do not disturb sign

Find out how SPIN farmers keep their soil healthy and productive in the SPIN online support group. Free trial membership comes with the purchase of any SPIN guide.

How SPIN’s Numbers Add Up

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

The advantage of using a system like SPIN-Farming is that it provides benchmarks to guide your business and measure your progress in highly specific terms. Let’s take a look at what comprises SPIN’s benchmarks, and how they all add up.

SPIN’s units of production are:
A bed = 50 sq. ft. (it measures 2 ft. x 25 ft.)
A segment = 1,000 sq. ft. (many backyards can accommodate this size plot, with a typical dimension being  25 ft. x 40 ft.)

SPIN’s revenue benchmarks are:
$100 gross per crop, per bed
$1,300 gross per crop per segment

SPIN’s relay cropping techniques are:
bi-relays in which 2 or more crops are grown in the same bed or segment, per season
intensive relays in which 3 or more crops are grown in the same bed or segment, per season
Relay cropping doubles or triples production and therefore revenue, without expanding the growing space. You can think of it as intensifying your growing space.

Putting these benchmarks into play on a half acre, which is about the size of many suburban backyards, goes something like this.

1 segment = 13 beds and $1,300 gross revenue
a half acre = about 20,000 sq. ft., or 20 segments
20 segments = $26,000 gross revenue

If you intensify the half acre by using relay cropping, you can at least double or triple your revenue, like this:
20 segments in bi-relays (2 crops/season) = $52,000 gross revenue
20 segments in intensive relays (3 crops/season) =$78,000 gross revenue

Since relay cropping is labor intensive, the exercise becomes, how can you intensify your half acre, without incurring labor costs, or keeping them to a minimum? So to make the work load manageable for you and a partner, and occasional help,  you might use your 20,000 sq.ft. to target $55,900, broken down like this:
5 segments in single crop production = $6,500 gross revenue
7 segments in bi-relays = $18,200 gross revenue
8 segments in intensive relays = $31,200 gross revenue

As you can see, the options are many, and the result is a system for generating specific, steady and predictable income throughout the season. But since farming is never steady state, the system is adjustable throughout the season, and from year to year.

Playing with SPIN numbers is not an academic exercise. It’s the basis for your business, production and operational plans. All you need to do is get with the system.

SPIN photo relay tiller plowing under bed

Here is a bed of spinach past its prime being tilled under and readied for the planting of a second crop.  Planting several crops sequentially, one right after the other, in the same bed throughout the season is called relay cropping. It double or triples the revenue you can make from a single plot.   

Mantis Tiller Perfect For Some SPIN-Farming Contexts

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco CA

The Mantis comes in two versions.

– Electric
– Gasoline

The electric is the far better choice if you have a power socket nearby. The gasoline version is noisy and not very powerful.

The torque on the electric is enormous. It easily can churn 10 inches deep through hard packed soil and has no problem spitting up large rocks. If you’re using it heavily it may periodically trip its internal circuit breaker when it gets too hot: just wait a few minutes, hit the breaker reset button and resume tilling.

It’s small and light enough to take on a bus carried over one shoulder. A guaranteed conversation starter.

Very sturdy. Have been using one now since 2009 and it’s still going strong.

It’s no substitute for a BCS for larger plots, but for small plots or rooftop use it’s excellent.

Several other SPIN farmers weighed in favorably on the Mantis. Linda Borghi at Abundant Life Farm in Walker Valley NY love love loves hers.

SPIN photo mantis 4


Just as Needed Tilling

Courtesy of Stefan, Good Time Farming, Squamish, BC

I definitely believe that there could be huge benefits to not tilling or minimizing your tilling and from what I have read and heard from other growers who minimize their tilling habits. The benefits are discovered in the longer term – 5 or 10 years maybe. I unfortunately have not been growing long enough on my current plots, but what I have noticed on the plots that I haven’t been tilling or tilling very little is the decreasing amount of inputs that these gardens require and the decreasing amount of watering, while the productivity is always increasing – and as long as I am continuously growing a crop in these beds (minimal periods of bare soil) and using the broadfork occasionally, soil compaction is
never a problem – the soil structure actually improves significantly.

We own a BCS and definitely use it when needed, but every year we seem to find ways to use it less. I bought a Tilther from Johny select this season. I was hesitant at first but for beds that are well established this tool is amazing, only tilling the surface. I am also using certified organic corn based mulch which has significantly decreased my tilling habits. For example, after a cycle of carrots I will add the necessary amount of inputs and mulch the bed (no tilling). I will then do a cycle of pac choi, harvest and replant a cycle of lettuce heads with the same mulch. when the lettuce is harvested I remove the mulch and the bed is completely weed free and ready for a round of greens with minimal prepping required.

While tilling is certainly necessary at times, I find that because we have utilized this practice for so long we often do it when it might not be necessary. I am actually finding it to be less work the more I find ways not to till or minimize the tilling of my beds but more importantly, as I mentioned earlier, the amount of inputs seems to be decreasing every year as the ecosystem in the biota of the soil is less disturbed and hence is working more efficiently.

Tilling Makes SPIN Work

Courtesy of Steve W., Just Farmin’, Liberty Township OH

I also believe in the no-till theory. The SPIN model is not based on no-till, it is based on producing food in an intense, high density planting concept to utilize small spaces to maximize production and profit in an affordable manner.

I’m Spinning on less than an 1/4 acre but the goal over the next couple of years is to get to 2 plus. I’ve been picking up equipment along the way over the last two years.  I have my cooler, TroyBilt Horse, small 3 hp tiller, Earthway seeder, hand tools and installed a 10 X 25 hoop house last year.  Most if not all thanks to Craigslist.

So I’m in my third year of following the SPIN model, and I can tell you that there is no way I could keep up without tilling my beds. I make sure I add my amendments with plenty of organic matter added. I too have seen a huge difference in my soil, soil test and the quality of my produce. If earth worms are an indication of soil structure, I can tell you that we had a hard time finding them when we first started. Today you can’t turn over a shovel of soil and not find several in each scoop. Just my two cents worth.


Tilling Is Sometimes Necessary

Courtesy of Andrew B, Moon Gravity Farm, Rossland BC

Three years ago I added about 15 dump truck loads of leaves to my home garden (free, thanks City of Rossland!) to make a thick 3′ to 4′ layer before the winter. I planted potatoes in the mulch the following spring, got a good crop. Added more plants, all did well. The soil this spring is totally amazing. I definitely believe in no-till and mega-mulch. It works, and it works well given some time.

BUT, this year starting a large SPIN plot (my first) trying to crank lots of veg ASAP starting from an old pasture, there’s just no other way than to plough/till. I’m going to mega-mulch as much as I can this fall but the kind of mulch 1/4 acre requires for this approach is huge, and really depends on the dump truck driving directly onto or beside the garden to drop loads. Wheelbarrow-at-a-time for any distance is an insane amount of upfront time for gains that aren’t really seen for a couple years. And unless I just want to sell potatoes next year…

A third cent: Rodale’s roll-down cover crop system using the roller-crimper (BCS attachment available) seems very promising for SPIN scale row cropping of certain crops. I have yet to try it myself, but since it’s based on roller-crimping a cover crop at flowering time, it should work really well for late direct-seeded crops (e.g. beans) or to create a weed-free mulch for transplants. This system requires keen ecological knowledge to get the right mix of cover species that will flower at the right time, so it’s no cure-all, but seems much better than flail-mowing then tilling a cover crop.

And a fourth cent: Since I bit off more than I can chew this year between starting the garden and expanding my animal operation—dairy goats, layers, meat birds, rabbits, bees—I didn’t get to my chicken plan yet: chicken-tilling between crops by mob grazing a high density of birds for a short period of time to shallow till and fertilize. Alas, I’ve fallen back on the flame weeder until I’ve finished building the necessary bits. But the theory seems sound enough…

(I should add, since I’ve seen conversations on using rabbits for this task, that I’m not convinced by rabbit tractors. It’s much easier to keep them in hutches and bring veg/grass to them, and cleaner for the rabbits. Clean is really important since serious liver parasite cycles in rabbits have kicked in within 24 hours of being in the same place—been there, done that—so unlike chickens that can be set up and left to make a dirty barren mess for a couple days, rabbits have to be moved very regularly…and a hutch that won’t let them escape doesn’t give very good access to the ground in any case.)

In short, lots of great ideas out there, but tilling wins for fastest results with lowest initial effort (given a BCS)! In the long term, no-till deep-mulch or crimped-cover-crop systems promise less effort and better soil/food, so working on “production” systems that use these approaches AND on ways tilling row-croppers can transition to them, at least for some crops, are very worthwhile goals in my opinion!


Courtesy of Jennfier L.,  Central PA

There is nothing wrong with anti-tillage beliefs; there are a lot of others that feel the same in this industry. Rototilling creates a hardpan, it destroys your soil structure, and burns up your organic matter. Plus, every time you use it, you expose more weed seeds. Now on that note it is the only type of farming I’ve ever practiced because it was the standard on the farms I’ve worked on. It works you just need to take care of your soil, you can’t just take take take.

To avoid compacting the land you just don’t want to walk on your garden beds – make it a rule. Some people use broadforks, not walking on the ground paired with broadforking has allowed some people to abandon tillers – Elliott Coleman is a big proponent of broadforking.

What is often done on a new tracts of land is till, wait for weeds to start germinating, till again, etc. to help flush the seed bank. In place of tilling repeatedly you could go in with a hoe and accomplish a similar thing you just need to time it right depending on the type of hoe you use. Then there’s always the option of cover crops to suppress weeds, or mulching. Each option has it’s pros and cons. In my neck of the woods we have a lot of pasture land and when a piece of pasture is going to be turned into market field it’s often transitioned a year in advance to get it back into shape.

The Right Tiller for the Mature Woman Farmer

Courtesy of Barb McK, Mountain View Meadows Farm, Elbert CO
I’m 5’1″ and 50 this year. Not as thin as I once was either. I have an older BCS that was gifted to me by my father. I think they are awesome. Mine has the electric start. Can’t beat an electric start for us more mature gals. I am darned sure my BCS is nearly 20 years, old and it is still running strong. I get a tune up every few years and replace the battery once in a while when it doesn’t start up as fast as it should. That thing is a work horse. I also have a smaller tiller with front tines that is a pull start. NOT my favorite tool at all. My sons like to play with that one. I grow on a small area here, about 1/4 acre, and I’ve been more than happy with my BCS.

Check List For Buying a Used Tiller

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco

If you are considering buying a used tiller, ask to take it for a spin for an hour where you can till some deep soil.
Tighten up all the bolts you can find and then check to be sure they’re not loose after the hour of  tilling.
Test all the accessories to make sure they work.
Look for any oil or fuel leaks at seals and tubing.
Check to be sure the engine exhaust is clean.
Inspect the tires.
Listen for any odd noises, especially squeals or grinding sounds.

Drought, Raised Beds and Irrigation

Courtesy of John S. , Blue Ribbon Eggs, Franklin NC

There is no one solution that always works for every problem, and there are often several different solutions to any single problem.

Wally is dead on. The two big advantages to formal raised beds are elevating the soil temperature sooner and quicker, and better drainage for overly wet soils. If drought is your problem, raised beds certainly aren’t the solution.  Additionally they make tilling with machines difficult if not impossible. If your soil is ‘ideal’ you could till with a broad fork, but still that can be a pain.

Over head sprinklers have huge water loss due to evaporation and are usually ‘non-specific’, IE: water everywhere. Your best bet, in my view, is a well designed drip system.

I knew nothing about them, called up DripDepot ( and a lovely young lady helped me design a perfect system for my quarter acre of blueberry bushes in about 20 minutes on the phone. She sent me the stuff, and it took an afternoon to install – no tools but scissors and a hand punch, all hand tightened joints. Now I water 200+ berry bushes effortlessly, whreeas before it had taken all day (8 hours) once every week or two for the season. The system I have is convertible to gravity feed if I wish (I have low water pressure), by simply removing the pressure regulator from the line. I bought it 3 years ago and spent $239 including freight from Oregon to the east coast.

As we all know, the SPIN principle is to reduce labor, reduce costs, increase efficiency and increase profitability. It works from the Great White North to equatorial Africa and Central America because those principles make sense to everyone everywhere on the planet.

You need a tiller because it is cost effective and efficient (money and labor), you need a cooler of some type for the same reason, you need a watering system (see your SPIN intro book) for exactly the same reason. You can install a drip system for about the same price as the good quality hose you would need to drag around.

If I want a raised bed (some years are very dry and I don’t, some years it’s very wet and I do) I use a simple iron rake and rake the soil up in to 10″ high beds (low mounds) that keep their shape for the season. No boards, or walls so I can till and reconfigure whenever I need to. It seems somewhere along the line raised beds  became the default setting for anyone wanting to grow food. But there is no production advantage to them, and in fact, they mostly work against you, not with you.