On Wednesday I took advantage of the warmth and dry ground to pull the rototiller out of storage.  A commercial duty rototiller was one of the first things I purchased back in 2006, and our Italian made BCS (aka “Bessie”) has served us well.  Technically, it’s called a two wheeled walking tractor, as different implements (mower, snowblower, rotary plow, bed shaper, and much more) can be attached to the body.  The only implement we have is the 30″ tiller.  We’ve never used third gear (top speed is 7 mph, and I’m not keen to run that fast behind a rototiller), but the forward/reverse feature comes in handy, as does the adjustable handlebar and the depth control.

Rototillers, which I describe to the kids as blenders turned sideways, are going out of style.  Current agricultural thinking is that tillage destroys soil structure, increases the release of CO2, contributes to erosion, creates a hardpan, and disrupts soil life (think earthworms chopped in pieces).  Then there are the emissions and the energy needed to run a gasoline engine, making “no-till” is a buzzword in farming circles.  So what place does a rototiller have in a sustainable agriculture system?

We mostly use our rototiller to incorporate compost, cover crops (things that were planted to enrich the soil, not necessarily to harvest), and crop residue (leftover plants).  It’s also helpful to create a fine seedbed for things like carrots, salad mix, and spinach.  Of course, these things could be done by hand, but it would be very labor-intensive and back-breaking work, which is unsustainable in its own way.  We don’t rototill large areas at a time, and we try to leave swaths of growth between our cultivated plots to minimize the potential for erosion.  We also use a tool called a  broadfork to loosen the soil, especially when we’re planting root crops like potatoes.

We have experimented with some no-till plots.  Once, when it was time to plant beans, the rototiller was broken.  We used a lawn mower to cut the cover crops and weeds close to the ground, then used a hoe to dig trenches by hand.  Unfortunately, the weeds didn’t die completely and soon overtook the bean seedlings, drastically reducing yields and making harvest difficult.  Our tomato and pepper plots have worked better.  In those, we cut down the cover crop, then spread landscape fabric and plant into that.  The fabric smothers the crop residue, which gradually breaks down.  An increasingly common reduced/no-till practice in conventional agriculture is to spray the previous crop with herbicide, then plant into thin strips of tilled ground.  I’m not convinced that this approach is a significant improvement, but I guess in farming, as in life, there are all sorts of tradeoffs and compromises to make.

We’ll keep experimenting, and taking guilty pleasure in the roar of the rototiller and the smell of freshly turned earth, full of possibilities.

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