After years of declining productivity and soil loss, many U.S. farmers are changing their farming practices to try and bring the soil back to life. The New York Times reports that the number of acres in the U.S. farmed with “no-till” methods is increasing by 30% each year. Farmers are switching to no-till methods because , if done correctly, no-till can increase crops yields by encouraging the growth of beneficial organisms in the soil, helping soils to retain moisture, and limiting soil erosion.

Conventionally, big farmers in the U.S. prepare fields by plowing deep (8-10 inches) into the soil. Deep plowing cuts down weeds and other plants and loosens the soil for seed planting. It kills beneficial organisms, such as earthworms, that aerate and fertilize the soil. Finally, deep plowing destroyed plants that provide cover for top soil, which depletes fields of nutrients like nitrogen. Farmers then have to add expensive and artificial nitrogen fertilizers to make their fields grow. The loose soil of conventionally plowed fields is easily carried away in heavy rains leading to the thin soils and silting problems.

No-till farming attempts to remedy the many issues of deep plowing. It uses seed planting machinery that minimally disturbs the soil. No-till planters either inject seeds into the soil without the need to plow the field, or they cut a shallow and narrow groove that disturbs only a thin strip of soil. These planters encourage the growth of vegetation that covers the soils, helping to keep it in place, to retain moisture, and to lock in nitrogen. Some farmers have experienced excellent results; switching to no-till increased their yields and their profits.

Just because something is called “no-till”, however, does not guarantee that it is environmentally sustainable. Often, no-till farmers spray herbicides before planting in order to kill cover vegetation that competes for sunlight with newly sprouted seedlings. Many agronomists who advocate for no-till methods also encourage herbicide use, even though herbicides harmful to soil quality.

While no-till methods can incorporate dangerous chemicals, they can just as easily do without. In chemical free circumstances, no-till methods have the potential to support increased soil life and increased yields.

Maybe the greatest challenge facing U.S. farmers experimenting with no-till methods is the skepticism of their families and neighbors  who claim that no-till won’t work. Even when farmers are successful, it can be difficult to convince others that have relied on conventional farming practices for their entire lives. Taking a new course in agriculture is challenging and difficult everywhere. But if farmers are going to develop sustainable agriculture for the future, we all need to embrace these challenges.