NORTHFORD, Conn. (AP) — When Nelson Cecarelli, owner of Cecarelli Farm in Northford, first heard about zone tillage in 2006, he said, he wasn't receptive to the idea of adapting traditional farming methods passed down from his grandfather since the farm was purchased in 1912.
"If you're a traditional farm, like we were, you see it and you're scared to death," Cecarelli said of the relatively new technology of zone tillage, defined by Cornell University as a method of tillage that "essentially combines the benefits of conventional and no tillage, mostly without any of the negative consequences of either."
With about 130 acres of farmland in Northford and Wallingford, Cecarelli produces sweet corn and a variety of vegetables that are distributed to grocery stores and markets throughout the state. Corn is his primary product. He employs up to 18 people, depending on the season. Besides his farm in Northford, Cecarelli leases five properties in Wallingford through the farmland lease program, which was developed to maintain Wallingford's agricultural tradition. The town over several years purchased 37 fields totaling 376 acres. Through a bidding process, the fields are leased to farmers, who are selected based on land stewardship plans they explain in their bids.
Erin O'Hare, the town's environmental planner, administers the leasing program with the assistance of the Conservation Commission. O'Hare said that zone tillage is "being promoted as the way of the future for vegetable growing." But not every farmer is willing to adopt the method, because it requires the purchase of special equipment, she said.
It was zone tillage that helped bring Cecarelli to Wallingford and the farmland lease program. O'Hare said that almost a decade ago, the Water Division brought up concerns that some of the fields being leased are in protected watershed areas. On certain properties, the division didn't want to see the cultivation of vegetables, which require tilling. When traditional tilling is used, there is a better chance for fertilizer and silt runoff, and instead of risking those environmental effects, it was decided that only hay could be grown, O'Hare said.
Growing restrictions put on fields in watershed areas made them less attractive to farmers. Due to restrictions, O'Hare said, the town had trouble leasing them. The town researched zone tillage and decided to make exceptions for the method on certain fields. Cecarelli said he was educated on zone tillage by a consultant he hired in 2006 to help deal with erosion on his farmland. When Cecarelli mentioned to the commission that he was interested, they "jumped all over it," he said.
Since he began leasing from Wallingford in 2006, Cecarelli said, the town has become "a good partner to us."
On Friday, he complimented the farmland lease program as a method to keep local farmers in business and to offer people throughout the state fresh produce. Cecarelli said he could provide 50 reasons off the top of his head "why people should want to buy local."
O'Hare said that Cecarelli's use of zone tillage is now being studied closely by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Connecticut, adding that his crops are "under a microscope."
Cecarelli said zone tillage is used throughout the Sunbelt, but has yet to widely catch on in New England. He has traveled to seminars in the Northeast to help educate farmers on its benefits. Only 12 farms in the state and 33 throughout New England regularly use zone tillage, according to Cecarelli.
Before adopting zone tillage, Cecarelli said, his farm suffered from the negative effects of traditional tilling, which causes erosion, depletes organic matter and causes the compaction of soil. Vegetable farming requires extensive tilling, which "doesn't help build the soil structure or organic material," he said. Tilling breaks down the particles of soil, eventually turning it into dust.
In traditional tilling, heavy equipment creates a layer of soil about 10 inches underground that is impenetrable to root systems. It constricts where roots can grow, making crops less healthy and drought resistant because there is only so much moisture in the top layer of soil.
Zone tillage "goes down deep enough to cut through solid ground," Cecarelli said.
This "allows roots to go 20 to 30 inches into the ground," said Willy Dellacamera, who assists Cecarelli with work on the farm. "Roots become so much more drought tolerant."
The zone till, about half the size of Cecarelli's traditional till, is hauled behind a tractor. It overturns soil and makes a thin incision through the compacted layer of soil, where seeds are placed. The machine is also equipped to simultaneously place a nitrogen-based liquid fertilizer eight inches below the ground. Cecarelli said in traditional methods, fertilizer is placed above ground and without any accuracy. In placing fertilizer underground, Cecarelli said, runoff during heavy rains is mostly, if not entirely, prevented.
"We're only putting fertilizer where it needs to be," he said.
In growing corn, it's more efficient to place fertilizer underground, Dellacamera said. "It's a perfect place to absorb for corn," he said.
Besides cutting deeper into soil, zone tillage only disturbs land where seed is placed. In traditional tilling, no soil is left unturned. But zone tillage leaves rows of soil undisturbed.
"It's only going to disturb where we put seed," Cecarelli said.
This allows untouched rows of soil to take a season off and process organic material underground while it rests. Traditional tilling kills organic material necessary for healthy crops by bringing it above ground, where the sun destroys nutrients. The rows of soil that rest are used the following year, creating a rotation, Cecarelli said. "The ideal thing to do is move over and zone till in between."
While an initial investment was made to purchase the zone till, Cecarelli said savings are now being realized because of the reduction in fuel costs. In the past, he would make three passes over fields to prepare them for the season. One pass was to till, the next to seed and the last to fertilize. But now he only has to make one pass to achieve desired results. The benefits of zone tillage have also helped yield larger, healthier crops — helping to keep the farm sustainable. For Cecarelli, sustainable isn't pulling in massive profits.
"To us, sustainability is where we are profitable enough to where we can plant again next year," he said.
The environmental effects, or lack thereof, have also been a positive for Cecarelli. Before zone tilling, rainwater running off his properties was full of silt and fertilizer. Now, with less erosion, after heavy rains "water runs off the fields clear," he said.
While Cecarelli has adopted zone tillage, he said that he is still forced to use traditional tilling for certain vegetables.
"Ideally, there would be no tillage. It's needed for vegetables, but it's not optimal," he said.
Cecarelli said vegetables such as peppers, tomatoes and eggplant are grown through a raised-bed drip irrigation method, which requires traditional tilling. But "we're not closed-minded about what we might be able to do in future crops," he said.
When first researching zone tillage, Cecarelli was very careful about spending money on new machinery.
"It's your living, so you kind of have to be careful what you do because you go broke pretty easily," he said.
Now, with positive results, Cecarelli is attempting to pass the word to other growers in the region. He purchased his machinery from a salesman in upstate New York, who initially told him, "You'll get as good a yield as normal tilling."
"We found it to be better for us," Cecarelli said.
The terrain in Connecticut is perfect for zone tillage, he said. Farm equipment wholesalers often sell larger equipment not necessary for the smaller farms of New England, as compared to those in the Midwest.
Cecarelli has already tilled and planted on his properties in Northford, and will zone till and plant corn and other vegetables in Wallingford in mid-June.
Using the smaller zone till helps "maximize what we can get off of an acre," a necessity, said Cecarelli, with the limited amount of land in the state.
Farming "isn't just a way of life anymore," he said. "It's a business."
Information from: Record-Journal, http://www.record-journal.com