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Human Stories

When Less is More: A Portrait of No-till Farming

The Green Revolution in agriculture was powered by mechanisation, but our soils are now worn out through endless ploughing and tilling. As part of a growing movement in regenerative agriculture, we learn how Worthy Earth uses an organic no-till method to achieve the twin aims of restoring soils and building resilient local food systems - without a spade in sight.

When the first Duke of Marlborough strolled through his kitchen garden 300 years ago, he might have found something similar to what I see before me today: an abundance of vibrant fruit and vegetables that would be suitable for society’s elite. But while this corner of the Blenheim Palace estate in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, has been restored to echo its former glory days, it is now being cultivated using very different methods to the 1700s.

I start my visit by calling into a small museum housed in one of the former potting sheds. On the walls, rows of spades, hoes, shovels and other aggressive-looking tools speak of a time when horticulture here meant breaking and dominating the soil. Nevertheless, I don’t see a single shovel in the garden today.

The Blenheim Palace Walled Garden is a recent addition to a trend that is rapidly gaining interest among soil scientists, farmers and ethical consumers: no-till (or ‘no dig’) growing. The principle is simple: crops are grown whilst disturbing the soil as little as possible. There are many benefits that can be reaped from this approach.

The problem with our soils

I meet kitchen gardener Harrison Fannon on a sunny Sunday in November, who explains the rationale. “When we till the soil, this destroys the soil structure, causes erosion and disturbs all the animal, bacterial and fungal life that provide vital services for plants, such as nutrient exchange and combating pests and diseases,” he says. This creates a vicious circle: as soils become more and more exhausted, crop yields plummet, causing soils to be farmed even more intensively. As a result, the FAO estimates that globally, a third of agricultural soils are moderately to highly degraded. Not only does this put millions of livelihoods at risk through reduced productivity, but soil degradation also contributes to climate change through the release of vast amounts of carbon.

No-till farming: why do it? 

With the current situation being clearly unsustainable, Harrison decided to explore no-till farming as a possible alternative. Along with his brother Lawrence and friend Cody Moir, he co-founded Worthy Earth, a collection of no-dig market gardens in Hampshire and Oxfordshire. Their mission, as he explains, is to use networks of smaller production sites to provide people with access to local, nutritious food while strengthening the food system. “By disturbing the soil as little as possible, this helps to maintain soil porosity and promote biodiversity – both of which support thriving crops,” he says. “What's more, numerous studies have shown that no-till farms produce healthier soils because they hold more carbon, nutrients and water, and are more biodiverse compared with conventionally-farmed farms.” These factors also help crops to be more resilient to extreme weather events such as droughts; an increasingly important factor as the effects of the climate crisis take hold.

In April 2022, Worthy Earth was invited to take on a quarter-acre plot in Blenheim Palace's Walled Garden as a demonstration project for regenerative agriculture. As Harrison shows me around, I see for myself the benefits of using the no-dig approach. What was bare earth choked with weeds over the summer months has been transformed into productive beds, neatly divided by wood chip paths. Despite this being the end of the growing season, there are still plenty of crops to harvest: towering ​cavolo nero, frothy-topped carrots, beetroots, and potatoes. 

Harrison explains that as part of Worthy Earth’s ‘minimal disturbance’ philosophy, no fertilisers or pesticides are used on site. All plant nutrients are provided by the compost, and pests are naturally controlled by beneficial insects and fine mesh nets (where necessary). And, as part of the estate’s long-term aim to reduce food miles, the harvested crops are sent to the estate’s catering outlets.

"The kitchen staff can’t believe how good the food we produce tastes. They will never get anything fresher because it is always delivered within two hours of harvesting," says Harrison. Compared with a supermarket cucumber that’s been wrapped in plastic, flown on a plane, and gone through several temperature changes, the nutritional profile of our produce will be massively improved.”

The new no-dig bed extension at Blenheim Palace, doubling the size of the kitchen garden for the 2023 season. (Photo Worthy Earth)
The new no-dig bed extension at Blenheim Palace, doubling the size of the kitchen garden for the 2023 season. (Photo Worthy Earth)

No-till farming: how to do it

These results speak of wisdom gained over many decades of experience; however, Harrison, aged 26, only began practising regenerative farming three years ago, initially in his mother’s garden as an experiment. Guided by books written by no-till pioneer ​Richard Perkins, the trio settled on the method they use today through trial and error. “For a no-till garden, the most crucial factor for success is the quality of your compost. It is literally the foundation for everything,” Harrison says. “Because every site is different, it really pays to experiment with different types and combinations​​.”

At Worthy Earth, new beds are created in mid-winter, around the time of the first frosts, to ensure they are ready when the growing season arrives. For each site, the beds are mapped out to maximise the space as much as possible while leaving sufficient room between them to walk and tend to the crop.

Even at this first stage, no spades are used on the soil: instead of digging down, they build up. After hand-picking out any weeds on the surface, a thick strip of cardboard is laid down. Then, a layer of that crucial compost (about 20 cm deep) is added, creating a raised bed. "The cardboard suppresses any dormant weeds from coming through the soil," Harrison explains. "Over the next two to three months, the cardboard layer mulches down and becomes part of the compost. At Worthy Earth, we use a great compost mix from Berkshire, composed of green waste from herbal leys and manure for extra fertility." During this time, the beds are covered with weighed-down tarpaulins, to generate the warm, humid conditions that promote decomposition.

By March, the beds are ready for sowing. At this point, Harrison shows me one of the few things he uses that would be considered a ‘tool’: a lawn roller covered in regular studs. Called a ‘gridder’, this is rolled over the surface of the beds to mark out square grids for spacing seedlings. A hole is made in the centre of each square by hand or with a small wooden borer, and the rootlets are gently coaxed in. “After harvesting, what remains of roots are left to rot down,” says Harrison. “If you do it right, you end up with a self-regenerating system and never have to replace the compost. We just add a centimetre or so each year as a supplement.”

Vegetables growing in no-dig beds at Worthy Earth's first ever site in Martyr Worthy, Hampshire. (Photo Worthy Earth)
Vegetables growing in no-dig beds at Worthy Earth's first ever site in Martyr Worthy, Hampshire. (Photo Worthy Earth)

The road to Blenheim

As someone who has long been concerned about ​the 'broken’ food system, Harrison decided to do something practical about it in 2019, after graduating from Oxford University in Archaeology and Anthropology. After outgrowing his mother’s garden, Harrison, Cody, and Lawrence took on pockets of disused farmland, which became the first production sites: Martyr Worthy and Dummer Down Farm in Hampshire. After receiving a Rural Enterprise Fund grant, the trio set up a vegetable box scheme and founded Worthy Earth as a community enterprise, initially operating it in their spare time. After establishing a loyal customer base, they left their other jobs to focus on agribusiness full-time.

Their operations took on a more ambitious turn in March 2022, following a chance introduction through a friend between Harrison and Blenheim Palace’s CEO. “My friend suggested that Worthy Earth take on the Walled Garden, and I suddenly had to pitch to the CEO without any preparation. Nevertheless, they were very receptive.” The following month, they were laying out the beds, and by mid-June, Harrison was delivering the first crate of vegetables to the estate kitchens.

Community benefits

Since then, with thousands of visitors coming to Blenheim every year, the garden has grown into its own attraction. “It is not surprising as we have long been inundated by requests from people wanting to volunteer at our gardens, from young teenagers to community groups. They always go home well rewarded with a big box of fresh vegetables,” says Harrison. “Eventually, we hope Worthy Earth will expand to the point where we will be able to provide paid employment to many local people.” 

Worthy Earth took the first step towards that vision in November 2022, when they were given ​additional space in the Walled Garden at Blenheim. This has doubled the team’s working space and provided funding for a full-time gardener to be employed on-site. Ultimately, Harrison hopes to produce enough to supply not only all the estate kitchen’s needs but also an on-site farm shop.

“The best part about my job is helping people reconnect with food again. I think this is a great opportunity to show people that they don’t need to rely on food flown in from around the world, and that there is fantastic local produce that can serve the same purpose. For instance, rather than asparagus from Peru, try the tenderstem broccoli we grow right here.”

As I turn to leave, I see a wide-eyed young girl on the other side of the fence watching us. Putting his philosophy into practice, Harrison tugs a handful of vibrant orange carrots from the ground, shakes off the dirt, and then offers them to her and her family for their Sunday roast. A beautiful moment.

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