8:30 a.m. Feb 25 and I was full up on organic oatmeal, organic raisins and organic milk, leaning forward in my seat at the first of two day’s worth of workshops  at the Midwest Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse.  I was learning about “Soil Building through Cover Cropping and Composting” by Jeff Moyer, Director of Farm Operations at Rodale Farm.

He started out by asking how many of us raise livestock.  A few hands went up.

“Wrong,” he said.

.."A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself." Franklin D. Roosevelt

He told us we are all raising livestock.  Every acre has over 2,500 pounds of livestock living in it, and we need to feed and care for these critters.  Tilling is NOT the way to do that.  Tilling breaks up complex relationships between life forms in the soil, dries it out and exposes it to the sun.  He uses cover crops to keep every field filled with something green and growing every month of the year.

Moyer urged us to shift our perspective.

These cover crops are not just the filler between the crops you really want to grow. They are the main focus.  If cover crops do well, everything else will too.  “Treat them like a cash crop,” he said.

..This farm is keeping its soil covered.


  • Suppress weeds
  • Sequester CO2 in the soil
  • Support mycorrhizal fungi (I’ll be posting about this soon.)
  • Provide a natural mulch.
  • Protect soil from the increasingly frequent drought and heavy rain events we are seeing here in the Upper Midwest.

Here’s a good website for a cover crop overview.

I have read enough and seen enough to believe I want to farm no-till, but when you take over fallow, feral land, as Doug and I have done – how do you get there from here?

I asked Moyer in a follow-up email how you do that.  He said:

..small scale cover crop 40% bell beans, 20% maguns or Biomaster winter peas, 15% lana vetch, 15% puple vetch, 10% cayuse oats (photo credit

There really is no other way to reclaim your land than by using tillage and some hard work. Tillage is not always the enemy, we just need to think about when we use it, why we use it, and think through what other choices we have. In your case there are no alternatives (except herbicides, and I don’t recommend that route).

So we were on the right track last fall when we prepared some land next to the barn by rototilling up the grasses and invasives then planting a cover crop of winter rye.   Our question since then has been, how do we handle that rye?

I came out of Moyer’s class with the answer.  Instead of tilling the rye before planting something else, we need to use a roller/crimper.

I came out of that class practically jumping for joy, found Doug coming out of his talk on growing elderberries (the subject of another future post, no doubt) and told him that even if I didn’t learn another thing all weekend, the conference was worth the cost and time.  It makes my scalp tingle just to think about it now.

Instead of mowing down plants, leaving stubble that may well say, “Thanks, I needed that!” and then sprout a revitalized top, the roller/crimper bends them over and then breaks their stalk repeatedly.  So instead, crimped plants say, “I’ll just lay here and be mulch that doesn’t blow away.”

As we transition to our land, there are a many pieces of farming equipment that are new to Doug and me, and though I had heard the term roller/crimper before,  I had mentally filed it away as something to look into at a later date.

Learning what a roller/crimper actually  is a revelation!

If roller/crimper doesn’t conjure up an image for you, check this Roller/Crimper Gallery .

Most of the photos in the gallery are massive pieces of equipment that get pushed by a tractor.  You can roller/crimp on the front end of your tractor while planting into your new mulch with equipment pulled on the back.  The whole process is complete in one pass – no more extra trips that just compact the soil and burn up more oil.

For Doug and me, who are thinking small and starting with as little gas guzzling as possible, the real take home was a way to make a hand operated crimper for small-scale use that we can take into our winter rye this spring!


Start with a 2×4 ,which is neither 2” or 4” on a side – if you want to learn more about how the 2×4 came to be and came to not be 2×4 –, check out Della Hansmann’s Feb 17 post at Dwelling Places

Anyhow, a 30” piece of 2×4.  Bolt a piece of angle iron to the 4-inch side.  Attach a piece of rope to each end of the board long enough to hold in your hands with the board lying on the ground in front of you.  Put your foot on the board, raise your foot and the crimper using the ropes, step forward about six inches, put your weight on it and crunch some plant stems with the angle iron.  Lift it up, and repeat.

This is the kind of work I love.  A steady, aerobic workout that you can pitch to your own personal and ever-changing pace while doing something so useful, simple and right.

My homemade crimper is going to be my new best friend!  Mine and my underground livestock.


13 replies

  1. I am really glad you put that in some cases it is right to till. I have been following the Roedale site for quite a while and seen all the investigations into the no till/crimping but often wondered if it applied here on our land. We leave our crops over winter on our allotment plot to retain the nutrients and to slow down the melt when it happens as we have south facing hillside plot with sandy soil but out on the land is another matter entirely as it is rich deep peaty soil that is more prone to poor drainage than to blowing away. I wanted to know if it was better to till in that case, maybe not every year but on a regular basis especially if we want to grow grains.

  2. Hi Joanna,

    I have no personal experience in growing grains yet, but I do hope to.
    What I am hearing from different sources and perspectives is that tilling can be very destructive of the soil community, which soil fertility ultimately depends on. So the less we disturb it, the better, but that there are circumstances require some surgical tilling.

    Jeff Moyer at Rodale Farm sent me a two paragraph answer to my question about tilling. I only included the first in the post because it was already getting quite long. His second paragraph said:

    “You’ll need to use some heavy duty equipment to pull out any of the vegetative root systems that may become perennial problems and just stay after the old plants. Using solid stand cover crops and tillage will bring the land around to the point where you easily cultivate it and work into some rotational tillage that includes no-till crop production strategies.”

    So, it’s a continuum. We are all finding our way out of conventional farming techniques that have proved so destructive. At the moment, you have more experience than I do, I think. And it’s great to pool ideas and experience. I live in an area where so many people are examining new possibilities, and I like to share what I come across in my own quest.

  3. I’ve been really interested in the no-till idea, it makes a lot of sense to me that we’ll have more luck with some crop types if we DON’T go messing up the soil ecology… but isn’t there a concern about soil compaction using the crimping methods? Or does compacting the soil become less of a concern if you’re not making it fluffy and compactable in the first place?

  4. Hi Megan,
    You raise a really good point. To answer, I’m going to synthesize everything I’ve learned at the last few Midwest Organic Farming Conferences and other environmental restoration sources.
    1. yes, compaction is a problem. In the 1970s heavy equipment drove across the UW-Arboretum prairie, and the results of that compaction is visible to this day.
    2. yes, tilling and “fluffing” the soil looks great the first year, but collapses into a more compact substance in future years.
    3. compacting occurs like most things along a spectrum, and the fewer times you walk or drive over your soil the better, even though some travel over fields and garden patches is hard to avoid.
    4. The thing I’m grasping now about roller crimpers is that they don’t compact much. They basically knock the plants over and apply most pressure to the stalks. Even though some of that is transferred through the plants to the ground, it is only along the crimper edge and doesn’t compact everything. And what it leaves on the surface of the soil is a fresh layer of mulch that will ultimately become part of the organic material that micro-organisms will process into the best kind of soil.
    So it seems to me that when it is all added up, rolling/crimping is a plus.

    Last Sunday I saw the brand new documentary about Aldo Leopold called Green Fire. Leopold said,
    “The oldest task in human history is to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”

    It’s what we all struggle with, isn’t it?

  5. Hi, Denise – thanks for the posting on the conference. I’ve run across most of the ideas in my reading of many garden books and following several blogs, including Rodale’s. But it’s got to be quite different hearing the expert talk directly about these ideas. I would like to have been there.

    Winter rye – I planted that for a couple of years and then swore I would never plant it again. It overwinters and then resumes growing. I dug it up and turned over the ground with a shovel in the spring and then, when I grew beets and onions, I was forever pulling up blades of grass. That rye plant has rhizomes that can’t be killed, they are forever sending up new blades. Last year I planted ryegrass and summer alfalfa (from Johnny’s) that IS supposed to be winter-killed. I will be very interested in hearing how your crimper works on the winter rye.

    I’ve come to agree with Moyer that a farmer/gardener’s real job is building good, biologically active soil. Or Joel Salatin says that he is a “grass farmer” – the livestock are just the means by which he converts grass into human food. I assume you are familiar with Lowenfels and Lewis book Teaming with Microbes? Or do I vaguely recall that you posted something about it a while back? Another interesting book on the chemistry of soil is The Ideal Soil by Michael Astera that I just read. He talks about Cation Exchange Capacity in an understandable way. Seems like another really important idea for developing a good soil.

    One other idea: what I do in the spring is not till my developed garden beds but broadfork them, a la Eliot Coleman. This will break up the soil without greatly damaging the many wormholes and capillaries and or compacting the ground. Of course, my largest beds are like 42” by 25’ long. I’m not working with the large plots of soil called fields.

  6. Hi Dennis,
    I do know about Teaming with Microbes. I bought it from the author at the conference! He gave two presentations. I went to one, and Doug went to the other. (There are so many simultaneous good workshops, we have to divide and conquer.)
    I’m planning to post about some of what he said soon. He was an excellent speaker!

    Yes, I agree about rye. I’ve heard it can be a bit pushy, but it was the only seed we could get at the last minute when we sowed it, and I am really hoping that the crimper lives up to its reputation to turn even aggressive plants into mild-mannered mulch. Stay tuned on that one.

  7. any chance of better photos of the hand-roller crimper? i don’t quite get the idea but would very much like to make one. i am working my way out of tilling in my small vegetable garden, but also am wondering, what is tilling and what is cultivating? is it a matter of depth? is turning over the soil about shovel-deep to get deep-rooted weeds (or last year’s cover crop that didn’t die but spent the unusually mild winter developing super-fibrous root clumps that re-sprout) out considered tilling or cultivating? this summer i’m going with buckwheat and then i’m not sure for the winter, but i think a hand-crimper would be great.
    hope to see some closer photos. many thanks!

    • I have to say that I have not tried this process yet. I plan to start this spring. My photo was a borrowed one, and I don’t have any better ones, but will be blogging about it again with good photos when I get my own tool built and in use.
      The idea is that crimping the stalks foils their ability to just start another stalk growing below the place where you have cut the plant off. And it also provices a great mulch in the process. Once those roots in the ground are dead, they add to the healthy texture of the soil. So it’s win win.
      I think it is best to crimp in the very early stage of flowering to bet the most mulch but avoid reseeding with something you don’t want there.
      I’ll be posting about this more as I put the process into action.
      Good luck with your projects,

  8. Any reason not to use old broom handles on each end instead of ropes? Then the action would be similar to a broadfork and might be easier on the arms.

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