No-Till Soil Health and Weed Management Toolkit

Executive Summary:

The UW Farm began in 2006 as a student-powered project growing vegetables behind the old Botany Greenhouse. Today, thanks to the power of their vision and the support of the CSF, the UW Farm cultivates about 2 acres of growing space with two full-time staff and four part-time student staff. This past year we hosted twelve classes from across university departments, interacted with more than 500 students, and grew more vegetables than ever before. However, with this expansion we have felt a squeeze on our tool shed. Due to the inevitabilities of working with enthusiastic beginners some of our tools have been broken, while others we simply do not have enough of, leading to bottlenecks in production.

We would use this CSF grant to restock with high-quality tools designed to last, allowing the next generation of students to experience the efficiencies that small-scale farming has to offer. In addition to having enough tools, this grant would allow us to purchase the tools necessary for a no-till system. No-till systems are part of the so-called “brown revolution” in agriculture, which combines ancient ways of growing with new understandings of soil health (Montgomery 2017). Given the proper tools, we will be able to demonstrate a highly efficient system that produces healthier plants, sequesters carbon, saves water, and preserves soil health for the long haul. The proposed cost of our grant is $14,500 dollars, which would go primarily towards purchasing tools, soil tests, and soil building materials.

Montgomery, David R. Growing a revolution: bringing our soil back to life. WW Norton & Company, 2017.

Student Involvement:

The tools purchased with these funds will be used by and for students on the UW Farm. Although this grant will not directly fund any student jobs, the tools will be used by our four student staff in farm production and education activities. These tools will be used by hundreds of volunteers, because we host 50-80 service learners each quarter as well as community volunteers, labs, and tours. This past year we interacted with 200 students in labs, 600 students on tours, and 200 service learners. Every one of these students either used our tools themselves or saw them in use, creating a huge opportunity for learning when we introduce these new tools. Responsibilities of volunteers on the UW Farm include multiple different production related tasks, including weeding, harvesting, washing, packing, and planting.


Education & Outreach:

Our primary mode of education will be with the classes and volunteers that interact with the UW Farm. We pursue education through production, so as students are volunteering we can use these tools as a gateway to talking about soil health and no-till management. For example, the question of what kind of hoe to use leads to further questions, such as how different weeds indicate soil health, how no-till management can reduce weed pressure, and how this applies on a broader scale to agriculture. This quarter, Eli Wheat and Adam Houston will be teaching a class on soils and carbon sequestration in agriculture, and we are hoping that our students will be able to use these tools to develop their own hypothetical management systems as part of their class work. 

Our secondary mode of education will be through informational signage in our tool shed. We already have a set of simple signs with the name of the tool, a picture, and a description of its use. We will be expanding these signs to include the new tools that we purchase, as well as updating our old signs. We also plan on making "CSF" stickers for the handles of our tools so that every time we show a student how to use a tool, we can remind them of where it came from. In addition, we will be using our Instagram, which has 1,387 followers, to publicize our new tools and systems. 

Our specific outreach goals include interacting with at least 600 students during the Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall quarters in 2020. All of these students will be exposed to our tools in some way, whether for a few minutes during a tour or over the course of service learning for a whole quarter. We track all student interactions with the UW Farm, so we will have a clear picture of usage by the end of the year. 

Environmental Impact:
  • Energy Use
  • Food
  • Living Systems and Biodiversity
  • Water
Project Longevity:

The tools purchased with these funds will be high-quality and designed to last. In addition, the UW Farm has a long-term commitment to education and production at the University of Washington, and will employ these tools in our systems as long as the UW Farm continues to exist. This is a one-time investment with a long-term payoff in terms of ecological health, student wellbeing and education, and farm productivity.

Environmental Problem:

The effect of tillage on soil intersects with a number of crucial environmental and social problems relating to the sustainability of human agriculture. Long-term use of tillage can cause a precipitous decline in the amount of organic carbon stored in the soil, which is then released into the atmosphere. It is estimated that by the time of the Industrial Revolution, humans had already contributed one-third of our total greenhouse gas emissions simply by tilling the soil (Lal 2004). Soils with less organic matter absorb less water, contributing to poor performance in droughts and increased erosion. Plants in unhealthy soils require more chemical fertilizer and more pesticides. Tillage also brings new weed seeds to the surface with every pass, creating a vicious cycle of more cultivation and more work (Montgomery 2017).

While the UW Farm currently operates on a low-tillage system, having the right tools would allow us to engage students more effectively in different models of agriculture. Every item in our budget fits into our system to promote soil health, sequester carbon, grow better crops, and make our labor more efficient. In this proposal, we will focus on three specific items and how they fit into our system: the broadfork, the flame weeder, and compost.

Broadforks are the most important garden bed preparation tool for any no-till grower of our scale (Fortier 2014). They allow us to aerate and loosen the soil without disturbing soil life. They also will reduce weed pressure, because they do not invert the soil and bring buried weed seeds to the surface.

In order to further reduce the amount of soil disturbance from weeding, we propose to purchase two different models of flame weeder, one for each of our sites. Flame weeding uses a gas torch to kill weeds when they are just beginning to germinate. This technique can be used to quickly create weed-free beds without cultivation of the soil. While it may seem counterintuitive to burn fossil fuels to kill weeds on a sustainable farm, the flame weeders in our budget actually use very little natural gas due to their efficient design, and they are a long-term investment in reducing the weed seed bank present in our soil.

One of the largest expenditures in the budget is for sixty yards of compost. No-till systems generally apply layers of compost that are several inches thick in order to boost soil organic matter and suppress weeds. We currently have access to compost made from UW leaves and coffee grounds, but that is only available in the fall and contains plastic and other litter. A large quantity of high-quality compost from Cedar Grove would be an important investment in soil health for the UW Farm.

Fortier, Jean-Martin, and Marie Bilodeau. The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower's Handbook for Small-scale Organic Farming. New Society Publishers, 2014.

Lal, Rattan. "Soil carbon sequestration impacts on global climate change and food security." Science.

Montgomery, David R. Growing a revolution: bringing our soil back to life. WW Norton & Company, 2017.

Explain how the impacts will be measured:

As mentioned in the "Sustainability Challenge" section, no-till management will likely improve a number of metrics for the UW Farm. We will be focused on tracking soil health metrics through the use of spring and fall soil testing with the Cornell Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health test. This is the best available test for understanding the biological properties of our soils, along with the nutrient content. We will be testing certain growing areas in the spring and fall that we will be tilling and compare them to those that we do not till. Our quantitative measurements will allow us to estimate the amount of carbon we are sequestering in our soils through our management methods.  This will go along with qualitative observations over the course of the season, such as weed pressure, soil quality, and crop vitality. 

In addition, as mentioned in the "Education & Outreach" section, we will be tracking student involvement with the UW Farm in order to assess educational outcomes. 

Total amount requested from the CSF: $14,500
This funding request is a: Grant
If this is a loan, what is the estimated payback period?:


This table is a budget for farm tools to be purchased with the CSF grant.
ItemCost per ItemQuantityTotal Cost
People’s Broadfork - Meadow Creature20061200
Tilther - Johnny's7001700
Compost - Cedar Grove36602160
Paper Pot Transplanter Set - Johnny's250012500
Silage Tarps, 50' x 100' - Johnny's3002600
Pyroweeder - Farmer's Friend8501850
Flame Blade - Farmer's Friend1001100
Seedbed Flame Weeder Set8001800
Propane Tank - Seattle Propane70170
Gridder - Johnny's4001400
Long-Handled Wire Weeder - Johnny's506300
Narrow Collinear Hoe, 3-3/4" - Johnny's506300
Wide Collinear Hoe, 7" - Johnny's506300
Glaser Wheel Hoe, 12" - Johnny's4502700
Weed Guard Plus Paper Mulch, 48" x 250' - Gempler's605300
Pacifist Wire Head Master Kit - Johnny's706420
Mutineer Hoe Handle656390
Collinear Hoe Head Master Kit456270
Jang JP-1 Push Seeder - Johnny's4501450
Soil tests - Cornell University6015900
Six-row seeder - Johnny's6751675
CSF Stickers - Vistaprint361 roll of 25036

Non-CSF Sources:

Project Completion Total:


TaskTimeframeEstimated Completion Date
Purchase and assemble tools1-2 weeksMarch 2020, or as soon as funds are received
Spring soil testing1-2 weeksMarch 2020 with UW Soil Science classes
Tool usage and education10 - 20 yearsTools will be used on the UW Farm for the duration of their lifetime, beginning March 2020
Fall soil testing1-2 weeksNovember 2020 with UW class