Many farmers in Tennessee tend their fields without tills to cut down on erosion, but they've found that their method also helps conserve water during droughts.
Many farmers in Tennessee tend their fields without tills to cut down on erosion, but they've found that their method also helps conserve water during droughts. - 
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Stacey Vanek Smith: Thousands of farmers from across the country will find their way to Milan, Tenn., today to learn about farming without a plow. It's No-Till Field Day.

WPLN's Blake Farmer reports.

Blake Farmer: It's an event billed as the largest gathering devoted to "no-till" farming in the country. And organizer Blake Brown says it began 30 years ago not in response to drought, like the one going on now. At the time, West Tennessee had one of the worst erosion problems in the country. Topsoil was washing away by the truckload.

Blake Brown: Back at that time we were losing 30 to 40 tons per acre per year just from soil erosion.

Brown says researchers began looking for a better way to farm. This is the old way.

An antique tiller rips through the dirt, turning under last year's crop to make way for the next. Ag experts discovered if you could find a way around plowing, it did wonders for making the soil stay put. It's also been found to help crops weather dry spells. Planting crops amidst the previous year's foliage may not be pretty -- it's been called "farming ugly."

But early adopter Dickie Brewer says in a video for the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture that no-till works in hot and dry years like this one.

Dickie Brewer: If you keep that cover on it, it traps and holds the soil and also holds the moisture where it can soak in the ground and actually keep the soil cooler in the summer time.

There is a drawback, I'm told. No-till ends up requiringmore weed-killing chemicals, which has become a problem with the rise of Roundup resistant weeds. But many farmers now swear by the method, especially in Tennessee. A record 74 percent of the acreage growing major crops this year is no-till. University of Tennessee extension agent Justin Rhinehart says it's become the industry standard.

Justin Rhinehart: It's really best management practices that we would consult with these guys to use anyway. But they become more important when production is limited by drought or any other severe weather.

Nationwide, un-tilled acreage has grown to roughly 35 percent and inches up each year. The USDA is encouraging farmers to ditch the plow. Mother Nature may push more farmers to go ahead and pull the trigger.

In Nashville, I'm Blake Farmer for Marketplace.

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