John Aeschliman turns over a shovelful of topsoil on his 4,000-acre farm in the Palouse region of eastern Washington State. The black earth crumbles easily, revealing a porous structure and an abundance of organic matter that facilitate root growth. Loads of earthworms are visible, too—another healthy sign.
Thirty-four years ago only a few earthworms, if any, could be found in a spadeful of his soil. Back then, Aeschliman would plow the fields before each planting, burying the residues from the previous crop and readying the ground for the next one. The hilly Palouse region had been farmed that way for decades. But the tillage was taking a toll on the Palouse, and its famously fertile soil was eroding at an alarming rate. Convinced that there had to be a better way to work the land, Aeschliman decided to experiment in 1974 with an emerging method known as no-till farming.