Potato and soil conservation

Mulch planting and the "no-till" potato can help reduce the soil degradation, erosion and nitrate pollution often associated with potato production

Key points

Land preparation, weeding and harvesting of potato often involve intensive soil disturbance.

Cover crops sown before planting and as the crop matures protect the soil and facilitate harvesting.

Cultivation of potato without tillage helps restore soil, produces good yields and reduces the need for fertilizer and fuel.

Potato cultivation usually involves intensive soil tillage throughout the cropping period, which often leads to soil degradation, erosion and leaching of nitrates. During soil preparation, the entire topsoil is loosened and - particularly on sticky soils - pulverized into small aggregates to avoid the formation of clods in the potato beds. Mechanical weeding and mechanized harvesting also entail intensive soil disturbance.

Conservation agriculture - a resource-saving crop production system – offers several useful techniques for soil conservation in potato production.

Mulch planting for potatoes

In conventional, tillage-based potato cropping systems, the risk of soil erosion and nitrate leaching can be reduced using the mulch planting technique. The potato beds are prepared well in advance of planting - if potato is to be planted in spring, the beds would be prepared before winter – and seeded with a green manure cover crop. The potato is later planted into the beds which, by then, are covered by the dead mulch of the manure crop.

For mechanical planting, planters are equipped with special discs that cut through the mulch and split the potato beds. The mulch protects the soil from erosion during the first weeks of the crop. As the potato plants grow, the reshaping of the beds incorporates the mulch. A second green manure crop can be seeded towards the end of the potato crop, as the potato plants are drying off. The cover crop helps to dry out the potato beds, contributing to healthier tubers with reduced risk of damage during harvest. The green manure is separated from the potato by a mechanical potato harvester and is left as a mulch cover after harvest, protecting the soil from erosion.

The advantages of Conservation agriculture

Conservation agriculture aims at enhancing natural biological processes both above and below ground. It is based on three principles: minimum mechanical soil disturbance, permanent organic soil cover, and diversified crop rotations for annual crops and plant associations for perennial crops. By minimizing soil disturbance, CA creates a vertical macro-pore structure in the soil, which facilitates the infiltration of excess rainwater into the subsoil, improves the aeration of deeper soil layers, and facilitates root penetration.

Mulch planting is being used for potatoes in parts of Germany and Switzerland, particularly in watersheds where drinking water sources might be prone to nitrate pollution from conventional cultivation methods. Nevertheless, while mulch planting of potatoes reduces the risk of erosion and nitrate leaching, it still involves major soil movement.

The "no-till potato"

Soil conservation can be enhanced further using a basic CA technique, "no-till" cultivation. The "no-till" potato is pressed into the soil surface, then covered with a thick layer of mulch - preferably straw, which is fairly stable and does not rot quickly. (Potatoes need to be kept in the dark to avoid the formation of chlorophyll, which renders the tubers green, bitter and toxic.)

In some cases - for example in dry areas under drip irrigation - black plastic sheets can also be used as mulch. Holes are punched in the plastic to allow the potato plant to grow through it. The young potato tubers form under the mulch but above the soil surface. During harvesting, the sheets are removed and the potatoes are simply "collected". Currently, the "no-till" potato is only grown in small fields using manual labour - for example, in Peru under plastic covers and in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea under rice straw.

No-till potato in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Farmers in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea are using conservation agriculture in rice and potato production in order to restore degraded soils and achieve good potato yields with reduced need for fertilizer and fuel.

The potato-rice crop rotation system produces two crops in a relatively short growing season, resulting in higher overall food production when compared to output from a single main crop. The seed potato is inserted into the soil under a mulch cover formed by the residues of the preceding rice crop. The potatoes grow through the rice straw and are harvested within three months. Immediately afterward, "no-till" rice is transplanted as the main summer crop. Per hectare, the system can produce 25 tonnes of potatoes and 7.5 tonnes of rice.

This fact sheet was written by Theodor Friedrich, of FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division. Rattan Lal, Past President of the Soil Science Society of America, also contributed.