Musings about our farm, organic farming, regional foods and markets.

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Friday, March 27, 2015

Plowing the Sacred Soil

A couple of days ago, the Guardian published an article by George Monbiot, entitled “We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it”. (The full article is at ).

George complains that “there is no mention of permaculture either on the websites of the two main funding bodies (NERC and BBSRC) or in any other department.” Here, in his article on the destruction of soils, there is no mention of RoundUp/glyphosate, atrazine, DDT, 2,4 –D, other poisons often used in his preferred no-till regime. Instead, the author takes aim at plowing. “While it now seems that ploughing of any kind is incompatible with the protection of the soil, there are plenty of means of farming without it. Independently, in several parts of the world, farmers have been experimenting with zero-tillage (also known as conservation agriculture), often with extraordinary results.”

Yes, indeed, farmers have been experimenting often with extraordinary results. However, many farmers have continued with the tried and tested ways of farming that have been practised and honed for ever and a day. Smallholders the world over use simple plows to till their soil, using oxen and horses to draw them. These wise farmers have farmed organically for hundreds of years and certainly well before we all started discussing the merits of organic food.

As an organic farmer,  I prefer to eschew chemicals and use instead time-honoured methods like certified organic seeds, crop rotations, green manures, mulches, composts, incorporation of crop residues, and, yes, plowing in the constant and never-ending exercise of enhancing the health of the soil.

Soil is a complex and beauteous thing. When healthy, it is teeming with life of endless diversity that is exceptionally beneficial to us as human beings. Each spadeful contains a plethora of minerals, millions of living organisms, like earthworms, ants, bacteria, fungi, mycoryzzi….. George compares the production of allotment holders to that of farmers. There are a variety of reasons why small-scale produces more per square foot than large-scale. To me, there is no difference between my plowing of fields and the allotment-holders turning over the soil with a fork (an exercise I still treasure in our hoophouses). My small tractor-drawn plow digs no deeper than a fork and stirs the topsoil soup more efficiently over a larger expanse.

There is not much sweeter in farming than sitting on my tractor on a breezy, bright fall day watching over my shoulder as the two furrows expertly turn over the soil. What better way to  incorporate the brittle sweet corn stems, the tangle of bean stalks, and the mass of squash leaves, the bolted remains of the summer greens? The seagulls gather behind as the rich insect life is exposed. The act of plowing benefits the body of soil, by aerating the lungs, circulating the lifeblood, and stirring the dense nutrients, working them into a rich broth, providing balance and depth. And then the soil can go dormant. Over the winter, plant matter breaks down and the worms mix it all up. Come Spring, the ground thaws and for a while is sodden with moisture; not a good time to plow. (And when the ground is dry, hot and wind-blown in mid-summer, the plow is sleeping in the shade). Once the mid-spring soil warms and dries out somewhat, what better way to prepare a fine tilth seedbed than with a small tractor and its rear-mounted roto-tiller? The only thing sweeter than to plow is to plant the annual seed of the new season’s harvest into that same prepared soil. 
(Not my tractor, but probably about my age!)