Saturday, September 6, 2008

Edward Faulkner’s Plowman’s Folly Still a Masterpiece on Soil Quality

Guest Post by Steve Chick, Nebraska State Conservationist

Congressman Smith’s Field Representative Barb Cooksley recently loaned me a copy of the book Plowman’s Folly. I can honestly say it is a must read for any one interested in understanding and appreciating the value of minimizing disturbance to the soil.

On the opening page Faulkner writes, “The truth is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.” Later in the first chapter he wrote, “We have equipped our farmers with a greater tonnage of machinery per man than any other nation. Our agricultural population has proceeded to use that machinery to the end of destroying the soil in less time than any other people has been known to do it in recorded history.” It is well documented that we have lost as much as 12 inches of topsoil in Eastern Nebraska and Iowa, which has exposed mineral subsoil.

Faulkner went on to say, “The chief trouble with our farming is that we have concerned ourselves with the difficult techniques of supplying our farm crops with new materials for growth, when we could easily take full advantage of the almost automatic provisions of nature for supplying plants with complete rations in secondhand form. We have made a difficult job of what should be an easy one.” He was referring to our unfortunate reliance that quickly swept this nation for utilizing manufactured fertilizers instead of taking advantage of the natural fertilizer provided through crop residue.

Faulkner cited an excerpt from Paul Sears book Deserts on the March which reads, “The face of earth is a graveyard, and so it has always been. To earth each living thing restores when it dies that which has been borrowed to give form and substance to its brief day in the sun. From earth, in due course, each new living being receives back again a loan of that which sustains life. What is lent by earth has been used by countless generations of plants and animals now dead and will be required by countless others in the future…No plant or animal, nor any sort of either, can establish a permanent right of possession to the materials that compose its physical body.” Faulkner follows this with, “This is the solemn, necessary truth; and the earlier it becomes a part of our thinking, the more quickly can we plan intelligently the necessary work of recreating the soils on our farm lands. We have been too squeamish to visualize dead tissue being transformed into living, though with every mouthful we eat we demonstrate precisely that fact.”

There are many favorite quotes I can cite from this book, but one for sure is the following, “The task of this book is to show that our soil problems have been to a considerable extent psychological; that, except for our sabotage of nature’s design for growth, there is no soil problem.” Another quote that grabbed my attention is, “The drain tile and the moldboard plow, therefore, become suspect of complicity in robbing our people of their birthright of vigorous health—by stealing away vital elements from the plowsole before plant roots are able to salvage them. So logical does this inference seem that it is difficult to understand why it has never been investigated officially.” Faulkner’s point is that the plow was responsible for eroding away valuable topsoil, while the underground tile line sucked nutrients from the bottom side of the soil profile.

Faulkner said it took seven years of experiments and tests before he broke away from conventional ways of thinking about the soil. He said, “Then I discovered, through certain tests, that the trouble lay in the operation which preceded all of the tests, namely plowing. It was as if one tried to assemble a picture puzzle with the pieces upside down. By simply correcting basic error—by incorporating all of the organic matter into the surface of the soil—the difficulties all disappeared as if by magic.”

He said, “…if planting and cultivating equipment had been designed to operate in the trashy surface it would have left, there would never have been a moldboard plow. It should be clear that the immaculately clean material we now have on most of our farms cannot be called soil except by the most liberal license. Our ideal of the soil includes of necessity that it must be easy to work, free from obstructions. It must be tidy. The fact is that untidiness to an extreme—a surface covered or filled with abundance of decaying trash—is really the proper condition. We must, therefore, revise our ideas as to the nature of the material upon which we can depend for sustenance. We certainly cannot depend upon the almost white soils we now cultivate with the plow.”

I could go and on with citations from this book, but I will end this week with the following quote because it cited research work in Nebraska. “Planting can be done in a trashy surface. It had to be done so when the land was first cleared. Doubtless, it is easier to manage land which has nothing on the surface to be caught and dragged along by the sliding equipment we use for planting and cultivating. But, if the crop planted in such smooth land must necessarily produce a smaller yield because of the purity of the minerals (freedom from decaying organic matter); it seems logical to suggest the wisdom of trying to devise implements which negotiate the trashy surface. Equally, if crop yield s greater from a trashy surface, as has been proved by the official tests at the Nebraska Experiment Station, the desirability of the necessary equipment is beyond question.”

Edward Faulkner promoted the use of a disk harrow in place of the moldboard plow because at that time no-till planting equipment had not yet been invented that could directly plant seeds into undisturbed crop residue, but Faulkner clearly recognized the importance of leaving crop residue at or near the soil surface. Over the next couple of weeks I will share a little more information from this book – a book that is very difficult for me to put down.

Reprinted with permission by Steve Chick.

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