Ploughman's Folly

by Edward H. Faulkner

1. The Margin of Error

BRIEFLY, this book sets out to show that the mouldboard plough which is in use on farms throughout the civilized world, is the least satisfactory implement for the preparation of land for the production of crops. This sounds like a paradox, perhaps, in view of the fact that for nearly a century there has been a science of agriculture, and that agricultural scientists almost to a man have used and approved the use of the mouldboard plough. Nevertheless, the statement made above is true and capable of proof. Much of the proof, as a matter of fact, has come in left-handed manner from scientists themselves. The truth is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for ploughing. Many learned teachers have had embarrassing moments before classes of students demanding to be shown why it would not be better to introduce all organic matter into the surface of the soil than to bury it, as is done by the plough.

The entire body of "reasoning" about the management of the soil has been based upon the axiomatic assumption of the correctness of ploughing. But ploughing is not correct. Hence, the main premise being untenable, we may rightly question the validity of every popularly accepted theory concerned with the production of any crop, when the land has been ploughed in preparation for its growth. That brings virtually all of our soil theories up for critical examination, so, in this book, the whole gamut of theory we have evolved concerning the growing of crops will be brought into focus for examination in the light of the discovery that ploughing is wrong.

The discussion will be undertaken in language common to the layman, so far as this is possible, and throughout the text footnotes will be introduced to explain whatever may be perhaps out of range of the thinking of the average reader. The nature of the reasoning upon which this entire study is based makes it unnecessary to resort to any but the simplest of scientific terms. Moreover, there are few ideas which are not common knowledge strange as that may seem. The vast amount of technical language created by scientific agriculture, as a result of an early and fundamental mistake, has produced its own confusions. Indeed, the mistake originally made might justly be called the basis for most, if not all, of the technology connected with present-day agronomy.

An agricultural experiment station has its uses, but these obviously would not have embraced the problem presented in this book, if those who work the soil had not got off to a false start in the matter of ploughing. In brief, if a way had been found to mix into the surface of the soil everything that the farmer now ploughs under, if the implements used in planting and cultivating the crop had been designed to operate in a surface mixture of soil and plant residues that would have resulted from mixing rough straw, leaves, stalks, stubble, weeds, and briars into the surface -- crop production would have been so automatic, so spontaneous that there might not have developed what we now know as agricultural science. Actually, we would scarcely have needed one. From one point of view, we have been creating our own soil problems merely for the doubtful pleasure of solving them. Had we not originally gone contrary to the laws of nature by ploughing the land, we would have avoided the problems as well as the expensive and time-consuming efforts to solve them.

That we would also have missed all of the erosion, the sour soils, the mounting floods, the lowering water table, the vanishing wild life, the compact and impervious soil surfaces is scarcely an incidental consideration. We have really had a fling at scientific agriculture. The fling, in fact, appears to be the scientific counterpart of what our grandfathers used to call "sowing wild oats." It is time we sobered up and began to apply to the growing of farm crops the same basic science we have for so long been using in the factories, mills, and workshops of our reasonably progressive civilization.

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 in recorded history. This is hardly a record to be proud of. It gains nothing in attractiveness, moreover, when we consider that our Chinese friends and the often despised peasantry of the so-called backward countries of the world can produce more per acre without machinery than the American farmer can with all his fine equipment. Any reasonably well traveled person will confirm this statement.

One of the persistent puzzles has been the fact that an ignorant, poverty-stricken Egyptian who stirs his land with the ancient crooked stick can produce more per acre than his British neighbour whose equipment is right up to the minute. The explanation is that the poor farmer can't afford the equipment that would make it impossible for him to continue growing such high yields per acre. The full import of all this will be explained in due course.

There is double meaning in the statement that all of the trouble in producing crops seems to lie in the farmer's fields. The uncultivated fields and woodlands surrounding his land do not show any signs of trouble. Even the crops growing in the fence rows seem to thrive through droughts as well as in fine weather. Would that observation justify us in wondering whether the manner in which farmers handle their land might be responsible for the way crops grow under tillage? Certainly we should not overlook the possibility that a clue to the farmer's trouble might be found by a comparative study of cultivated and virgin soils.

Our conventional ideas of growing processes are due for drastic revision. Much thought and experimental work have been devoted to studies of plant growth, but there has been comparatively little consideration of the part played in plant and animal growth by the actual transfer, more or less directly, of previously used plant food from a lifeless body to one that is living.

We often think and speak of growth as if it were a building process -- which indeed it is -- but we are likely to assume without sufficient thought that the best growth would result from the use of materials not previously used in organic tissues. We think of our farm crops as getting a mineral solution from the land; and we think of that solution as originating from soil minerals directly, or from the fertilizers the farmer applies. We do not give much consideration to the biochemistry of the matter. We know that anything covered up in the soil is subject to rather prompt decay, if it is at all decayable, but we do not reason from that point to acceptance of the decay products as choice building material for crops growing in the immediate vicinity.

In our material civilization we have rightly learned to be suspicious of anything constructed of cast-off materials. Few people would buy an automobile that was assembled from used parts. And a suit of clothes made of shoddy material would not bring a very high price. Our basic distrust carries over into our thinking about the materials essential to the development of a plant. This would not be true if we did some critical thinking on the subject; but we have not done so. We have left the whole subject to our scientific men. They have learned the facts, and in many instances have published their findings in books or pamphlets which anyone who cares to do so may read; but few have cared to wade through the technical language in which such studies usually have been expressed. Such writings seldom make the headlines or the front pages, so we don't bother to read them. This may be distinctly bad for us.

Much of our knowledge of nutritive relationship is what might be called academic: pigeonholed after discovery and never developed into practical usefulness. Particularly is this true of our knowledge concerning plant nutrition. We know, of course, that no animal can subsist solely on mineral solutions in simple, inorganic form. We do not take our lime as lime water, or our iron as tincture -- at least not to any great extent as a matter of nutrition. Our present knowledge indicates that the human race and the whole animal kingdom would disappear completely from the earth if deprived of that organic storehouse known as the plant kingdom. That being true, it is highly important that we have a thoroughly practical understanding of the nutritive relationships between plants and the earth; for those relationships are necessarily fundamental to animal well-being, including, of course, the human race.

For purposes of this discussion, it will simplify our reasoning if we think of inorganic solutions, such as those that occur in the soil where water is in contact with mineral crystals, as new, or primary plant foods; and the inorganic solutions that originate in the decay of plant or animal tissues as used, or second-hand plant foods. These are distinctly not the technician's terms for such concepts, but it will be shown herein that they are useful for the layman in understanding how plants may be made to grow best. It should be said, too, that in practice we would almost never find in the soil any organic solution entirely devoid of inorganic compounds. This is because the water which assists in the decay of organic tissues already carries a load of inorganic compounds when it is absorbed into the organic material.

The chief trouble with our farming is that we have concerned ourselves increasingly 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 second-hand form. We have made a difficult job of what should be an easy one.

Several circumstances have conspired to distort our point of view on the nutrition of plants. Thirty years ago, farmers had not become so familiar as they are now with the possibilities offered by inorganic minerals as fertilizers. But, as they have learned about them, and as the costs of such fertilizers have been reduced from time to time, it has been progressively easier to use mineral fertilizers. Meanwhile the means of restoring organic matter to the soil has seemed at the same time to become progressively more difficult. The net result is that technical attention to the inorganic mineral supply has been more and more necessary, and the organic possibilities have simply vanished from consideration.

The last few paragraphs outline the basic nutritive concepts involved in this book. No new technical discoveries are to be aired here. The discussion is concerned wholly with reducing to practical terms, employable in anybody's back yard or on any farm, the scientific information possessed for decades but hitherto not put to any extensive use.

Green manures have been known and recommended for decades. For those to whom the idea is new, green manures are simply crops of any kind grown for use as decayable material in the soil where grown. Farmers have been advised for years to make frequent and regular use of green manures to supplement the always inadequate supply of animal manure. In keeping with this idea, county agents as early as thirty years ago urged farmers to make the ploughing down of green manures the basis of their soil improvement program for very thin land. Then, when the results of those early attempts were reported, trouble loomed. Ploughing down great masses of green manure proved such a colossal boomerang that subsequent attempts to improve growing conditions for plants have been cautious expedients rather than bold attempts to imitate the perfect example set by the natural landscape. It seems never to have occurred to anybody to question the effects of the universally approved mouldboard plough.

The prevalent and generally accepted doctrine concerning green manures has accordingly been modified to two comparatively ineffective recommendations: (1) plough down the green manure crop early, before it has become woody and difficult to rot, and (2) if the crop gets out of hand and becomes woody before it can be ploughed in, apply nitrogenous fertilizers to the crop itself before ploughing it down.

Even these recommendations have always been recognized as makeshift procedures. It is only too obvious that tender rye or other green crops must contain less minerals than the same plants would if allowed to reach their full growth. And, while the second recommendation is of more recent origin and is supposed to be more advantageous, it has a fundamental weakness for which there is no completely effective remedy in nature. The purpose of adding the nitrogen fertilizer is to hasten the decomposition of the mass, thus removing the organic matter as a bar to further rise in the soil of water from deep in the earth. (It should be mentioned here that the ploughing in of great quantities of absorbent material results in exhausting the water from the overlying soil layers.) The decay is hastened by this trick; but the decay products released are necessarily subject to being leached out of the soil by the first rains that fall after their release. A relatively small percentage of such nutrients can be retained by colloids -- in soils which have enough colloids that are not already holding all the plant nutrients possible. The rest must inevitably be lost, unless by lucky chance insufficient rain falls to carry them away before roots arrive to salvage them. It must be remembered, too, that in most soils few roots ever reach the ploughsole to do salvage work. The net effect, then, of this treatment is likely to be almost nil.

Later it will be shown that such use of nitrogen -- any purchased nitrogen, in fact -- is sheer waste of money, since nature is perfectly organized to supply the right amount of nitrogen to every plant. Later, too, the universal use in nature of the principle of direct transfer of organic compounds from the decaying dead to the growing living will be exemplified by illustrations from small-scale test work, supplemented by later field work, done during the past decade in a city back yard and on leased land in the country.

Most scientists probably are mentally unprepared to accept, without official tests, an idea apparently so new. An exception is Paul B. Sears, who in Deserts on the March has pictured plant nutrition as follows:

Thus, pointedly, Sears brings to our attention a principle of plant growth which has not hitherto been sufficiently utilized, though most scientists have been aware of its academic existence at least. He says by implication that life necessarily depends upon the snuffing out of other lives -- of enormous populations, in fact. We dislike thinking of ourselves as murderous, but the fact that we must be, if we are to live, is difficult to refute. As civilized beings, so-called, we keep the slaughterhouse out of sight of the dining room; but, unless we are vegetarians, our very existence depends upon keeping that slaughterhouse busy. Even the strictest vegetarian must snuff out many lives -- those of plants -- if he is to retain his own.

Such suggestions may sound like bits of philosophical quibbling; however, the ideas involved are so pertinent to the subject in hand that they need to be brought sharply into focus in our thinking. We have always accepted theoretically the interdependence of every form of life upon other forms; we have not so easily progressed to the thought that dead tissues contribute their substance to new living forms. 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. Let us be practical, even if being so proves painful to our stomachs.

Plants establish intakes, in the form of roots, for nutritive materials in the decaying fragments of last year's plants; and, left to themselves, they will use without loss every atom of the material that previously had been used in the dead plants. As farmers, we have not left the bodies of last year's plants where the roots of this season's crops could invade them. Instead, we have buried those decaying remains so deep that few roots could reach them. We have, by ploughing, made it impossible for our farm crops to do their best. Obviously, it seems that the time has arrived for us to look into our methods of soil management, with a view to copying the surface situation we find in forest and field where the plough has not disturbed the soil. No crime is involved in plagiarizing nature's ways. Discovering the underlying principles involved and carrying them over for use on cultivated land violates no patents or copyrights. In fact, all that it is necessary to do -- if we want a better agriculture -- is to recharge the soil surface with materials that will rot. Natural processes will do the rest. The plant kingdom is organized to clothe the earth with greenery, and, wherever man does not disturb it, the entire surface usually is well covered. 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.

Science now knows that several times more plant food is carried away from farm land in the streams that drain the various watersheds than is absorbed by growing crops or grazed off by animals. Most of this loss is in invisible form, that is, dissolved -- an especially important consideration because it is in the only form in which plants are able to take their food. The undissolved (visible), eroded portion of the loss makes the news, simply because it is visible; but it is relatively unimportant as a loss, since beneath where it lay there is an inexhaustible stock of the same material. The chief damage done by erosion is the filling in of stream channels, reservoirs, and natural lakes, along with the burial of downstream lands under a quite inert layer of miscellaneous mud. Fortunately, the necessary technique for preventing erosion is precisely what is required to make the land most productive. By restoring the conditions which prevailed upon the land when it was new, we will cure erosion and restore productiveness in a single stroke.

For years scientific men have been aware that losses by leaching were in progress, but until the report of the National Resources Board was made in 1934, few had any conception of the staggering scale on which our mineral resources were going out to sea. To arouse general interest in this matter, the U. S. Department of Agriculture included on page 99 of its 1938 Yearbook a condensed table of the various kinds of losses. To clarify further the seriousness of our land waste, the department hired Russell Lord, an able agricultural writer, to advertise the government's efforts to stop erosion by co-operative watershed demonstrations in various sections of the country. In his report Mr. Lord gives this concrete resumé of the figures in the report of the National Resources Board:

Incidentally, Mr. Lord became so impressed by the urgency of the situation reflected above that he wrote Behold Our Land, in which he presented further interesting material, and published it the same year.

Most of the dissolved plant food that escapes down the streams originates from the decaying material ploughed in. This seems an inescapable conclusion from the known facts. This being true, by salvaging this waste, even though no other measures were taken for soil improvement, we should be able to realize greatly increased production from the land. So long as plant food continues to get away, both land and people become poorer and poorer; and people become more and more subject to ailments which we now know are caused by insufficiency of some essentials in their diets. The drain tile and the mouldboard plough, therefore, become suspect of complicity in robbing our people of their birthright of vigorous health -- by stealing away vital elements from the ploughsole 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.

It seems a bit humorous, too, to suggest a need for investigating whether men could grow healthy crops if they copied the soil conditions which prevail in nature where crops are universally healthy. It is a good deal like suggesting to the mother of a new-born baby to investigate the possibility of feeding her child naturally rather than by bottle as conventionally is done. In neither case is experiment necessary. We already know -- by incontrovertible example -- that wherever man does not interfere crops grow spontaneously. It follows of necessity that if man duplicates in his farming the soil conditions which in nature produce such perfect results, he will be able to grow similarly perfect crops on cultivated land.

So, I introduce to you something so old in agriculture that it may justly be considered as new. The whole thesis is perhaps so clearly obvious that we have universally failed to see it. Seven years were required for me to break away from conventional ways of thinking about soil. Like all others trained in agriculture, I had vainly tried to piece the puzzle together, in order to make of agriculture a consistent science. Then I discovered, through certain tests, that the trouble lay in the operation which preceded all of the tests, namely ploughing. It was as if one tried to assemble a picture puzzle with the pieces upside down. By simply correcting the basic error -- by incorporating all of the organic matter into the surface of the soil -- the difficulties all disappeared as if by magic. The tests by which these conclusions were reached are briefly described in the pages that follow.

2. What Is Soil?

THE world's first agricultural station was established in England nearly a century ago. At that time its only aims were to learn why England's soils would no longer grow as good crops as formerly, and to discover remedies. Since this beginning, similar institutions have been set up in most of the other countries of the world. There are more than fifty experiment stations in the United States. Some states support more than one, each independent, though all are under the same government. All but a few of these clinics have as a major objective the study of soil problems, and some of them have carried out soil experimental work which shows the effect of given treatments for as long as fifty to seventy-five years.

Such an array of long continued organized effort to determine the facts about the soil makes it seem improbable that we should need to inquire at this late date as to what soil is. Yet, like electricity and a number of other very important and familiar things, the soil has never been adequately defined. Nor is it expected that it will be defined now. It is hoped to arrive in this chapter at a more practical understanding of the soil than we have hitherto had. It certainly is true that, if we could not manage electricity any better than we manage our soil, we could never enjoy the long periods of uninterrupted service that we now do. As it is, we do so completely know how to manage electrical energy that it almost never disappoints us. Soil, by contrast, seldom ever comes up to our expectations, even though experts have been trying for generations to solve its problems. It should be remembered, too, that knowledge of electricity is a comparatively modern thing. Edison first made his lamp glow a little more than fifty years ago. Consider what has happened since. Electricity has become the ideal servant of man; it is the only one that obeys an order instantly the order is given. The merest touch of a button or flip of a switch, and your servant is there on the dot. This satisfactory harnessing of electrical energy has been accomplished since the beginning of Edison's experiments.

Compare this amazing progress with the almost complete lack of basic progress in agriculture. Considering that hunger first urged men to activity, we know that man began to cultivate his own food plants as soon as he wearied of the arduous travel and search for them where they grew wild. This happened necessarily quite early in the history of the race. How early, nobody knows, for history could not be written by hungry men, and until a dependable agriculture had been established, hunger at times was inescapable. Soils had been cultivated, worn out, and blown away long before historic times, if we may judge by the tier on tier of buried cities in what now is desert. The establishment of a city anywhere presupposes an abundant food supply near by; so, when archaeologists stumble upon the buried ruins of cities built one on top of the other, we know that the local soils at one time supported a considerable population.

You naturally would expect an art as old as agriculture, and as fundamental, to be developed to a fine state of perfection. At least, it would be expected to be far ahead of so recent an art as the use of electricity. Yet the history of agriculture has been a continuous series of disappointments. No race of people ever remained to solve the problems of the area it had worn out. Instead, as fast as the race had harvested the cream of fertility from one area, it sold, or just left, the land to its successors and moved on to richer fields. The following quotation, written at the time of the California Gold Rush, is interesting in this connection:

This testifies eloquently to the fact that soil deterioration had made great progress in America nearly one hundred years ago. Many of our best informed experts on soils would agree that, for all our effort of the past generation, we have barely held our own. The average yield of most field crops for any decade that may be selected will not be much larger than the average for the decade of 1870-80. We ought to have done better, surely.

Everybody agrees, of course, that we should have done better; and everybody would be glad to be told how -- if anybody knows. The antiquity of our agricultural lore should have been an advantage, but it appears not to have been, because nobody ever actually conquered the problems of the soil he happened to occupy. People instead ran away from those problems and proceeded to create the same problems in a new place. Americans, as a people, did not, therefore, really set out seriously to study the situation until the supply of squatter territory was exhausted. In consequence we have no valuable inherited lore of the soil.

In addition to the advantage of time, the farmer has had another advantage of obvious value which he has never used. He has had before his eyes in every wooded country a perfect example of soil maintenance. And it is said that seeing is believing. Yet, the farmer has seen but he has not believed. He has seen the soft green foliage of the nearby woodland unaffected by the droughts which damaged his crops. He has seen the horseweeds actually topping the fence that surrounded his corn field while his corn was suffering for lack of water. The same weather prevails in the woodland and in the fence rows as prevails in the farmer's fields; yet neither the wild crops of the woodland nor the weeds along the fence show any sign of thirst.

This example of the unploughed field, this evidence that trouble stops where the plough stops, has been almost universally overlooked. Note this masterful description, by an early American, of the untouched forest:

Unless cleared, or cut over, the forest continued its lush, rank growth. It was busy making lumber. It was converting into the finest imaginable walnut, gum, oak, cherry, maple, and pine the rotting leaves and other debris that lay on the ground just above the tree roots. In terms of today's living, the lovely woodwork of your floors, stairs, door frames, and in other parts of your house is made largely from reconditioned material -- from rotted leaves, rotted wood, and all manner of decayed material. This fact will bear remembering as you read further. It is important.

Almost everyone has had the pleasure of walking through a forest. Did you note uprooted trees? And did you wonder why the roots seemed to bring up chiefly a layer of surface soil? The reason the uprooted tree disturbs only the surface soil is that the feeding roots are necessarily deployed in this zone. The deep roots of the tree provide anchorage against the wind, but it is the tiny, tender feeding roots in the surface layers of soil that do the real business of finding food for the tree. They need not go deep, for the water deep in the soil is brought up to them by capillarity in any case -- just as the lampwick brings fuel to the flame. And the food supplied by these roots is chiefly the reconditioned material released when fallen leaves rot on the forest floor. Some new material, dissolved from the rock deeper in the soil, is included, of course; but much the greater part of the minerals used by plants of any kind growing in such an environment must be "second-hand" minerals. It is difficult to believe, when you study the beautiful grains of woods, that they are assembled from "scrap" materials. But in reality that is the way things are done in nature.

This, then, is the shining example of successful soil maintenance which has always been observable by the farmer, if he would do so. Perhaps because it was so near and so obvious, he has been unable to think of it as a lesson from which he should profit. There is more than a little of psychology in the failure of man to profit from the forest's demonstration -- or the equally significant showing made by the grasslands which supported myriads of animals and yet gained fertility momentum year by year. To appreciate fully this psychological background will require time, for it involves the underlying reasons that caused ploughing to achieve its popularity. Aside from that, there are curious human factors almost inherent in the makeup of man himself.

Not the least of these inherent human traits that have served to perpetuate error in the farming business is the incorrigible feeling on the part of people that they can be of assistance to plants in their growth. The statement appears at variance with our basic thinking, but, actually, there is nothing that anybody can do to assist a plant that is growing in its natural environment. And when we grow plants in an artificial environment, the best we can possibly do is copy as closely as possible the essentials of the natural environment. You know how you swell with pride when you succeed handsomely with your flower or vegetable garden. You imagine you have really helped the plants to grow -- and, in a sense, you have. Yet, probably you set them in an unsuitable environment, then proceeded to further sabotage (unconsciously) the natural provisions for the welfare of plants. You are perhaps not peculiar in this respect. Everyone else does essentially the same thing and feels just as proud as you do, in spite of the error of his ways.

The reader will find it difficult, perhaps, to believe some of the facts I am going to recount, for they reveal how truly we humans stand in our own light in attempting to grow plants. What I have to tell, however, is true in all respects and will illustrate adequately my present point.

Some years ago our family spent a holiday foraging the woods for ferns to set in a shaded corner of the house wall. We found ferns, and we found a seedling hemlock actually sitting atop a very flat stone, its roots covered with leaves. There was no connection with the earth. Admiring this tiny tree, I picked it up, literally, since it had no roots in the earth to resist, and brought it home to transplant. Because its root system was a perfectly flat arrangement, I took a spade and patted down a flat area of soil, set the young tree on this spot, covered its roots again with quite a lot of leaves brought in for the purpose, and considered it transplanted. It stands in the same spot today, having grown quite from the start. To my knowledge it has never been supplied artificially with any water, except during one very dry period the first summer. The tree began to show signs of trouble then, so I poured one pail of water about its roots. Since it has become well established, nothing whatever has been done to assist it.

In mid-May or early June, 1941, my wife took a fancy to a maple tree three feet tall which she saw growing in a friend's yard fifty miles from our home. It was in full leaf, of course, so transplanting would present, supposedly, a difficult problem. The friend dug it for us, and we packed it in the trunk of the car. Next morning when we first saw it, its leaves were badly wilted, though still as green as ever. I first set the roots into the pool until a hole could be prepared. This hole was dug in the driest kind of place. There was no sign of moisture even at the bottom of the eighteen-inch space dug out. Because of this extreme dryness, the hole was filled with water. Into this water the tree was then placed, and the dirt removed from the hole was slowly settled about the roots. The work was done slowly in order to avoid causing the water to overflow the sides of the hole. When the hole had been filled in again, the tree was set. Throughout the summer its leaves showed no sign of ill effects from the transplanting experience. I should add that its treatment was not as fair a test as that of the hemlock, for my wife could not resist the temptation to water the maple occasionally. However, it is true that it went through many dry, hot days without being watered.

It has long since become axiomatic among scientists that the data supporting a given statement must not only be accurate but must be extensive enough to eliminate, within reasonable limits, the possibility of error in generalization. My next experiment involved operations on a much larger scale -- the planting and care of an acre of tomato plants in each of the years 1939 and 1940. More than ten thousand plants were used during the two seasons, and the stand of plants was virtually 100 per cent for each season and each acre field. Soil moisture conditions were quite different for each of the two seasons, but the success of the plants was very similar. The experiment established to my satisfaction, at least, the importance of two principles: first, that the naturally settled, tight condition of the soil (before we start to get it ready for transplanting operations) is desirable; and second, that such soil should not be disturbed if transplanting can be accomplished without disturbing it.

At the outset, the soil was disced thoroughly in order to destroy whatever vegetation was at that time growing on it. In the spring of 1939, there was little but a scattering stand of weeds. In 1940, rye fully three feet tall -- a fair stand all over the surface had to be disposed of. The disc harrow so completely mixed in even the rye crop that little sign was left of any vegetation cover. Following the mixing in of this decayable material, the land was marked off in rows. To do this marking, a specially designed implement was used which simply "tramped" over the field -- behind the tractor, of course firming the soil together again at points where plants were to be located. By exerting considerable pressure at each such point, this implement reconnected the capillary contacts which the discing had broken up. (To visualize the effect of pressing the soil together again, just recall what would be the effect of snipping the lamp wick above the oil level; then later sewing the pieces together again.) The natural wicking action of the soil -- destroyed temporarily by the discing -- was restored in the vertical column of soil just under the point where a plant was to be set. That this actually was the effect of this pressure we have plenty of evidence. Even though the soil surface was dry and the weather hot in 1939, the bottom of a great many of these "tracks" showed moist even in the middle of the day. Unless the capillary connection had been restored, this could not possibly have been true.

Transplanting was done in the simplest possible manner. The roots of each tomato plant, after being freed of all clinging soil, were laid in the prepared track, covered with as mellow earth as could be found nearby, and firmed in place by tramping. No attempt was made to place the plants upright. That is something that nature will attend to. Thus, the plants were left lying flat on the ground; but they did not lie there long. By late afternoon every plant set in the forenoon was pointing its tip toward the sky; by the following morning every plant without exception was standing upright. No water was used in transplanting, or afterward. Capillary water already in the soil was brought in from below -- through the compressed column of soil beneath the site where the plant stood -- and provided a dependable, continuous supply of moisture. No watering that could have been done at transplanting time could possibly have equalled this inherent natural supply. So, instead of going through a wilting period after transplanting, these plants (even though in some cases they were wilted when set) straightened up and never again, regardless of dry weather, showed signs of trouble from lack of water. And, which is additional proof of the validity of the method, blossoms which were on the plants when set often produced fruit. Any experienced gardener will recognize this as unusual.

In 1940 the entire acre was set in one day by an eleven-year-old boy and me, assisted by my daughter, who removed the plants from the flats for us. Moisture conditions were so different in 1940 that even less care was required, so we cut the work as short as possible. The boy literally dropped and I covered. He placed the plant roots in the proper space; I laid on a hoeful of as mellow earth as I could find in soil so soggy that we barely could walk over it without sinking in. For about five weeks after transplanting, this soil was too wet to be stirred. Several times, indeed, it was flooded. The plants in such wet conditions became purple, or purplish green. Yet, despite this extremely wet condition so long continued, this acre was later spoken of by neighbours as the finest field of tomatoes in the neighbourhood. And the plants produced without interruption from the appearance of the first fruit until frost. Some of the very finest fruit was on them when frost came.

This description of the transplanting method used should show conclusively that it pays not to disturb the natural provisions for supplying plants with their needs; and that, if those arrangements must be disturbed, they should be restored to normal before transplanting is done. It was necessary to dispose of the rye that was growing on this land in 1940. Had custom been followed, it would have been ploughed in; and in all probability tomatoes could not have been started successfully in it for a long time, if at all. As soon as it was disced in, the plant-setting could have followed immediately behind the marker. However, owing to the danger of late frosts, the actual placing of the plants was delayed until a week later.

In view of the extensive writings available on the proper procedure to be followed in transplanting, the method used with these plants will seem the rankest of carelessness. One of my neighbours thought so in 1939. He is a retired farmer and had learned something of the new theories upon which I was working. In general, he approved the ideas; but, when he saw the strange equipment (the marker) being used and observed the plants being set in so unorthodox a manner, he offered a friendly warning that they would never grow. It was with a broad grin that he came to the field later on, when we were picking the fruit, to say that we had the best stand of plants he had seen all summer.

What he had mistaken for carelessness was instead my full confidence that the soil unassisted would take care of the plants if we did nothing to prevent it. He had always assumed toward transplants (as did everybody else) an attitude similar to that of the broody hen toward her unnatural brood of ducklings. The hen is frightened when the day-old balls of down slide easily into a pool of water. People are similarly astonished to find that plants can get along without the customary care given them by the human race, provided only that they are placed in their proper element. We were trying to put these plants into an exceptionally correct environment. The decaying rye was to be reconstructed into fine red tomatoes; and the necessary water for accomplishing this transformation was to be conducted from below to the roots of the plants, without the customary interruption at the ploughsole some six to eight inches under the surface of the soil. (This interruption, something which does not exist in nature, consists of the blotter-like layer of organic matter which the mouldboard plough sandwiches in between the subsoil and the disturbed upper layers.) We were copying as closely as possible the natural environment in which plants always seem to thrive; but our behaviour was so odd to anyone schooled in the customary ways of managing crops that it became disturbing to observers.

Much more might be said in support of this new conception of soil and the proper handling of it, but the reader will perhaps realize by now that Browning was right.

There is nothing wrong with our soil, except our interference, deliberate though unknowing, with the natural provisions for growing plants. Nothing is more obvious than the vigorous way in which nature takes over when land has been abandoned by farmers. All through the South, farmers have for generations "rested" their land for a number of years between periods of cropping. This practice used to be criticized severely as an evidence of laziness, but agriculturists have discovered that it really has merit, and that soil so treated is considerably rejuvenated and will again produce satisfactory crops. The benefits to be derived from allowing land to lie idle are directly proportionate to the abundance of wild plants that spring up. Southern farmers of the old school never kept their crops so free from weeds that there would not be plenty of seed to germinate on any land that was left to itself for a season or two. The second and third seasons' growth of weeds registered, by their increased height and vigor, the benefit the new plants received from the decaying material produced the previous year. The longer the fields lay idle, the more completely they were restored to normal productiveness. If many years intervened between plantings, however, a young forest might have to be cleared off the land again, so farmers usually renewed cropping after three or four fallow seasons.

Such processes of soil renewal really should not be construed as idleness for the soil. In reality the so-called idle soil is working vigorously to re-establish a non-erosive surface. If there are enough weed seeds in the soil when it is abandoned, only a few years will be required for the surface to be properly "nailed down" again, so that runoff water will not be so plentiful or so effective in moving the soil minerals.

Many of the ills of the soil are those which we humans have induced. We could have avoided all of the trouble we have had with the soil. But that we should have made precisely those mistakes which are now part of history is logical, when it is considered that the plough -- now the worst curse of the land -- was at the time it was invented a life-saver for the population. The reverential regard we have for it stems from those early days when people escaped the starvation then threatening only because the plough enabled them to handle larger areas of crops. This is more fully discussed in Chapter 4. It should be understood, however that, while this book condemns ploughing without reservation, it is in no sense an indictment of the men who have recommended it throughout the years. The motives back of such recommendations were as deeply rooted in their natures as are the religious teachings of one's youth. It was my own good fortune to be compelled to make soil where none existed. The solution of this problem pointed unmistakably to the solution of most of our soil problems.

It is safe to say that if the invention of the disc harrow had preceded that of the mouldboard plough, and if planting and cultivating equipment had been designed to operate in the surface of plant residues it would have left, there would never have been a mouldboard plough. 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 literary 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 plant tissues -- 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 plough.

Next: 3. Soil Is Not Eroded

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