Ploughman's Folly

by Edward H. Faulkner

9. Tile Treachery

"THE drainage of imperfectly drained and saturated soils used in crop production is a well established practice." True. In fact, tile drainage probably is too well established in many places. We have installed so much tile that the community water supply has been adversely affected, to say nothing of the even more serious problem of crop yields. The wisdom that grows from experience tells us that drain tile installed where it is not imperatively needed is the surest route to low crop production.

Perhaps the most serious indictments that can be drawn against tile drainage are these: first, that the land where the rain falls is likely to need the water after it has been carried away through the tile; and, second, that innocent people downstream are apt to be disturbed by floods that are needlessly high because of water wasted through unnecessary tile installations. Tile, then, is a disturbing factor in relation to both local water resources and frequently recurring floods. It consequently becomes the obligation of everybody concerned with the elimination of an aggravating wet spot to think far beyond that immediate need before deciding to throw additional water into the streams.

That much unnecessary tile is laid with full approval of farm specialists is indicated by this further quotation taken from page 723 of the United States Department of Agriculture Yearbook, l938:

These quotations indicate the authentic point of view among professional agriculturists and prove that unwise tile installations may actually be put in with full approval of farm advisers. Indeed, a careful reading of the entire chapter from which these quotations are taken fails to reveal any cautions against overdoing what is considered an excellent practice. The impression one gets is that the future success of farming rests to a large extent on the completeness with which the land area is drained. The writers certainly are not nervous from dread that too much tile is being laid in on farms.

"Wet spots" present the visual evidence that tile is apparently needed. They appear on land which originally did not permit water to stand. And as the years pass, more and more of the land that formerly needed no sub-surface drainage develops these wet spots. Before we can properly diagnose this mania for excessive drainage, we should know what these wet spots really are and why they develop where they do. It will help our analysis to consider the apparently complete lack of understanding of soil facts displayed some time ago at a meeting of potato growers when this matter came up for discussion. The incident is illuminating.

A drainage problem had been found on the land of one of these farmers. He had discovered that water stood in a certain low spot in one field. He knew that there was tile not far from where this water stood. Search after the water was gone disclosed that the tile was directly under the center of the pool. Examination at the outlet while the water still stood on the land showed that the tile was running, and that it was not loaded but that it could easily have removed the standing water. Yet the water stood for days just over this active tile line.

The land in question was heavy, lake-laid clay a few miles from Lake Erie. The verdict of the farmers in conference was that this heavy clay had been worked too much, or when it was too wet, and had become puddled. Clay in such condition conducts water only by very slow capillarity; so this verdict was probably correct. At any rate, it squares well with the slow rate at which the standing water disappeared. Trowelling by the mouldboard plough when soil is too wet does for it just what a sow does to the bottom of her wallow when she finds a little water standing in it. She smears the mud with a sort of sliding roll which effectively smoothes and seals the surface against the passage of water. The next time it rains she will have a nice place to wallow, and the water will remain until it evaporates.

No self-respecting sow would try to make a wallow unless the site were mineral in character -- entirely free from straw, corn cobs, or other organic debris. These latter materials would drain away the water, because the open, cellular structure of organic matter is conducive to moisture flow.

These farmers evidently had good hog wallow material, which was precisely what they did not want. They had it not only at the foot of the slope, but all over the surrounding watershed. Obviously, what they needed to do was the converse of the sow's problem, they must provide organic drainage for the surrounding slope so the water would not converge on the low ground. Their faith in tile, and possibly their firm, hard-headed American belief that the more a thing costs the more it is worth, kept them from thinking of this simple and inexpensive solution of their problem.

Water that falls on the upper reaches of a slope cannot possibly find its way to the lower ground if the intervening soil is absorbent. Really absorbent soil simply cannot conduct water over its surface. There are two forces operating to prevent its doing so, and the action of either is usually sufficient. The vertical pull of gravity is fully capable of pulling water into the soil, provided the surface has not been made impervious. And gravity is reinforced by the capillary pull of any absorbent surface. Let us suppose that a roof is covered with a half inch pad of blotting paper. How soon might we expect to see water dripping off the roof? Certainly not until the blotting paper itself was completely saturated. The identical thought applies to any slope over which water is accustomed to run. If the water succeeds in reaching the lower ground, it does so only because the condition of the surface forces it to run off.

In this connection it is very interesting to recall the remarks of a prominent agriculturist with whom I was discussing this problem. I suggested that little water could get away from a "cove" soil, and he agreed. He reinforced the thought with the information that he had seen cove soil on 90 per cent slopes and had been unable -- though he watched during a heavy rain -- to observe any runoff. [A cove soil is one which results from conditions that cause leaves to drift to the same spot season after season. The lee slopes of mountain tops all along the Appalachian Mountains develop cove soils, provided the windward slopes are covered with forest to produce the leaves. The annual increment of leaves keeps the soil always open, so that no water can leave the place where it falls until the entire soil mass has filled with water. The fertility of these soils is unbelievably high.]

If water will refuse to run off over a 90 per cent slope covered with a layer of absorbent material, surely we have a clue that may help solve the run-off problem on the slight slopes we usually farm. If we can make the surface layers of soil absorbent to a sufficient depth, we certainly will not have to worry about run-off and erosion, just as nobody worried about these problems when the land was new. They were not problems then.

To put in a system of drain tile on land that has developed an apparent need for drainage is a matter of economic consequence. Tile costs a great deal of money. Its installation, whether properly done or not, is also expensive. And, at best, the results may be no more than the removal of symptoms of trouble which should be attacked by more appropriate means. Certainly, in view of the necessary investment involved in tile installations, some previous work designed to make the surrounding soil more porous would be advisable before the decision is made to put into the land an outlay of cash and labour which might easily equal the previous value of the land itself.

Nobody really knows whether it is possible to restore to the soil its original porosity. We do know that organic matter on the surface, as in the cove soils, does prevent practically all run-off; but we have no way of knowing whether it would be possible to work enough organic matter into a soil to make it take in all of the rainfall. We know, too, that the actual cost of growing a crop of rye and discing it into the ground would be a mere trifle when compared with the cost of installing tile. It is certainly true that ploughing a crop of rye into the soil does not decrease run-off, in fact, run-off is at its very worst on land that has been ploughed and lies bare because of having been ploughed.

Knowing all of these facts about the behaviour of water on the soil surface, it seems worth while as a preliminary to the major operation of tile drainage to test the possibility of curing the wet spots by preventing the run-off water from reaching them. The only way water can be prevented from finding low ground is to cause it to run into the surface where it falls. To cause an eroded soil to do this might require that several successive crops of green manure be disced in. Even that, if necessary, would be preferable economically to spending the money for tile; for if we can make all of the water that falls on the land run into it, we will have done the perfect job of conserving the water supply.

Because there is urgent need for conserving water, any suggestion of additional tile installations should be viewed with suspicion. There are important reasons for this attitude:

  1. In many parts of the country there is now a serious shortage of water during most of the year. Cities are enlarging the areas from which they draw their supply, taking in whole new watersheds. The water table in most farm communities is noticeably lower, for farm wells have had to be deepened in many instances in order to catch up with a receding water table.

  2. Droughts are becoming more common and more serious. Generally speaking this is true over most of the country.

Both of these conditions should be considered before one proceeds with plans to lay in new tile lines. Each indicates that the reserve water supplies in most communities are too little instead of too large. It seems foolish to consider withdrawing additional water from places where there is already a shortage indicated both by the lowering water table and by the prevalence of droughts.

It should be remembered, too, that tile is a permanent exit for water from the soil. All water that reaches it will be led away. Tile may be put in for the sole purpose of removing in springtime a few hundred gallons of water from a low spot. It remains in place 365 days a year. It has absolutely no discretion as to what water to remove. It must remove needed water as freely as it drains away that which is surplus.

What of flood effects? No single tile installation is going to influence flood height noticeably, but the combined outflow from all the tile on a given watershed does increase the freshets that follow heavy rains. Indeed, some open-textured soils, when subjected to heavy rains in spring before they have settled firmly from winter heaving, actually offer so little filtering resistance to the passage of the water that it is still muddy when it leaves the tile. This is eloquent testimony to the speed with which the rainfall -- even though it enters the soil -- may reach the streams to add to the destructiveness of floods. Such prompt elimination of the water which finds the tile after spring rains surely cannot be in the best interest either of the farmer on whose land it falls or of those whose farms it must inundate on its way to the sea.

Tile installation is considered so virtuous an act that the only question raised in connection with it is the farmer's ability to finance the purchase and laying expenses. This uncritical approach to the problem may be traced to the fact that early drainage projects often paid for themselves by means of the crops produced the very first season. These projects were designed to lower the actual water table in swamp land. Current proposed installations are expedient in character, being designed to correct trouble obviously caused by run-off.

When we realize that gravity is constantly tugging at the run-off water to drag it into the soil, the fact that all of the water does not run in is proof that something serious has happened to the soil surface, for originally all soils were as absorbent as cove soils. The change is explainable solely by the loss of organic matter. The actual mechanics of the situation may prove more difficult to understand, because of human visual limitations.

Ants and other creeping things that belong in the soil surface recognize the changed condition. They are vitally affected by it. The disappearance of organic matter from the soil surface forces a change of habitat upon some of them. When, originally, the crystalline minerals of the soil were separated by fragments of organic matter in process of decay, these small forms of life were able to enter the surface quite readily because of its porous character. Once under the surface, they found both food and water in the organic matter itself. Many kinds of these denizens of the soil surface are now unable to penetrate the purely mineral surface because of its lack of porosity. They once aided natural drainage. Now they frequently cannot. It is not in our power to remedy the defect by artificial means, such as tile drainage.

We humans detect the presence of organic matter in the soil by the smudge caused by the presence of carbonized (partly decayed) material. Though we cannot see the separate fragments, passageways afforded by its porosity permit the tiny mites of life that exist in and on the soil surface to travel about underground just as we travel by subway. Every protruding stem is to them another subway entrance to abundance of food and water. Because of the dependence of these small life forms on decaying organic matter, the disappearance of the organic matter from our soils has caused a complete change in the fauna of the soil surface. The most casual comparison of biological conditions of the forest floor with those of the eroding land of our farms will show that one is teeming with a great variety of life while the other is almost devoid of it.

With the disappearance of the organic matter from a soil previously well supplied with it, then, we arrive at surface conditions just as truly desert in all essentials as the desert itself. Only the prevalence of a higher rainfall, reasonably well distributed throughout the year, prevents the pure mineral soils of the humid East from being as barren as are the desert soils of Arizona. Some of them are almost that barren in any case. When centipedes and lizards leave farm land, they do so in response to a process in nature which might properly be called eviction. The soil may still show a little dark colour when the last of such life forms disappear from it, but their departure means that the organic matter supply has been reduced to such an extent that the soil surface is no longer a suitable habitat. The eviction of minute forms of life sets the stage for those large problems of drainage with which this chapter deals. The remedy is to restore at once the organic condition of the soil and with it the teeming life which feeds upon it. This is organic balance, and it never tolerates the development of conditions which the drain tile is supposed to ameliorate.

Obviously, if the water is unable to move from where it falls, the wet spots in the low places will disappear for lack of water to make them wet. And it is equally obvious that all engineering works now proposed as means of checking the damage done to the land by rainfall will be entirely unnecessary. Except in swamp areas, tile will be superfluous. And terraces, which are often more expensive than tile, may even be dispensed with.

Preliminary to any concerted action by governmental agencies to correct the present impervious condition of the soil surface, it would probably be a fine thing if every farmer in the country would plug the outlets of most of his tile lines. This would give opportunity for a great deal of water that now floods the valleys to sink deep into the ground so it could be withdrawn again by capillarity. Such a measure carried out by all the farmers on a given watershed should prove important, too, in increasing the supply of water in the wells of the community. Many a farmer would like to be able to devote to crop growing much of the time he must spend hauling water for his livestock. If he and all of his neighbours would simply plug all the unnecessary lines of tile they have put in, they would probably discover that they no longer need to haul water.

This, however, would be only one of a number of benefits. Among these, the increased supply of water available to crops is the most important. Thus the growth of plants could be increased, and the length of time during which crops suffer between rains could be reduced. There are other less obvious, but no less important benefits that will follow the plugging of tile lines. To avoid recurrence of wet spots, however, it would be well if the farmer would work a green manure crop into the soil surrounding these spots before he closes the tile outlet.

The sooner we make ancient history of many of our present farm practices the earlier we will realize that the Garden of Eden, almost literally, lies under our feet almost anywhere on the earth we care to step. We have not begun to tap the actual potentialities of the soil for producing crops.

10. What About Soil Types?

WHEN Columbus and the explorers who followed him first saw the American continent, there was nothing about the soil to distinguish those variations in appearance and behaviour now designated as soil types. Even after the European trespass had been well under way for several generations, it would have been impossible to determine whether most of the virgin soils were chiefly clay, or silt, or sand. The whole face of the earth lay under, and mingled with, a mass of organic matter so manifest as to defy the best effort of man to discover the characteristic distribution of the soil's mineral constituents. Nowhere, or almost nowhere, could soils have been classified into categories more specific than the broad general groups now known as the forest, grassland, desert, and intermediate. Soil types as we now know them have become gradually discernible as the black disguise of organic matter has disappeared. As soils have become unproductive through the uncompensated removal of organic matter, it has become possible for us to classify them into an intricate system of groups and sub-groups with quite different characteristic appearance and behaviour.

No attempt will be made to clarify the highly technical matter of soil classification. For such information the reader can now be directed to an extremely readable book on the subject, written by a man whose acquaintance with the subject is probably unmatched in this country. Charles E. Kellogg, Chief of the Soil Survey, United States Department of Agriculture, published late in 1941 his The Soils That Support Us. In my opinion there is no easier source from which the layman can obtain correct information on the subject at hand. After reading Mr. Kellogg's book, the reader who wishes more detailed information about the characteristic soil types of a given area of the country, will find much helpful data in Soils and Men, the Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture for 1938. Still further detail for limited areas, such as counties, may be had by consulting the soil map, if one has been issued, of the county involved.

Our concern here is to determine how the soils we have damaged can be rehabilitated without our having to await the repetition of the natural processes by which they were originally created. Soil creation is, in nature, long drawn out. People now threatened by famine view with apprehension the supposed necessity for throwing our present depleted soils back into forest or grassland and waiting several generations for the time when a new set of soils may be cleared. Just how the intervening generations can subsist in the interim is not at all clear. There is ample justification for the gloom displayed by many of our foremost students of soils. The present chapter is intended to mitigate the fears engendered by such cheerless forebodings.

The development of pessimism among soil scientists is understandable if one studies the history of thought on the subject of fertility maintenance as it has progressed in the past thirty years. This period has witnessed the most active efforts the world has yet known, chiefly in the United States, to restore soil to its original ability to produce. A number of ideas helped initiate this wave of national interest in soil improvement. There is the established fact that rural population had been steadily declining while urban has been increasing. The prediction has been freely made that in a few decades the world's population may be too great for the food-producing capacity of our soils. There has been the increasing conviction, too, that the science of chemistry might hold the secret of permanent fertility for the soil. Such influences helped to initiate government-sponsored agencies whose purpose was to inform farmers generally of the need for definite practices looking to soil improvement. Universally, the practices recommended involved cash expenditures at one point or another. Moreover, it soon became evident that the maintenance of fertility in soils which still produced fair crops is much easier to accomplish than the restoration of productive ability in soils which have lost all of their original black smudge.

For many years there was no means by which the government of the United States could assist farmers financially. In order for a farmer to do what was recommended, he must have either cash or credit. Multitudes of farmers who were greatly in need of assistance had neither. The result was that, without so intending, we developed a more or less stratified series of agricultural classes, with distinct tendencies to specialization, thus producing several "project" classes. Some general farmers became beef-cattle feeders; some became dairymen, some poultrymen, and so on. Many in each class retained a minimum of general farming practices while fully equipping themselves with the necessary mechanical accoutrements of their specialty. Because of their progress in this direction, many farmers became more and more dependent upon other farmers and the urban population for necessities they formerly had provided for themselves. Thus a commercialized, not to say industrialized, type of farming was developed by those farmers who originally were able to follow the county agent's instructions.

While this grading up of a financially fortunate group of farmers was in progress, an equally effective degeneration was taking place among those at the other end of the scale. Men whose land, prior to the launching of the government's agricultural program, had lost most of its organic matter were already so hard put financially that they could not adopt the most important recommendations of their advisers. They were willing enough, but few of them had enough cash to enable their families to live comfortably, they could spare none for soil improvement.

Belated recognition of the necessary relation of soil degeneration to lack of cash for soil improvement resulted ultimately in the establishment of legal provisions for aiding distressed farmers in the rehabilitation of their lands. A number of agencies are now in position to assist such farmers, who can obtain loans for many projects for which money was formerly not obtainable. In desperately needy situations grants in aid can be made. In fact, so liberalized are the Congressional acts and the regulations for their administration that every conceivable condition of agricultural distress can be relieved through one of several agencies, provided it can be relieved by money.

It was not, and is not now, the intention of the government to expand the present programs to include all farmers whose land requires rehabilitation. So vast an undertaking would require more cash than the richest government in the world could scrape together by taxation. The hope is that private lending agencies in the localities concerned will take over the job for their communities. In fact, in certain areas this is being done in a small way. However, in the sections of the country where the need for soil improvements is most acute, the local banks, quite naturalIy, are in much the same poverty-stricken condition as their farmer customers. There is not, therefore, any very obvious solution for this paramount problem of soil rehabilitation.

There are, too, other aspects of the matter that must be considered. It must be admitted that the per acre cost of production is necessarily increased by any measure which requires the establishment of terraces or other means of controlling run-off water. Terraces are engineering projects, the cost of which on poverty-stricken acres can easily amount to more than the previous value of the land per acre. The construction of them might double the farmer's investment in his land without making a real start toward increasing its productiveness. And it must be remembered that, where the need for terraces is supposedly imperative, their construction must precede other conditioning of the soil. This subsequent conditioning usually requires applications of lime, the growing of legumes, the application of basic fertilizers, the addition in some instances of the so-called "trace elements," and such other expensive operations as the rearrangement of fences, grassing or otherwise protecting the outlets for water, and so on.

My foregoing paragraph includes much material for which footnotes might be in order. It will perhaps be more direct and helpful to refer the reader to the many United States government bulletins which give lucid explanations of the various steps in the conventional soil-improvement programs. A recent series carries titles which make use of the expression "Soil Defense," and a special bulletin is devoted to each important section of the country. For full information on the measures which officially are considered necessary in order to restore our badly eroded land to high production, the following bulletins, issued by the Soil Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, are recommended:

It is obvious that, at best, our conventional programs of soil improvement necessarily involve a cash outlay in almost all cases. The basic assumption that plant foods removed by crops must be replaced makes a virtue of the use of fertilizers and fertilizers cost money. Then there is lime, which in most situations is considered a prerequisite to the growing of legumes; and lime, too, is expensive to buy, and even more expensive to apply. Quite a list of recommendations could be compiled, one or more of which would be "must" requirements for every soil improvement project. And without exception there would be a necessary cash outlay involved.

As previously indicated, those American farmers who have really received benefits from the past thirty years of intensive county agent work and the agricultural extension program in general have been helped because they were able to help themselves to some extent. They have spent a fair portion of their profits, too, in annual outlays for fertilizers, lime, legume seed, inoculating media, and so forth. As a result, the cost per acre of managing the land has increased considerably. This does not necessarily mean an increase in the cost per unit of the product. Rather, it is more likely to mean just the opposite. Hence, because of increased yields, these men have seemed to be justified in "ploughing back the profits" in the manner described. The land has become more productive as a result, and is, therefore, more valuable land.

If we assume the continuance of the present agenda, it is apparent that those farmers who have been the chief beneficiaries of the extension program will continue to profit thereby, for they are best able to adopt any new recommendation requiring a cash outlay. Because this is so apparent, little thought is being given to ameliorating their situation. Under the present conventional way of doing things, these men are in the most favoured position of any; so it would be considered foolish to worry about them when there are so many others in really serious economic difficulties. Nobody is worrying, therefore, about the present-day leaders among dirt farmers who seem so firmly entrenched.

It can now be said with absolute assurance that the supposedly safe position of our most progressive farmers is really destined to become the most precarious. The difficulty is the high overhead these men have developed. They have learned to make a profit on potatoes at 50 cents a bushel, for instance; they will be unable to come out whole, however, on potatoes sold at one half as much. Progressive farmers are geared to high production of a comparatively high-cost product. When their neighbours, who have formerly been too poor to comply with the ordinary requirements for soil improvement, find they can produce twice as many bushels per acre as most farmers grow -- and can do it without any of the customary cash costs -- the market for such crops will react downward in terms of price to the increased production. It is just this event that is going to prove the undoing of men who now are our very best farmers. In all probability the event will come almost unheralded, for the present agenda will probably continue to be taught for many years beyond the time when the first farmers begin to change over from ploughing to discing. No important change in market prices will occur until there is sufficient volume of the new low-cost product to justify price reductions. The final result may be a debacle for those now in the most favoured position.

Just how such men -- at present the respected leaders of Farm Bureau activities, Grange work, and in many instances the chief support of agricultural "propaganda" of the government -- will be able to clear their mortgages and emerge solvent from such an economic trap is not at all clear. It is difficult to understand how they will become aware of their plight until it is too late; for up to the time of writing this book (early 1943) no surface indications have appeared that any change in agenda is in prospect. There is evidence, however, that scientists of the government are quietly being prepared for what amounts to a ploughless agriculture. The "house organ" of the Soil Conservation Service, Soil Conservation, has for two years been carrying articles showing the advantages of surface incorporation of organic matter. At least one committee in Congress has been made aware that a change is impending. A two-day meeting of scientific men and machinery manufacturers was held in Chicago late in 1941 at which the possibilities of designing implements for surface incorporation were discussed. The newly established soil and fertilizer investigations of the Bureau of Plant Industry presumably are to set up hurriedly the alleged experimental basis upon which the new agenda will be justified. All this is being done, presumably, without arrangements for rescuing the advance guard of the present regime when the new blitzkrieg of low-cost crops reaches the demoralized markets.

It may not be clear to the reader just how great the danger is. The average layman may not recognize the fact that there is no crying need for new machinery with which to effect the change from ploughing to surface incorporation. That is just the point. Only one thing is necessary in order to prepare for immediate realization of the benefits of the new regime. That need is the education of farmers to the error of ploughing, and to the fact that a properly used disc harrow can completely prepare the land for crops. When farmers have been informed that they can actually mix tremendous quantities of organic matter into the soil with a disc harrow, that they can do it safely, without the backfire that always accompanies the ploughing in of such materials, that they can then produce far better and bigger crops than they have ever seen or dared to hope for -- then the majority of them will begin to check the new information by private experimentation. Thereafter, it will not be long until soil types and all of the expensive treatments that go with them will cease to be of importance. If the men who now are the backbone of commercial agriculture prove to be among the tardy ones to acquire the new information, it will be at their great cost.

Much of this chapter may have seemed a digression from, rather than a discussion of, the subject of soil classification. The reason is that we are discussing practical rather than academic matters. There cannot be the slightest doubt that, when soils have been robbed of their natural mantle of organic matter, they emerge as divergent and dissimilar masses of minerals. Quite naturally, these varied areas of sand, clay, silt, or what not, behave differently when planted to various crops. Possibly, too, these same soils, when reclothed with plenty of well-mixed organic matter, will yield varying amounts, because of the fact that they are of slightly different soil type. However, a difference of a few bushels per acre, when the average production is one hundred bushels per acre or more, is a less serious matter than when the differential is based on averages running between ten and twenty-five bushels per acre.

It is no credit to us, considering our mastery of machinery, that orientals produce four to ten times greater crops than we do on land which in some instances is inferior to ours. But they are doing it, and partly at least because they have grasped the true requirements of soil management. We should produce as much on lands now producing from ten to fifteen bushels of corn, for example, particularly in the humid areas of our corn belt.

With the exception of some bizarre types of soil like the ground-water podzols, which carry their organic matter concealed by several inches of overlying sand, and perhaps other abnormal types of soil with which I am unacquainted, we in the United States ought to be able to excel any other people of the world in production per acre on most of the land that has been in crops in this country for generations. We have long been superior in production per man, because of our use of machinery. When we have begun to do by machinery what heretofore we have thought must be done by bugs and worms of the soil surface (the intimate intermixing of organic matter with the surface layers) we shall find ourselves automatically leading the world in production per acre as well. It is impossible now to foresee the economic changes which will necessarily follow this basic change in our relations with the soil. That they will be vast is certain.

Next: 11. Coals to Newcastle

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