Farming Without Plough or Chemicals
Nature does not plough; she employs the earthworm and soil bacteria, together with deeply penetrating roots, to do her work.
Nature does not supply water-soluble minerals to the soil; she ensures an automatic and ample application of organic matter which, in the process of decay, produces organic acids to act upon soil minerals and so make them capable of absorption by plant roots. Because we have failed to follow the example of nature we find that the soil in our care has apparently become incapable of providing sufficient good food to sustain our population in health. Why has the soil that was provided for our sustenance now become what the chemists call 'deficient' -- unequal to the task for which it was intended? Or has it?
In modern farming, both crop production and livestock feeding, we have been concerned with the provision of prepared nutrients imported to the farm, instead of making full use of the complete provisions of nature. The result is that we have burdened farming with the colossal cost of chemical fertilizers, sprays, insecticides, vaccines and medicines, while nature quietly continues to beat us, in the matter of both abundant production and healthy crops and animals, at no cost.
The earth is the permanent possessor of all things contained therein and which grow therefrom; they are loaned to the human and animal kingdom for bodily sustenance for the duration of life, but nature decreed that they shall, after use, be returned to the earth. No plant, animal or human being can claim the right of destruction, or of permanent possession, of any of the ingredients of its food or physical body. They must be returned to the earth to sustain new life and to ensure the continuation of the universe when life, for us, is ended. We are but the tenants of life, having on loan the physical from the earth and the spiritual from God. What happens to our spiritual being and its inspiration remains to be discovered after we lay down the physical life. But our duties regarding the physical body and its means of natural sustenance are clear to all. It must be returned, together with all organic matter derived from the earth, back to the earth.
Problems of so-called soil deficiencies -- certainly as far as the main elements are concerned -- have only arisen with the increasing failure to acknowledge and act upon this law. Without adequate decaying organic matter to release, in the process of its decay, the otherwise non-available phosphates, potash and nitrogen, man has thought it necessary to transport these elements from sources of concentrated supply and, by treatment with chemicals, render them water soluble. In powder form these water-soluble elements are then applied, to upset the natural balance of the soil, to impregnate the water particles of the soil with concentrations far in excess of the optimum natural supply. Upon these the plant draws, instead of utilizing the more slowly available organic elements of the humus.
Phosphate deficiency is one of the outstanding fallacies of science (in soil as distinct from certain types of solid rock). There is no such thing; or at least none that science can measure. All that the soil analyst can measure is availability. When the soil analyst tells us a field is suffering from phosphate deficiency he merely means that insufficient phosphate is available; in other words, that the soil does not contain enough organic matter to produce the necessary mineral-releasing acids in the soil. A soil only becomes 'deficient' when there is insufficient decaying organic matter upon it to release the mineral nutrients already present in an unavailable form, and gather them from the air and falling rain.
The solution, therefore, to all apparent deficiencies, is adequate organic matter in the right place.
Experience has shown me that the right place for organic matter is on or very near the surface of the soil. That seems to be one of the reasons for the success of eliminating the plough. Whether we have applied it or not, the soil surface is usually covered with organic matter: straw-stubble, weeds, leaves and numerous minute decaying bodies and the microscopic excreta of millions of living creatures. If we plough we put this down, not only beyond the reach of most domestic plant roots, where incidentally weed seeds will be preserved, to germinate next time we plough and bring them to the surface, but at a depth which will catch moisture from above and below and withhold it from the crop which grows in the top soil.
Nature accumulates organic matter on the surface, year by year, and what she needs below the surface she transports by means of earthworms and other soil organisms.
That great gardener, F. C. King, following Sir Albert Howard's imitation of nature's way of manuring by compost, perceived also that nature does not dig, and, in consequence, does not need to spray to keep her crops free from disease and parasite. He proceeded to sow his seeds in undug soil, which was abundantly supplied with organic matter. 'It is not the richness of the soil that confers immunity on plants, but rather the unity which prevails within the soil, whenever this remains undisturbed,' he said. He believes that digging damages fungi in the soil. It is reasonable to assume that the disturbance of soil severs the threads of mycelium, which convey nutriment from the humus of the soil to the rootlets of the plant -- the process known as mycorrhizal association which Dr. M. C. Rayner and Sir Albert Howard have shown to be a vital necessity to the health of certainly over 80 per cent and probably all of our domestic crops. My farming experience has shown me that there is an intricate and carefully balanced inter-relation of activity in the soil, which should never be disturbed, provided we can supply organic material necessary to the maintenance of this activity. I believe that if one part of the process is interrupted or prevented there is no substitute but only partial emergency measures. The process remains incomplete and the crop suffers accordingly.
Now that I have seen the remarkable crops resulting from land that has been unploughed for six years, in different fields, I can support every word of criticism which the American, Edward Faulkner, had for the plough in his book Plowman's Folly. When I first tried to farm without the plough I was not overwhelmed with success. I could not get a tilth fine enough to satisfy my orthodox conception of a good seed-bed. The rubbish on the surface worried me too much and I succumbed to the temptation to plough it in. I felt also that ploughing was essential in order to bring some moisture to the parched surface. The surface soil always dried out so quickly that it was often necessary to bring up the moisture from below during a dry time, before it was possible to produce a seed bed moist enough to take seed and enable it to grow away quickly from the weeds.
I was afraid that my crops would be smothered by weeds if I did not plough them under out of sight for another year; little realizing that at the same time I was bringing up last year's seeds, well preserved and in an ideal condition for immediate germination and quick growth.
So I continued to plough, until it occurred to me that when my land contained sufficient organic matter some of my earlier failures would be explained. For without adequate organic matter the soil was not in a natural condition to operate the simple processes of nature. By starving the soil of organic matter and above all by transferring what organic matter there was from the surface to a site six to eight inches below the surface, I was placing beyond the reach of the crop all its nutriment and its means of conserving the moisture for root growth. I suddenly realized why weeds always grow rapidly and vigorously during the most disastrous drought, while the domestic crop shrivels and dies. Many weeds are deeper rooting than our cultivated crops, so that where land is ploughed they have continuous call on the decaying organic matter which is lying out of reach of the cultivated crop but at the optimum level for the sustenance of the weeds. The weeds, therefore, have ample moisture at their root level to keep them in continuous growth regardless of external extremes of weather and, of course, they can laugh heartily at the wretched wheat or cabbage struggling miserably in the dried-out top soil, with only the artificial additions to stimulate growth plus whatever moisture may, from time to time, fall from the sky.
I saw then why uncultivated crops rarely suffer from drought; why the forests, hedgerows and roadside weeds flourish, regardless of weather conditions, while our crops in cultivated fields grow in stops and starts, according to the weather, and in many cases don't grow at all unless we provide artificial stimulants. It becomes clear too how we may grow vigorous healthy crops by imitating nature and leaving the soil, as far as possible, undisturbed except on the very surface; allowing the plant to feed at the breast of nature instead of periodically severing the child from the breast and violently forcing upon it our bottle of poisonous chemicals.
So I determined, now that my soil contained more organic matter, to try again and, from a number of fields, I rested the plough. Somewhat diffidently and with apprehension -- for I was still afraid of the weeds and the possible failure of the sown seeds to germinate in the rough and dry seed-bed -- I wrote, in the 1948 spring number of The Farmer, about crops sown without ploughing in the previous year:
'Each field was given a good churning up with the cultivator and afterwards cut up as well as could be with the disc harrow. The risk was that not all the weed seeds were germinated by the time the crop was sown as there was still no rain. The crops were sown in a dry lumpy seed-bed, yet, in spite of this, excepting one piece of wheat, they all look well, though the unploughed fields are showing more than their fair quota of weeds. In the case of the oats and vetches, which are to be cut for silage in May, this does not matter for the weed will provide bulky green food, giving a variety of valuable herbs to the silage, and they will be cut before there is any chance of the seeds falling.
'But the resulting crops astounded me and here is their history.
'The third week of September I sowed Pilot seed wheat in a field which had grown moderate crops of wheat the two previous years. This is bad farming practice of course, but I was curious to see what a third crop of wheat would do. The field had not been ploughed for thirteen months. The seed was sown in a rough knobbly seed-bed in a covering of dead and dying weeds churned up with a mixture of wheat straw stubble by the disc harrow. The tilth was rough enough to block the drill at times, but we scrambled our way through it and I prayed that rain would come to give the wheat a good start. For three weeks there was no rain and the weeds flourished. Throughout the winter it looked as though the crop would have to be resown in the spring. But when spring came the weeds were diminishing and the wheat shot forward. Before the wheat was in ear it was evident that the weeds had disappeared and the wheat was clearly one of the heaviest crops I had grown on the farm, for I had never seen such a strong and vigorous growth, without manuring of any kind, and after two previous straw crops.
'Nature had attended to the manuring by the natural death of the weeds; for the weed seeds remaining ungerminated on the surface had obviously come to maturity during the late autumn and had died off during the winter, and the acids of decay had released available minerals to provide nutriment for the flourishing wheat roots. The long dry spring and the drought of early summer left the wheat unaffected. Vigorous growth continued in consequence of the moisture and organic nutriment held at the root level of the plant by the natural sponge of decaying organic matter.'
The wheat yielded 39-1/2 cwt. an acre compared with 27 cwt. an acre for the first crop and 20 cwt. an acre for the second crop.
'Equally successful was a crop of oats and vetches, also sown on land that had not been ploughed for two years previously. So rapid was the growth of this crop that though we started harvesting it for silage at the optimum stage of growth, about two feet high, before we could finish the field it was over six feet high in parts and provided a tremendous tonnage of green food per acre.
'Encouraged by the success of the wheat and silage crop, I sowed eight acres of kale. Though one might expect a root crop to produce less spectacular results without what I have formerly assumed was the 'aid' of the plough, the results were even more encouraging than my previous ventures. The most remarkable thing was the almost complete absence of weeds in a field that was, at the outset of surface tillage methods, extremely dirty following three corn crops. The field was well disced before seeding and thistles were hoed by hand. A dressing of sewage sludge was worked in and the field received no further cultivation, not even horse hoeing or hand hoeing, other than two days work for three men cutting out a few persistent thistles.
'Visitors found it difficult to believe that we had not horse or tractor hoed up and down the rows continuously throughout the growing stages of the crop. For they had seen no crop sown on ploughed land, even with continuous cleaning, that had achieved such freedom from weeds.'
A Comparison of Ploughed and Unploughed Land
A remarkable example of the harmfulness of the plough was accidentally provided when I ploughed an old pasture. The whole field was ploughed with the exception of one corner which had been scattered with straw and upon which grazing cattle had deposited some dung two years previously. The looseness of the top soil and the debris on the surface made the plough ineffective in this corner and the soil was merely pushed aside, to be broken down later by the disc harrow. After being worked the whole field was sown to turnips during early July. Over most of the field, in spite of continuous wet weather, the young turnips were, for ten days since they showed two leaves above ground, at a standstill, indicating that something below the surface was retarding growth. But the corner that was not ploughed and which had a supply of organic matter worked into the surface never ceased to grow, and the plants were at least three times as big as those in the rest of the field. Furthermore, unlike the unploughed kale field, the weeds in the ploughed turnip field got out of control. All the weed seeds of a generation past, since the field was last ploughed, germinated promptly on arrival at the surface of the soil and proceeded to thrust their roots down to the decaying turf, which lay below the reach of the turnips.
This solved for me a problem upon which I had previously not had the courage to risk a trial; I formerly believed that though one might dispense with the plough on stubble and following potatoes or roots, it would nevertheless be necessary to plough up old pastures and temporary leys on first breaking them up. Now, once more, nature thrust this demonstration under my nose and urged me to go the whole hog. Nature permits no half measures and she clearly indicated that, if I am to farm properly, I must imitate her ways as completely as possible so far as is within my ability to perceive them. This means that no land need be ploughed if there is sufficient organic matter available to enable the natural cultivation of earthworms and other organisms to prepare and make friable the soil and ease the preparation of a seed-bed with disc harrows only.
Prerequisites of Success
There are, however, a number of provisions upon which I would insist before entirely dispensing with the plough:
- The plough pan -- if it exists -- should be broken by means of a deep subsoiler, which shatters the pan without bringing the subsoil to the surface.
- The soil should be made crumbly and friable by the addition of organic matter before real success can be achieved. Compost is the most effective means of utilizing to the full any available organic matter and converting it to a condition which makes it perfect as a soil food and easy to spread. This need not involve any extra labour or special equipment. See Chapter 10 on compost making.
- Every opportunity must be taken to maintain this surface organic matter by the growing of green crops for discing in between crops, and the use of deep-rooting herbal leys.
Next: 5. Soil Management and Cropping Rotation
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