To Till or not to Till, That is the Question
We have begun to break ground for 2014 here at Groundwell Farm. It is a pretty exciting time and it is made all the more exciting because we are working on a new piece of ground. Our new farm is not what you might expect. Most people would want a loamy, fertile, beautiful piece of ground like you might find in the Indiana flatland. Here at Groundwell, we are seeking to answer the question: What is the fastest, lowest impact, natural path to fertile healthy soil in Macon County, Tennessee? We have a special opportunity here in Macon County because our soil has been very nearly thoroughly “farmed out”. This was a big Burley tobacco producing county for over 100 years and the ground is in seriously bad condition. Any significant topsoil we once had is now part of the Mississippi River delta. There is only the thinnest (less than 2 inches) layer of soil where you see any decent amount of organic material. Immediately below that layer is a heavy, clayey, gravely layer which is quite compact from a combination of mechanized farming and the fact that this layer is actually the subsoil and under natural conditions it would not be so close to the surface. The problem is that there is no longer any soil above it. For the sake of samepagedness let’s define what we’re talking about when we say “soil”.
In the simplest terms, there should be at least three recognizable regions in healthy soil. I regret to call them layers because the lines of demarcation may not be that strict but for the sake of simplicity I will use layers. There should be a top layer consisting of what we often call “topsoil”. A loose layer generally darker and crumblier, made up of quite a lot of dead and decaying plant detritus, fine plant roots, and myriad insect, worm, fungal, and microbiological activity going on. This is the current most “live” layer of the ground where new fertility is being generated. Below this layer is the soil. The soil layer will hopefully show a fair amount of organic materials and organismal activity in the form of worm and animal burrows, and plant roots. Depending on where you are, this layer can be from inches to several feet in depth. Below the soil is the mineral based layer we call the subsoil. Our soil here at Groundwell Farm is so bad that in some areas the subsoil is visible on the surface. This is a huge opportunity for us to research an answer to the question of healing our soil. We are going to set up 20 test plots to track the effectiveness of different methods of remediation from doing nothing to significant addition of introduced organic material and turning in of green manure crops.
What does all of this have to do with tilling, or not tilling as the case may be? Because it is our intent to heal the land, we want to approach the entire process from the perspective of what is the most natural path to healthy living soil. Modern farming practices are what got us to where we are now so we know that’s not our teacher. Wendell Berry makes this point so much more eloquently than me:
Of course agriculture must be productive; that is a requirement as urgent as it is obvious. But urgent as it is, it is not the first requirement; there are two more requirements equally important and equally urgent. One is that if agriculture is going to remain productive, it must preserve the land, and the fertility and ecological health of the land; the land, that is, must be used well. A further requirement, therefore, is that if the land is to be used well, the people who use it must know it well, must be highly motivated to use it well, must know how to use it well, must have time to use it well, and must be able to afford to use it well. Nothing has happened in the agricultural revolution of the last fifty years has disproved or invalidated these requirements, though everything that has happened has ignored or defied them.
Wendell Berry, Bringing It To the Table
Edward Faulkner in the book Plowman’s Folly stated plainly that, “The truth is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.” The experts ignored him but nonetheless he performed some simple and suggestively conclusive experiments to establish the value of not entirely disturbing the soil structure. His experiments may not have had the rigor to satisfy the scientific community but surely they should have raised some curiosity. Sadly, the 1940s were in the thick of the advancement of mechanization and the increasing use of petrochemicals on the farm and there was no real money in Faulkner’s simple solution to soil conservation and fertility. So at Groundwell Farm we not only honor the wave of tradition in the grand old named farmsteads in Great Britain, which wave unfortunately broke on the shore of capitalist land development, but we seek to learn what will make the ground well.
The sad condition of our land is all the reinforcement we need to agree with these men that a new, or maybe old, process is needed if soil fertility will be restored. Let’s be certain we mean the same thing by fertility. The fertility I am referring to is not simply the presence of the chemical compounds necessary for plants to grow but rather the fertility which is a natural byproduct of healthy living soil. I just love the first line of Sir Albert Howard’s, An Agricultural Testament.
The maintenance of the fertility of the soil is the first condition of any permanent system of agriculture.
Why so much ado about soil? Isn’t it just dirt? We talk about health, fertility, and living soil. How does the soil we envision differ from just dirt and why is it so important? Soil is necessary for your entire diet regardless of what you eat. Even so, soil is taken for granted by the very people who are charged with its care…the Farmers. Our soil (America in general) has so little to offer in the way of nutrients that most farmers treat it as a substrate for chemical additives. At Groundwell Farm we will serve the needs of the soil and as we build the health of the soil, the crops we harvest will build and maintain our health. The healthier the soil, the healthier the food you harvest from it.
We have been working and gardening in the local soil on and off for about 16 years. This effort has greatly accelerated in the past several years and now in 2014 it will be the central preoccupation of our life. As we have seen the success and failure of different gardening experiments we have sought to formulate a plan. If only we had a model; someplace to look and see how soil is properly and naturally built. We were already aware of the value of how nature functions but we hadn’t yet accepted her as the obvious teacher. Faulkner and Howard helped out. Howard looks toward nature as an example of soil management and conservation:
What are the main principles underlying nature’s agriculture? Thesecan most easily be seen in operation in our woods and forests. Mixed farming is the rule: plants are always found with animals: many species of plants and of animals all live together. In the forest every type of animal life, from mammals to the simplest invertebrates, occurs. The vegetable kingdom exhibits a similar range: there is never an attempt at monoculture: crops and mixed farming are the rule.The soil is always protected from the direct action of sun, rain, and wind. … The forest manures itself. It makes its own humus and supplies itself with minerals. If we watch a piece of woodland we find that a gentle accumulation of mixed vegetable and animal residues is constantly taking place on the ground and that these wastes are being converted by fungi and bacteria into humus.
Sir Albert Howard
In our area, the forest is not very old and it has grown back on land which had been totally farmed out and eroded. If you go into the forest and dig in the leaf litter you will find a rich live environment. The soil may not be deep yet but without the addition of any processed nutrients or any irrigation, the forest consistently outproduces crop land both in total biomass production and in yield per acre such as acorns or firewood. With all of this amazing productivity the forest continues to steadily build the health and fertility of the soil. Let’s see what Edward Faulkner has to add.
We have, by plowing, 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 in the forest and field where the plow 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 is necessary to do—if we want a better agriculture—is to recharge the soil surface with materials that will rot.
Nature never turns the soil bottom up. Faulkner’s research was centered on the effect of adding the new organic material only from the top. He liked to disc in green manure and create a “trashy” surface which most resembled the forest floor. Sir Albert Howard did epic work on how to create rich humus by mass composting. There are many others who have done wonderful work in the area of natural farming. I will leave out so many and must beg forgiveness in advance but some of the people you could look up would include Wendell Berry, Carol Deppe, Masanobu Fukuoka, Wes Jackson, Gene Logsden, Robert Rodale, and Ruth Stout.
So now, what about this healthy living soil? There is a lot going on down there. The structure of the soil is not homogenous. We discussed the “layers” in the soil earlier. When we till or plow the ground (finally he’s talking about tilling) we destroy the established structure of the soil. We disrupt everything from which materials and organisms are present at a given depth to how air and water move through the soil in all directions. Most folks are unaware that plants receive much of their water from underneath through capillary action if the soil is naturally structured. Water is something we can easily consider but the biological structure of the soil is at least as important as the water culture. Plants receive micronutrients and nitrogen fixed from the air by the mycorrhizal association. The essential mycorrhizal strands form a delicate network in the soil which must reform every time we disrupt it. The worms, beetles, centipedes, and all the other critters too numerous to mention, don’t just live in the dirt. They have a structure of soil in which they live and they are part of the astoundingly complex relationship we refer to as living soil. Healthy living soil produces higher yields with no artificial fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides. Simple handling and tasting show that the flavor and nutritional quality of the crops is noticeably superior to commercial products. And: are you sitting down? The farming practices which produce these rewards also result in continuously improving soil fertility and health. This kind of soil health is our goal at Groundwell Farm. So how exactly do we intend to achieve this? Our conditions vary in different ways from most of the farmers I’ve mentioned so we have looked at what they achieved using various methods and we’ve seen what we have to work with as a starting point which is pretty rough, and using nature as a model we have decided to begin with the following plan to grow our soil.
We don’t intend to make war on the soil. We will be patient and attentive in our approach with an eye toward long term steady improvement. To till or not to till? We will till and we won’t. That’s not an answer you say. Please allow me to explain. We don’t own much in the way of what most folks would call equipment. If you count hand tools we are equipment rich but in terms of violent ways to assault the ground, we own a medium sized walk behind rototiller. Even if it were our desire to deeply till the soil, this would be rendered futile by the quantity of stone in our ground. The tines and even the frame that holds the tines on the tiller simply bend until they are useless and interfere with other parts of the machine. So we are using the tiller but in a very limited fashion. We are tilling the surface of the ground down a few inches to chop up the sod and create the “trashy” surface Faulkner is so fond of.
So far what we've seen is a surface which would be suitable to plant cover crops and many other crops such as beans and corn should be able to grow in this environment. We don’t expect a bumper crop and that is okay. The ground is tired. If we didn't need the crops we would simply let the land rest some more. Because there will be a yield removed from the ground we will do all we can to add at least as much as we take out. Next year, the area that was planted this year will rest. In this way with limited tilling and short cycle crop rotation, we will give the soil time to build and the ground time to heal.
We will limit the area for crops this year to enough for some modest sales and some experimentation in new areas. Only about one third of an acre will be asked to produce. Most of the land will be planted to green manure and have other organic material added to it such as animal manure, hay mulch, tobacco stalks, and compost. Some of these materials will be sheet composted right onto the surface of the ground to jump start the establishment of a lively organic layer near the top.
|Organic materials waiting to be either composted or sheeted onto the planting beds|
|Dunging the land|
We will also create a commercial sized compost pile which will serve for side dressing this year’s crops and adding as finished compost to as much of the ground as possible. The area we are managing in this way is approximately three acres. There have been offers of help using larger equipment however we are trying to let patience work her perfect work. Not only can we find no evidence of land being improved using large equipment, but part of the experiment we are running involves recovering and maintaining soil health and fertility using sustainable methods. Petroleum is not sustainable. If you disagree with that you are wrong and yes our tiller runs on petroleum. We don’t have a perfect system but we are trying very hard to minimize the methods and materials we find to be most damaging or least sustainable.
Earlier I mentioned 20 test plots. The plan has not been finalized on how to treat those but we have some ideas. First it will help to understand why create a test at all. We are an agricultural test station in the oldest fashioned sense of the term. We hope by simple elegant testing to track the progress of our tired soil from where it is today until we can declare it healthy, productive, and able to sustain continued removal of a yield and continued building of the natural soil environment. We will keep a set of control plots as would be expected in any decent experiment and the others will vary in treatment from minimal to fairly extreme. Again, this is not a finished concept but I would expect that test factors will involve repeated green manure crops, the addition of composted humus, fallow time, and crop rotation. There will also be various levels of disturbing the soil structure but only within the limits of what we would be willing to do on the farm as a whole.
No moldboard plows will be involved but there could be some more extreme tilling. For all of the scientists who have spoken against turning the land, we can list many who would till extensively as a method of more rapidly creating a deep organic presence in the soil. In The Organic Method Primer, Bargyla and Gylver Rateaver refer to creating “instant garden” by aggressively tilling in large amounts of organic additives such as rice hulls or peanut shells to create a fluffy textured layer. We actually have some experience with this idea in our kitchen garden. Our garden has beautiful soil and it has had a fair amount of tilling, turning, and organic material added. If this seems to work so well, why not just treat the whole piece of ground this way and be done with it? Because we don’t see this as a low impact sustainable path to our goal. We don’t possess the equipment necessary for this type of farming and we hope to develop a process which anyone can use regardless of economic constraints. Also in keeping with the observations of Sir Albert Howard, we want to always protect the soil from “direct action of sun, rain, and wind.” There is no effective way to extensively work the ground and not leave it vulnerable to erosion. When we turn the soil bottom up we expose parts of the soil and soil organisms to the harmful effects of solar radiation. Again, nature never does this. So, in the spirit of true scientific process, we will include a passive control in our experiment and we will include a more invasive process in order to establish the results obtained at both extremes. The desirable outcome is a low impact course resulting as rapidly as possible in soil with natural forest floor type structure and the ability to grow a variety of crops which will not currently grow in our compacted, heavy, infertile ground. The extreme tilling of some of the test plots will help us gauge our results in comparison to modern techniques. The remaining test plots will be treated using methods we can sustain on our farm. Experience would suggest that this testing process will require at least five years to produce substantive results. Patience.
Long term, we expect to use no mechanized equipment to maintain our soil. We will show that on a per capita basis, it is possible to produce several times more food than an individual requires with no petroleum input either as fuel for machines or chemicals to grow crops. There are so many facets to our progress that it would require a book not a blog entry to cover them. Over the next several years we will acquire small livestock such as chickens, goats, maybe a hog or some rabbits and these animals will be used both directly as in a chicken tractor or rooting hog and indirectly as in manure or soiled bedding added to compost in an effort to aid soil development. We may experiment with pond culture, intercropping, or extreme sheet composting and mulching. I hope there are plenty of interesting approaches we haven’t even thought of and we certainly would be interested in your input and suggestions. As for now, we will be patient, careful, attentive, and humble in our approach to the land.
By the way, to till or not to till may have more to do with “to be or not to be” than you think.