I have wanted to write about plowing for sometime now since this is our primary tillage tool just as if this were the days of my great-grandfather, only he probably would have pulled a plow with a horse instead of a seventy year old tractor. (Actually my great-grandfather worked the forests of Minnesota and made his own lumber mill that was powered by horses in conjunction with a steam engine, so he probably never plowed but I would assume if he did he would have with horses not a tractor.) Our two bottom plow that we are using, was a rusty relic that probably rested on someone’s front yard as art for some time before it ended up here in Jim Keen’s possession, even he (I presume) never imagined anyone using it. Although after Hannah and I finished our greenhouse I knew the next thing to figure out was how we were going to open our ground up so we could put some plants and seeds in. I started looking around at what was available and this beat up old plow was what I found. It has been slow going trying to figure out this old art form but with some advice from the old-timer next door and many hours on the tractor, I now have finally grasped how to plow.
Our plow needed some work, a few hours sanding it down to get the rust off so it wouldn’t drag so much when I was pulling it. It is still missing the essential cutters or coulters that make a plow actually work. A plow cuts a rectangular strip of earth and turns it over. It makes two cuts one horizontal with the plowshare or plowbottom and one vertical cut that proceeds with the cutter or coulter. You can see this in the ford-dearborn plow (below) that I got from google images.
Our two-bottom plow has seen better days and though in form and function resembles the plow above, in appearance it looks nothing alike. Actually our plow looks fabricated from two single bottom plows with a three-point hitch added on to pull it with a tractor. Though it ain’t pretty and it is missing some important pieces, it has done the job. Just today I finished plowing our last stretch of beds, a mere 150′ by 200′ where we will fill in with forty or so beds of squash, beans, corn, flowers, and melons (yes, you read right we are trying to do melons, call us crazy fools, I know.)
So you may be wondering, why does one plow in the first place? Isn’t there other tools that are better for the job? Also isn’t plowing bad? What about plow pan? I found this next bit on Wikipedia and it explains some about plowing:
The primary purpose of ploughing is to turn over the upper layer of the soil, bringing fresh nutrients to the surface, while burying weeds, the remains of previous crops, and both crop and weed seeds, allowing them to break down. It also aerates the soil, allows it to hold moisture better and provides a seed-free medium for planting an alternate crop.
That’s the why. To answer the other questions I have to dip into some history. Around the 1950’s farmers started to use other tools for primary tillage, realizing both the benefits of minimizing tillage and the devastating effects of repeated plowing, which causes that dreaded plow pan, farmers started using a disc plow or disc harrow to prepare ground for their crops. Edward Faulkner who wrote ‘A Plowman’s Folly’ extolling the virtues of the disc plow and chronicling the transition of his soil that had been over plowed for many years to the alternative methods of discing and incorporating organic matter on the surface instead of burying it with plowing. Essentially he wrote about transitioning from conventional practices to alternative methods much like an organic farm today. Faulkner is one of the grandfathers of organic agriculture who in his day was demonized by the USDA for practicing alternative methods such as not plowing, though today most farmers follow Faulkner’s methods and solely use the disc plow to open up their soil.
Since the advent of the plow, there have been many iterations, so many now that there is almost a plow for every crop and for every size of farm. Fortunately for us, working one acre, grandaddy’s old plow works just fine. On the other side of the scale is a sixteen-bottom plow. Pretty incredible.
While plowing I had the thought that there are people who never touch dirt. (I have noticed that I have many epiphanies while I am working up the ground but let me explain myself.) There are city folks, young professionals, business types, you name it in cities all over and they never put their hand in the dirt. Their skin never touches the dirt. Maybe the closest they come is at a park but still it is under the cover of grass or maybe they have to pick something up from the ground and their skin might graze the dirt… isn’t that strange. It is strange to me because just about wherever I go or whatever I do, I am thinking about dirt. I am constantly evaluating the dirt for how much trash (that is the technical farm term for organic matter that isn’t broken down completely), how wet it is, whether I can work it, whether I can hoe or better to hand weed. Everyday a multitude of questions flow thru my mind and they all revolve around dirt. I always touch it to see how it feels when I visit another farm. This spring I went to Common Good farm just north of Lincoln, NE for a farm tour. I was so astounded when Everett, the farmer who also shared a reverence for the ground and a burdening fixation with dirt, just put his hand into the ground a good four inches. That is what I call tilth. I am lucky if after two passes with my walk behind rototiller I can get my hand in the ground that deep. Now, they have been organic and biodynamic for about ten years but before that they had to struggle in heavy dirt too. It was amazing and inspiring though seeing how easy it was for him to scoop up a piece of his farm. To think there are people out there that don’t play in the dirt at all. Strange.