The Plow

We didn’t do it like that. When I was a boy, my dad practiced traditional farming methods that he had learned from his dad, who had learned from his dad, and so on back through time. Our fields were small, five to ten acres, and surrounded by tall trees that served as windbreaks, and that provided shade during the hot months. I imagine that a man working the soil with a team of horses could mark his daily progress better in a small field; I know that my dad planned his crop rotation field by field for years in advance — wheat to clover to corn to oats to clover to fallow to wheat again.

Preparing a field for planting was a fixed routine: first you plowed the soil, then disked it, then spring-tooth harrowed it, and finally spike-tooth harrowed it. The end result was a smooth surface with no vegetation or large clumps of dirt showing. Farmers took great care and great pride in their clean looking fields.

Although the horses had been replaced by a tractor in my time, nearly all of the farming implements we used were designed to be pulled by horses. One exception was the plow. Dad bought a brand new two-gang moldboard plow designed to be pulled by a tractor. A beautiful tool, all steel, painted bright red, with shiny plow faces, it could turn over a five-acre fallow field in a day. We could plant the whole farm in two or three weeks. This tool revolutionized farming.

Or did it? American farmers faced a growing problem during the first half of the Twentieth Century: their land seemed to be wearing out. Even before the Dust Bowl blew away farms in the prairie states, old established farms in the east had been abandoned because the land could no longer pay for itself. What to do?

Experts everywhere proposed solutions, but no clear idea of the problem, or the solution, emerged until 1943, when a totally unknown small-time farmer named Edward Faulkner published a little book entitled Plowman’s Folly. For years he had been studying how the moldboard plow worked, and how plants grew; he discovered that the plow compressed the soil about a foot below the surface, and over time created a hardpan that crop roots could not penetrate. He had further experimented on a worn out field, hoeing down the weeds year after year, and sowing rye on top of the mess; he discovered that the weed roots did penetrate the hardpan, bringing up nutrients from below, and that after a few years, the rye flourished in the newly fertile soil.

Faulkner was roundly castigated for his heresy by all of the experts, and by thousands of farmers devoted to tradition, and clean fields, until his cause was taken up by a famous novelist at the time, Louis Bromfield, who practiced the new technique on an old worn out place he called Malabar Farm. Bromfield not only restored the fertility and profitability of the farm, he also advertised the fact to the world.

My dad was adamantly opposed to the idea, but after he leased the land to young, ambitious farmers, he had to accept it. The new generation came in with huge tractors, disked down the entire farm in a day, and planted crops right in the mess. Dad hated the mess, but he could not deny the results. One man could profitably farm two thousand acres by himself with the new methods, and machines, and improve the soil at the same time.

The real revolution in farming came with scrapping traditional methods, and the tools that went with it, including the plow. Would that we could apply that lesson to other traditional methods that don’t work, like political government.