Plowman’s Folly and the Clod Cause

Written 78 years ago in 1943, ‘Plowman’s Folly’ revealed facts about soil health that are still overlooked in agriculture today. Edward Faulkner, a retired county agent of 40 years, wrote the book during the second world war when the country was concerned about food shortages. Faulkner uses his own tests and practical experiences to illustrate how most of man’s issues with food production and health are directly linked to his mismanagement of soil. Particularly the mishandling and underappreciation for organic matter.

Over 200 years ago, settlers of new soil recorded corn yields of 239 bushels per acre. They achieved this without the aid of synthetic fertilizer or pesticides that didn’t yet exist. Faulkner emphasizes that humans have found ways to mostly disrupt nature’s processes where it would gladly cooperate if given the chance. The undisturbed, rich, loamy topsoil the first settlers found acted like a sponge for water and sustained plants through dry seasons. The process of continuous decay always supplied plenty of nutrients to new plants. There was no way to observe the variety of “soil types” we have today, because everything was covered in a thick, dark topsoil. Today, only the hard, non-absorbent minerals and clay remain in our fields. This is what our modern soil types are based on. Materials that are mostly devoid of life and certainly nothing like what was here 200 to 300 years ago.

Crops take only 1/10th of their weight from the soil and the rest from the air and water. Faulkner says this shows that crops can be continually propagated without additional inputs. Only cover crops (what Faulkner calls “green manure”) are necessary for rebuilding organic matter levels, suppressing weeds, and holding soil in place. Nitrogen fertilizers can be eliminated thanks to saprophytic nitrogen-gathering bacteria that assist plants in gathering all of the necessary nitrogen directly from the air. We have known this since 1943 folks. This understanding alone would give producers a big boost in profits.

Modern moldboard plowing. See the huge clods and soil in the air?

The moldboard plow is the primary villain of Faulkner’s writing because of the way it so completely turns soil, burying the organic top layer, and rendering soil highly vulnerable to wind and water erosion. The moldboard plow was heralded by settlers because it was the most effective way to break new ground and clear away residue that was hard to plant in. The plow buries the organic matter and it’s moisture 6 to 12 inches deep, which is unreachable by the next crop’s early root system. Plowing destroys the soil’s natural aggregation and absorbency. It then easily blows away or washes out into the nearest stream. Along with burying organic matter and turning up unfertile hard minerals, plowing unearths un-germinated weed seeds from past seasons. It creates a layer of compaction that roots and moisture struggle to penetrate. Luckily fewer producers use tillage equipment like this today, but too many still argue for its utility.

Sometimes things aren’t obvious until they’re clearly pointed out. Even when we sense something doesn’t seem right, we guess that there must be a reason. I always despised having to drive or walk across a plowed field. Its easy enough to break an axle or an ankle crossing the fields of huge, hard dirt clods. As a kid, I took one of these clods out of a field and placed it in my Dad’s shop. When Dad asked what my plans were, I proclaimed that I would leave the clod there for 100 years until it turned into an official rock. Considering how hard and unbreakable it was already, it seemed likely to me that the clod would turn to stone much sooner. Clods are one of plowing’s outcomes that really begs to ask why we’ve done it for almost 300 years now. The clod cause wasn’t obvious to me until Faulkner eloquently addressed it directly:

Plowing done when the furrow slice is plastic creates clods; every clod is so much soil mustered out of service for the season. The tremendous pressure necessary to separate the furrow slice from its base compresses effectively any soil that is moist enough to be plastic; and a moderate amount of clay in plastic soil serves to harden the mass upon drying so that adobe-like clods result.

Faulkner, Plowman’s Folly

Faulkner devotes many pages to describing basic soil function. He described how moisture and nutrients are transferred to plants and his observations perfectly align with what we now know about the vital roles of mycorrhizal fungi and microbes. He describes how healthy, structured soil acts like a wick in an oil lamp to retain and draw moisture from beneath the top soil and how the porous structure supports insects and other forms of life. Faulkner details how, with good soil management, farmers can buffer themselves against the whims of all types of weather and pests.

My biggest takeaway from reading this book, was just how slowly fundamental change happens in our agricultural practices. How can we still be struggling with so many of the same issues from 1943? I hope that today’s technology and the availability of information will allow us to adapt much more quickly. We simply can’t afford another 100 years of poor soil management.

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