From GENE LOGSDON
That’s the question country people found in their mail boxes recently here in Ohio. It certainly is a sign of the times. The notification comes from Marathon Oil which is worried about all the pipelines it has laid across the face of America. The company says “farming activities account for nearly 75 percent of all the excavation related damages to liquid pipelines.” Marathon wants farmers working tillable fields to call them two business days before they till fields that contain pipelines so its technicians can mark the locations. Even minor scrapes or dents can cause a future release of liquids, the notification says.
One question leads to another. How often are farmers finding it necessary to plow deeper than 16 inches? Evidently the answer is quite often since it has become a major concern for oil companies. The photo accompanying the notification shows what farmers call a paraplow, which is not any kind of plow your grandfather ever saw. It is more of a chisel plow, not a moldboard plow. The one in the picture shows five paraplow units side by side hitched to a tractor big enough to nearly pull a courthouse off its foundation.
Why is in necessary to cultivate that deeply? To break up soil compaction. Paraplows and other kinds of deep chisel plows are an admission of defeat by modern farming. All that heavy equipment going over the fields is cementing a sort of underground pavement in the subsoil. Where it all ends is anyone’s guess. So now we’ve got enough power to break up the soil 16 inches down and more. But that big a tractor rumbling over the fields, not to mention huge harvesters that can hold hundreds of bushels of grain in their bins and even more gigantic grain wagons to haul grain from field to semi-truck, makes more and deeper soil compaction. So we have to come up with a sodbuster even bigger and that will compact the soil even farther down. Etc, etc. etc.
I asked a machinery dealer once just how big farm equipment can get. “I ask that very same question at meetings with manufacturers and they look at me like I’m crazy. To them there is no limit.”
There is another irony here. You can cultivate with chisel plows and still label your operation as “no-till” farming in some cases. This has led me into many a fruitless conversation that goes like this.
“Yes, I’m a no-till farmer.”
“But you have chiseled and disked that field you are working in. It is as bare as a baby’s newborn butt. How can you call that ‘no-till’?”
“It hasn’t been moldboard plowed. It’s really minimum tillage.”
“But minimum tillage does not mean no tillage, at least not in the English language.”
“Yes it does in America. No till means minimum till.”
“How can ripping the soil up sixteen inches deep be minimum tillage?”
“Don’t be a smartass.”
I don’t want to make too much fun of minimum-no till, subsoil paving, because I see all around me some mighty nice corn growing on fields treated this way. But I wonder exceedingly if there isn’t an end to all this baffling semantic word game and this kind of farming.
I called a rather large-scale farmer friend of mine, David Frey (he cringes every time I want to use his name but he almost always allows it), what he thought about plowing 16 inches deep. He is a defender of the semantics game about no-till but appreciates the big irony in it as plainly as he appreciates the big iron in his equipment.
“Yeah, that’s a paraplow,” he answered my question about the Marathon notification. Then he paused. “But alfalfa putting down roots will break up hardpan a whole lot cheaper.”
Bless you, David.