“Planning To Plow Deeper Than 16 Inches?”


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.


We had hard pan that alfalfa roots could not get through. Roots went down and made a ninety. We went back to plowing and some subsoiling

Very much so Erik.

Just as John Jeavon’s of Ecology Action is focused mostly on the sustainability of soil preparation, growing veges and crops and recording everything you do, Bill Mollison of Permaculture fame works mostly on the interaction of biological guilds and themes and how to intergrate the human need for food production into these to achieve sustainability so John Seymour just takes a plain old fashioned approach and covers everything; soil prep, livestock, orchards, gardens as well as (and most importantly) how to utilise them to the max. For instance, many of his books will show how to not just grow wheat, rye, corn and so forth but what they can be used for and how to process them. He really does touch back into the older more traditional skills that are rapidly being lost. Gene and many others have also done this so Seymour is just one more but he does it in such a comprehensive way that it is a joy to read and to experiment, research, make mistakes and then, hopefully, get it right.

In that sense he is one of those who has blazed a trail and it is fun and educational to retrace his footsteps for our own personal benefit.

There are many others out there who have done the same or similar things but it just so happened that I was lucky enough to come across the book shortly after it was printed and when I was badly in need of a bit of guidance. He provided it.

Sounds interesting. So he has some good hands on/practical advice?


John Seymour was an English iconclast who had a wonderfully varied and eventful life and finally settled down in Wales and Ireland and set up a genuine (as opposed to arty farty/hippy dippy) self sustainable lifestyle and began running courses there for many years. He died in 2004 but is widely regarded as the first to organise, live and teach the modern sustainable living movement (it was called self-sufficiency back then). He was enormously influencial and he along with your own John Jeavons deserve full credit for keeping most modern sustainable movements in the Western world on the right path. Any of his books, and he wrote 47 plus did a lot of TV programmes, are wonderfully entertaining and instructive. I particularly enjoyed the “Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency”, “Bring Me My Bow” and “Forgotten Arts and Crafts”. If you google him and do a little research I am sure you will be amply rewarded. Be warned; he is refreshing even today because he tells it as he sees it, doesn’t suffer fools gladly and expects people to use their own initiative and work things out themselves with a little guidance. Exactly what should happen in my view.

Happy reading!

Lima beans (those kind that have a speckled burgundy on tan color), southern peas (I think that’s is the same as cow peas–the different names for peas confuses me sometimes), Black Valentine, and Cherokee Trail of Tears. I’ve done okay with the CTOT. Since my luck with Southern peas has also been so-so, I’m assuming I’m the problem. We’ve in a pretty dry hot trend for a few years now, so maybe that has something to do with it too. It’s weird, but it seems like things that are going well for others in a given year are a flop for me, and things that nobody else is having any success will soemtimes thrive on many land.

Incidentally, there is a farmer on the North shore of Lake Ponchatrain (i.e. a bit north of New Orleans) grows kidney beans. He buys Camillia brand beans at the grocery store and plants them. Another weird observation: We eat kidney beans in Louisiana like it’s going out of style, but that guy is the only person I know of in the state growing them. I’ve been meaning to try to figure out what is up with that.

By the way, on the “sothern peas”, they say that is what kept southerners alive during the Civil War. As the Union army destroyed crops, they did not recognize the cowpeas as food for humans and left them alone. I’m a little sckeptical of that story since it would seem they would have destroyed animal food as well, but that’s the story.

Is the Seymour book good? (I’ll look for the reference next time I’m at the bookstore by the way). I have picked up a few of what i would call “general introductions” to homesteading. They all have some good ideas and are good primers, but you only need so many primers, so (although it looks interesting) I have held back from buying a copy.

I can relate to what you say about internet discussions. It’s very easy for people to be misunderstood when they are writing (a letter, e-mail), that is multiplied when you have total stranger firing off thoughts off the tops of their heads!


I’m with you on E.F. Schumacher. The recent Wendell Berry essay posted here led me to the Schumacher society site (it was originally a speech by Mr. Berry) and I have spent some enjoyable and thrillingly enlightening hours reading the transcripts of speeches by Richard Heinberg, Dan Barber, Sally Fallon Morell… the list is long and distinguished. I encourage everyone to check it out.

Gene, Erik, et al.

I have generally tried to refrain from entering the discussions on economics in these blogs as I put that topic into the same category as religion, abortion and politics; you are just going to wind someone up no matter what you say or do (and I am quite a peaceful kind of guy really!). The comments on Distributism mentioned by the two of you has prompted me to place on the table probably the best description of where we are and (in my limited view anyway) how we should move forward. It is from E.F.Schumacher (yes; he of “Small is Beautiful” fame although he was much more than just that book) and is to be found as the foreword to a book written by the original guru of sustainability, John Seymour’s “The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency”. This one page, to me sums up exactly what we are doing wrong today and how we need to move forward on an individual level. Schumacher’s theories are remarkably similar to Distributism as I understand it where the dignity of all is catered for and each to their own ability. I would love to scan the text and enclose it here but, not being a techophobe, I have no idea how to do this and would probably be castigated anyway so I will leave it to others to source and read it for themselves. Schumacher’s views may be seen as dated since they were formulated in the 50’s and 60’s however we still appear to be following something called ‘democracy’ which was formulated quite a few years before that!

What I like about it is that it operates on a personal as well as a social/communal level which gives individual choices as well as responsibilities – something the present shambles certainly doesn’t.

Oh well. That is my 5 cents worth.

Cheers everyone.

What kind of beans/peas have you been trying? I live in AZ and we’re finding that a lot of stuff that traditionally grows well in the deep south also grows well here. Blackeye peas and cowpeas do marvelously well in the heat here where traditional garden bean varieties sit idle as they bake in the heat.

In addition to the standard blackeye pea varieties, there is a company called Native Seed SEARCH that gathers and propagates a diverse number of seed varieties, including a bunch of different blackeye pea varieties. A quick google search will bring you to their website. My plan next year is to try a number of different varieties and find which, if any, do even better for me here.

We also tried sorghum this year and it did exceptionally well, except that the wild birds got to the seedheads before we were able to harvest them for our chickens. Next year it gets planted again and gets bird netting over the beds.

I’ll look into that as a cover crop/green manure. THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COUNTRY LIVING has a pretty good list of what’s safe for rabbits. I’ll see if brassica is kosher.

Erik, I forgot until just now, but there’s another possibility for you: tyfon. It’s a brassica that mostly grows a top, sort of like something between kale and chard. Plant it thickly and then pull it up when it reaches maturity. It will leave you a good seedbed for a garden without having to disturb the soil. I don’t know how rabbits would do on it, never having raised rabbits, but if they can eat other brassicas (anybody else know?) I don’t know why they couldn’t eat tyfon. You can also use tyfon as a green manure, and right about now is a good time to plant it.

I remember finding “Folly” while randomly looking through shelves in my HS library. I checked it out and read it. As I remember – and it has been over 40 years – its main arguments were directed at the plains states and the combined practice of bare fallow ground harrowed after every rain for a whole year to trap moisture. I may very well be faulty in that recollection. I did find it somewhat dismaying since my favorite farm job as a teenager was spring plowing, especially at night. The aroma of fresh turned soil in the night air was downright intoxicating. I think I also understand its utilitarian appeal in its ability to create a clean seedbed using available farm power sources. It greatly facilitated the use of mechanical planters and cultivators that were very adversely affected by plant debris. For the gardener who is on a scale to hand plant through debris and for the larger scale operator that can afford planters that work well in a mulched seedbed and willing to use chemical weed control, moldboard plowing is unneeded. For the smaller scale operator doing several acres or more with limited power sources and capital, I think it still has a place when used judiciously and occasionally with a definite intent to reestablish a ground cover as soon as possible. I have tried raising small grains in thinning alfalfa stands without plowing and so far it has not been very satisfactory. Even when it was disked to the point of appearing to be basically bare soil, surviving elements of the hay stand created too much competition with the new crop.

Yeah, I like Distributism. Unfortunately it’s a long way from where we are. All our laws and our tax structure favor bigness, and the consolidation of money, power, and the means of production (including food production) into the hands of a few. Those few lookout for themsleves, not for the common good. They’ll suck us dry and then move on. I’m pretty patriotic and every generation of my family including myself has fought in every freakin war this country has had going back to 1776 and including wars nobody even remembers anymore, but I have to say I have zero hope for the United States of America. My patriotic tendencies are now directed toward the area within a days walk from where I live. My best hope is that when we fall on our faces something good will rise from the ashes.

Farmer Brown:

Thanks, that’s all going in my notebook to be tried. One thing I left out in my last comment is that I learn a lot more from talking to people than reading. I do think the reading is indispensable though. I feel like it gives a framework—or like you say guidelines. I guess it’s like a trade or profession: you need everything you learn in trade school/law school/medical school, but you don’t really learn how you weld/pipe fit/practice law or medicine until you get some mentoring and some experience.

I’ve been trying the beans and peas as a rabbit food, but haven’t done very well growing them. Don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I don’t know who around here to talk to except the extension agent and I know what he’s going to say.

Erik, I keep forgetting to respond to your earlier comment about Distributism. I am a great fan of this philosophy as it was being expressed back in the 1930s. I am pleasantly surprised that it still lives on in people like you. Gene

Every book on farming I’ve ever read was just a guideline that needs adapted to personal challenges. From my learning and what you want, you need to grow your mulch and your feed. Amaranath should do well for you as both. The grain types are hardy and the birds will eat seed as well as foliage. The stalks could be used as bedding then added back to the soil. Peas are cold hardy as well and the rabbits love the stalks. Sunflowers might do ok if you could get them started. Whatever you try, trial and error is the name of the game. I haven’t met a farmer yet that isn’t constantly trying new approaches. You might try collards or kale too, they both handle extreme temps well.

Farmer Brown:

Yeah, I’m trying to do the “traditional” thing. On the little urban homestead I feed weeds, trimmings, table scaps and what not to animals (7 ducks, 36 chickens–with deep mulch and some bushed to camoflage, nobody driving by knows I have so many!–and 13 rabbits) as appropriate and use the manure to fertilize.

One nut I’m trying to crack is to be able to feed my animals more and more from what I grow. I just found “The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home” by Harvey Ussery which looks like it will help me do that with chickens. I need to find more like this. It seems to me that if the price of petroleum goes way way up, or there is some kind of economic collapse, it won’t be possible to just run to the feed store.

But it seems like this is not really the kind of thing you can get from a book–you have to try things. Or at least this seems to be true for my area. Most of the books I’ve seen have middle America in mind, and I’m in the deep south. I think with the right practices the deep south/Gulf coast offers some advantages over the rest of the USA, but we have a lot of challenges as well like having freezes followed by 80-90 degree temperatures and back to freezing in a two week period. Unfortunatly people in the south are pretty conservative and slow to change–well, it’s not being conservative that is bad so much is that they thing they are being conservative by sticking to the way their dad farmed–so there have not been as many people putting sustainable ag into practice in this climate. Very few post industrial “sustainable” types, and the Cajuns and Red Bones who remember the days before industrial agriculture are dead and gone.

That’s probably good advice. I recall someone observing that seeds were about the cheapest “input” out there. I’ll have to hold off on that route until I have land in the country otherwise the city will slap a fine on me for not “mowing”. I grew some millet and the neighbors asked “What you growing in that garden, weeds?” Ha. Thanks for the advice.

This is where traditional and modern farming take different paths Erik. Traditionally you wouldn’t only raise a crop, you would feed that crop to livestock and use the manure from the livestock to fertlize and replenish your soil.

With chemical fertilizer came monoculture farming. Could you imagine how many animals it would take tofertilize 10000 aces of corn?! Chemical fertilizers add some of the nutrients back to the soil, but there is no actual soil added as with traditional methods. So now you need to get oxygen to the roots as well because the fertilizer doesn’t account for that like the composted manure.

Make sense? You need to decide which way to play the game. Then come up with a strategy.

Erik — if you’re dealing with a relatively small area, I would suggest you try growing your mulching material in place. Rye — the grain stuff, not the lawn grass — sorghum, and alfalfa (which is a legume) can all be broadcast and watered in, no tilling necessary. Let the first two grow not quite to maturity, because you don’t want the seeds to cause a weed problem. Then cut it down and let it rot. if you have animals, let them add their manure to it. Alfalfa will break up hardpan, but you have to wait a year or so for it to really get going. Ruth Stout was an advocate of permanent mulch (here’s a link that will give you her books — the library probably has them or can order them: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Stout). I know Gene used to use a permanent mulch on his garden, because he’s written about it in a couple of his books. Don’t know if that’s still the case. You could also do a little research on John Jeavon’s methods for Ecology Action; they also grow their own compost material.


I’m willing to try that. I don’t think there are simple solutions to these kinds of things. If you can bear my ignorance on this (I haven’t read anything by Ruth Stout, but depending on what you tell me, maybe I should). I’ve read about and talked to people who did some sort of mulching to build up organic matter. Some people claim to be able to do this and grow on top of concrete and asphalt. Where there is soil they (or at least some of “them”) advocate laying down a barrier to block weeds. It seemed to me that they are not improving their soil so much as building new soil on top of what was already there. That’s fine, and that is where I hope to end up with my soil, but in until then, doesn’t it make sense to try to get the soil I have in a little better shape; in other words, why just improve from the surface up, why not improve below the surface as well?

I guess the other thing that is discouraging about sheet mulching as “the” solution is how much organic material it takes to do that on any sizable scale (and by “sizeable” I’m talking even 2-3 acres). In my backyard doing stuff like that was easy. I made several truck loads of compost at home (which required a lot of work in terms of gathering materials to compost) and when I bought a 1/4 acre lot to expand on to, I proudly hauled all that compost to the new land with a big grin on my face. I was soon dismayed to see that those truckloads of compost didn’t even make a dent in improving that soil. I’m pouring a lot of effort into getting as much mulch and manure into that 1/4 acres and it’s slow going. I’d like to keep growing and have enough acreage to come closer to growing all my family’s food.

I guess another thought is, in order to do this premanent mulching don’t you have to burn a lot of gas hauling stuff in, and aren’t you robbing some other land to improve your own?

Umm, guys, if the object of tilling is to get organic material into the soil, how come the early settlers found the Midwest had top soil so deep and rich, when it had never been plowed? All that vegetable matter just fell on top of the ground and decayed, growing grass so high it would be hard to see through it when on horseback. And I know a similar system works in gardening — see Ruth Stout and permanent mulching. I have a feeling we do a lot more damage to the soil structure by stirring it up than we would by just adding organic matter on top.


I’m not sure what you mean by a “scientific reason” for plowing. I’m probably the least knowledgable person in this discussion but my understanding is that people plow (rightly or wrongly) 1) to turn under weeds and grass (rather than using a herbicide) 2) to loosen up the soil so it can be tilled and 3) to get organic material into the soil.

As for why not to add organic material to the surface, my general understanding is that although there is not a “one size fit all” solution for everybody’s farm, as general matter, you need organic material where the roots are located. Where I grow, I want the roots to go down deep to get more minerals and to be less susceptible to fluctuations in rainfall. At a recent ACRES conference, one of the lecturers on “to till” said (if I recall correctly)that, while the ultimate goal might be to add organic material on top and let roots and worms and such be the way of taking things down, until you get there, you have got to get the organic material and the minerals down into the soil. You have got to disturn the soil with a plow–or something.

I’ve heard a few people make the statement that “to till” is somethign you have to earn.

Folks, this is a farming issue that was dealt with in 1945, why do farmers never learn… LL Brown


Ploughman’s Folly by Edward H. Faulkner

BRIEFLY, this book sets out to show that the mouldboard plough which is
in use on farms throughout the civilized world, is the least satisfactory implement for the preparation of land for the production of crops. This sounds like a paradox, perhaps, in view of the fact that for nearly a century there has been a science of agriculture, and that agricultural scientists almost to a man have used and approved the use of the mouldboard plough. Nevertheless, the statement made above is true and capable of proof. Much of the proof, as a matter of fact, has come in left-handed manner from scientists themselves. The truth is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for ploughing. Many learned teachers have had embarrassing moments before classes of students demanding to be shown why it would not be better to introduce all organic matter into the surface of the soil than to bury it, as is done by the plough.


Thanks for the input. I agree with you on the weeding fetish. Incidentally, over the weekend I pulled weeds out of a bed I have in front of my house along the sidewalk (I’m an urban homesteader: in the backyard and on vacant property in town). I have that bed thick with woodshavings from a local horse stable. I had (I don’t know if it is bermida grass or crabgrass or what but it is very hard to pull and impossible to erradicate) weeds i was dreading pulling but they were about two feet tal;l and looking pretty shabby. I was shocked how easily the weeds came out, and the soil underneath was very fluffy. I haven’t used wood shaving as muclch because I have been worried about them robbing nitrogen, but after seeing how easily those nasty weeds came out and how fluffy the soil was underneath, I’m going to start using that stuff more often. Until now I have been using leaves I find bagged in the side of the road.

Interestingly: in that bed mentioned above, I have some ornamental grass growing in 5-6 big tufts and i plant edible things in between. Last fall I bought a bunch of mustard green seed and was throwing it everywhere as a cover crop. I sprinkled some seeds over the top of the above-mentioned mulch and grew the best looking mustard greens ever (large and no insect damage)–and got a lot of compliments on what nice landscaping I had. Even the grumpy old lady down the street who thinks I can’t do anything right (which is pretty accurate) said they were the best looking greens she ever saw.

Eric, The conditions here in NW Washington sound very similar to your area. We get very little rain from early July till mid or late Sept. Also my soil has a hardpan 12-14 inches down. I pile the organic matter on my garden beds and after a careful weeding early in the season, I forget about it, and let the weeds grow with the veggies. Even during a long dry spell my soil is damp under the the heavy foliage. I wat er once a week with rain water from my roof. I always get a good return. You might try this. Personally, from my experience, I think that exessive weeding is an unnecessary fetish. Jack Flancher

Good point. Unfortunately the west has the opposite problem:


And now China has its own underpopulation problem:


India hit on a better way than forced sterizations, forced abortions, infanticide and injecting chemicals into women’s bodies:


I read the Nordell’s articles in SFJ. However, I don’t think I have the patience to implement the bioextensive vegetable farming methods they champion. Seems the rewards can take over 5 years to manifest. But, lots of good info regardless of whether you follow that approach or not.

Great post. Semantics drive me insane in the farming industry, but it’s exactly how big Ag likes to roll. Look at what the term ‘organic’ has become. As long as consumers are more than one step removed from the food they purchase, these semantic games will continue to be used to conceal the truth.

Chiara, thanks. Yes I am quite familiar with Anne and Eric and their great work. In fact I am in awe of what they accomplish.
Erik, Farmers of Forty Centuries is one of my favorite books. But one of the lessons I learn from it is kind of a contrary one. Although the Asians developed maybe the most productive agriculture ever, as Dennis points out, they still could not keep up with population because they refused to practice any kind of population control except floods. Some two million Chinese drowned when the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers flooded in the 1890s. My prejudice remains that I don’t care how advanced and sustainable a food system is, it must be practiced within the confines of a stable population. Gene

Impressive piece of equipment, Gene. First thought I had when I looked at it was how the thing does in trash like corn stalks. Shouldn’t there be coulter disks in front of each shank? It looks as if most of the action happens deep under the surface; sort of a physical version of fracking. It seems like corn stalks would wrap around the shanks and lift it out of the ground. I’d pay money to watch this thing get pulled through some of our glacial till boulders here where I live. I haven’t been to the plowing championships for awhile, but they used to have a single bottomed breaking plow that was pretty impressive, too. No pipes or hardpans, but lots of tree roots and rocks back then.

Totally unrelated, but for those in west central Ohio, the Little Art Theatre is showing a documentary called Farmageddon on Sunday. There are trailers online to view.

If the day ever comes when old Ma Nature starts using a paraplow, I might think about it. In the meantime, aside from moving some rocks out of the way in a garden spot, I’m sticking with grass cover and garden mulch.

I have to tell you this post is exemplary as to why we love to read you.
….and why we’re saving up for a team of Shires….
and planning on planting alfalfa on a rotational basis….
Have you read Anne and Eric Nordell in the Small Farmer’s Journal??


Those are good observations. I’m not sure about disease epidemics in the East. Being a product of the American education system, most of the history I got was hyperfocused on the USA and was taught by a coach. I hardly know any European history–and nothing about Asia.

Anyway, I guess I’m just wondering if some of the things that are said about the damage done by tilling or plowing–well maybe it’s not disturbing the soil that is so bad, it just depends on how you do it. Just a thought. And correct me if I’m wrong, but this “no till” stuff is relatively new isn’t it? I guess i tend to be a little sceptical of science. Scientists today say the scientists of yesterday were superstitious morons and tommorow’s scinetists will say the same about today’s scientists. I like hearing about something that has 1) worked in practice and 2) has stood the test of time. And I agree with the post above. Other than people writing from Ivory Towers, “no till” never means “no till.”


Thanks for the input. My approach has been to have raised beds and no ditches or drainage: just let the excess water seep out underground and evaporate. That has worked pretty well except in years when the rainfall was catastrophic, but it seems wise to design things for average years, not years when we are declared a federal disater area. ha. The topsoil dries out pretty quickly and I kind of think the clay under it feeds the topsoil some water until midsomer when that’s dried out as well. I’m kind of thinking the clay could be an asset when it comes to irrigation. I’ll admit I know very little, so this may be obvious to others or maybe it is dead wrong.

I guess what causes me pause is that I read an article in ACRES a while back that was saying you don’t want to hit the subsoil with your plow. But it just seems to me that getting a little clay mixed into the topsoil could keep it moist longer. For example, if I added some clay in with the bedding for my chickens and they scratched it up and mixed it in with the bedding and manure, it might retain moisture a little better. Or maybe till down deep catching some of the clay and mixing it with the topsoil.

Erik, have you looked at berms and swales?

The conventional “remedy” for clay pan and excess water is to route the water off as efficiently as possible in the winter and spring, then irrigate the heck out of it all summer and fall. This typically involves ditches or field tile that goes “down the fall line” in the steepest possible gradient. The runoff also takes topsoil away.

The Permaculture approach is to put ditches on contour to gather water and slow it down, saving topsoil, and letting the water slowly seep into the surrounding beds. Although this doesn’t dry off the entire field as well as fall-line ditches, it does a better job of drying off a 4-foot bed next to the swale.

We’ve used the “berm and swale” technique successfully for garlic. We didn’t start watering until August, a full month after other farmers started irrigating. And we were able to plant other things in May, a full month earlier than other farmers who had excess water.

Erik – I’ve read 40 Centuries and King described a very intensive system of farming. But it’s not a panacea. As I recall, the population of China has gone up AND down over the centuries. They have experienced die-offs of large numbers of people. And I’d find it hard to believe that they didn’t have major disease epidemics; sanitation problems were always endemic. But F.H.King did not discuss these kinds of issues.

And certainly he is right in emphasizing the care that Chinese/Japanese/Korean farmers exercised with respect to their land, a kind of care almost wholly absent at that time among Western (Euro-American)farmers. They were much more sophisticated than Western farmers.

Certainly it would hugely help to incorporate as much organic matter as you could into the soil and some clay – both would retain large amounts of water. I just read a report from the Rodale Institute that organic farming (large quantities of organic soil matter) produced yields some 30 percent greater than conventional farming methods.

They need to just find a different word, I guess.

A couple questions that may be stupid, but I’d be interested in hearing people’s opinions:

1) I’m reading FARMERS OF FORTY CENTURIES right now and the book chronicles people who have farmed land for centuries without wearing it out. They are about as far from no till as a person could get. It is not done with a machine, but by hand, and they put a lot of organic material back in to the soil. They also apparenlty level fields such that water does not carry off soil from farmland. Is plowing really anathema to sustainable agriculture or could it be our methods?

2) Our soil (prarie land on the coast of Lousiana) has a pan of clay not far below the surface. We have a reputation for being an excessivly wet climate, but in reality we have pretty dry summers. The rainfall comes in the winter and is lost, so retaining as much water when it does rain in the summer is important. Would it be stupid to try to get bits of that clay up into the topsoil as a sponge for water?

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[…] “Planning To Plow Deeper Than 16 Inches?” (via The Contrary Farmer) 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 tw … Read More […]

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