The Plow is Moot

Another mindbending capitalist atrocity

By Bernard and Lorle Engert
November 1989; page 8; Volume 1, No. 2

The most important agricultural tool, the plow, has been used since prehistory times.
-Funk & Wagnall's, 1986

If anything, the common moldboard plow has been the most important implement of environmental destruction throughout history and up to the present moment in modern, technologically advanced America. Due to the plow's fundamental flaws, agriculture has become twisted, the environment has been assaulted, the food supply has become tained, and consumers have been brainwashed, not to mention more and more beset with worries concerning the safety of their food.

In order to understand exactly what is wrong with the plow, a brief explanation of the basic interactions between plants and soil is in order. Soil is composed of two parts: inorganic matter like sand, clay and other smaller pieces of the earth's original rock, and organic matter such as decayed plants and vegetables and animal manure. The latter contains all the ingredients essential to plant life.

But the action of the moldboard plow essentially buries all organic matter far beneath the surface of the soil. Thus, the crop plants cannot reach these vital nutrients as their delicate roots go no further than eight or ten inches beneath the surface of the soil. It's these roots which carry food from the soil - usually rich organic matter - to the plant, allowing healthy growth. Other tap roots grow further into the soil for support and water.

But, the rotting layer of organic matter that is now buried more than a foot beneath the surface of the soil, thanks to the plow, acts as a barrier to capillary water rising from below, due to its highly absorbent quality. This interruption of nature brings an onslaught of problems.

To compensate for the lack of vitamins and minerals in the denatured soil, the modern farmer, backed with all the brillance of modern agricultural science, adds large amounts of chemical fertilizers, which, being inorganic, effectively poison the soil and all that it produces.

Because each plant is different, not all plants react positively toward their poison treatments. To compensate for this snarl, North American corporate seed suppliers dreamed up hybrids. This creates a volutile situation. There is not genetic variation among hybrid plants, allowing the corporate "poison control centers" to develop exact chemical doses that will sustain each type of clone in "life." In other words, the fertilizer companies have discovered a veritable "designer fertilizer" market, reaping untold, hideous profits.

Furthermore, with no genetic variations, these hybrid plants become easy prey to insects, disease and complete destruction by the elements to this tampering with the natural diversity in plants which often gives them the biological edge against these adversities. So, what's next but those chemical guys seize the golden opportunity to rain more poisons, now in the form of pesticides, upon the plants. Contamination has created a problem so complex, with the solution buried beneath so many layers of deceit and greed, that the simple path that must be returned to becomes ridiculously simplistic in the eyes of modern, technologically brainwashed humanity.

Just witness the undisturbed forest floor with its richness of organic matter strewn "sloppily" about - so untidy and unsightly compared to the neatly manicured rows of the modern American farm and garden. Such untidy habits in nature have been producing endlessly and abundantly for millions of years with no help from humans.

Two hundred years of the abusive plow took their toll during the drought of the 1930s and '40s, leaving the Midwest a veritable barren dustbowl. In addition to burying all organic matter, the plow loosens the soil allowing air to enter, further drying it out. Also, the soil surface, robbed of it natural protective layer of organic matter, or "mulch," was left defensiveless to the winds which accompanied the drought, causing erosion and dust storms.

If the natural mulch layer had been in place, could the dustbowl have been prevented and the destructive forces of the drought lessened to the extent that the farmers would not have been forced off the land? That question can never be answered. All we know is that these farmers fled west to become squattors and to repeat the devasting process all over again in California's San Joaquin Valley, and this time with a vengence due to the never-ending "advances" of agri-chemical wizardry.

Meanwhile, Nature's irony flourished on the abandoned farms in the Midweset that became overgrown as She was allowed to rebuild what humans destroyed - meanwhile, the poor, brainwashed squatters began the toxification of the soil, groundwater and produce of California.

These arguments against the plow were raised by Edward H. Faulkner in his 1943 book, Plowman's Folly. A highly recommended work, it is dismaying and telling to note that it is no longer in print. Beginning with the premise that "no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing," this county agent for Kentucky and Ohio and Smith-Hughes teacher of agriculture systematically and scientifically proved the folly of this ancient device.

Further in the book, he advances the now widely accepted disc harrow as the best alternative to plowing. Consisting of sharp vertical discs, slightly slanted, the disc harrow can efficiently and effectively, and on a large scale, incorporate all existing vegetation into the top few inches of the soil. With the organic matter near the surface, plants can receive all the vital nutrients and achieve easily a naturally high level of health - without any additional chemicals from ever-intruding humans. A healthy plant holds an abundance of minerals and produces less sugar, making it less appetizing and susceptible to pests and widespread infestation. Perhaps paradoxically, weeds do not fare well in soil naturally rich in available organic matter and present a real problem only in poor, denatured soil, which they are more suited to.

So even though Faulkner's theories have become widely accepted, this chemical death-cycle is still practised to a great extent in this country - too great an extent to be acceptable. In fact, any use of these antiquated methods is unacceptable as the earth's delicate eco-systems are becoming ever more fragile and dangerously close to total collapse. If you are interested in doing something to reverse this decline of nature and help to make the plow and chemical obsolete, here are a few suggestions: First, BUY ORGANIC! As Don Strachan writes in his article, "The Real Farm Crisis & How You Can End It," (in Whole Life Times, 12/'88):

Personal ecology is social ecology: every penny you spend on food supports either the monolithic corporations that are destroying the world or the land stewards who are trying to restore it. People raise two arguments against organic produce: 1) It's more expensive; 2) It doesn't look nice. It costs more sometimes because it doesn't receive the massive subsidies Agribizzies poison food gets. But when you consider medical bills and the price to the planet, the poison is penny-wise and pound-foolish. As for looks, remember the wicked witch in Cinderella: the beauty conceals the poison within.

Further suggestions include cutting down on dining out, as few restaurant serve organic vegetables, and all are wasteful - uneaten food goes to landfills, not compost (the decayed organic matter which knowledgeable farmers use as a natural alternative to fertilizer).

Circulate petitions calling for government aid for sustainable farming and research, and taxes on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Write Americans for Safe Food, CPSI, 1510 16th Street NW, Washington, DC, 20036 for more ideas on how to save the earth and its inhabitants from destructive farming methods.

Even better than buying organic: GROW YOUR OWN! Bill Mollison, founder of Permaculture Institute, notes "U.S. yards with their 30 million acres of water-hogging lawns, could produce all the food we need, at several times the yield per square foot of the Agribizzies."

Permaculture is an alternative farming and gardening system, carrying Faulkner's ideas even farther with an all-encompassing constellation of ideas with emphasis on fruit trees, as well as fish farming, beekeeping, recycling, biological pest control and organic soil management. For more information, send a few dollars to Permaculture Institute of North America, 4649 Sunnyside N., Seattle, WA, 98103.

Have no fear if you're an urbanite apartment dweller - no yard is no excuse. You can grow all you need in an area with enough room for a dozen 5-gallon pots. For complete instructions, see "Growing Plants in Containers: New Guidelines for a Deck Garden," $3 from Barbara Daniels, P.O. Box 813, Fairfax, CA 94930.

There are a plethora of organic gardening books available these days. One of the best is How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine, by John Jeavons. This book gives step-by-step instructions for the complete beginner, based on the Biodynamic/French Intensive Method of organic bioculture. It, and a wealth of other books on related subjects, can be obtained through Beautiful Gardens, a project founded by Jeavons to promote and provide materials for organic farming and gardening. Send $2 for their catalog of untainted, non-hybrid seeds, organic fertilizers and books at: Bountiful Gardens, c/o Ecology Action, 5798 Ridgewood Rd., Willits, CA 95490.

Another company with an even more extensive catalog of organic (or "open-pollinated") seeds and literature is Seeds Blum - also only $2. Write them at: Seeds Blum, Idaho City Stage, Boise, Idaho 83706. They also offer "heirloom" seeds, handed down from generation to generation by home gardeners.

Or go to your local booksellers and demand that organic gardening literature be kept on the shelves. Or have them order How to Grow More Vegetables from Ten Speed Press, P.O. Box 7123, Berkeley, CA 94707, for you, your family, friends and neighbors, at least. This book makes an excellent Christmas gift!

So start your compost pile today - kitchen wastes, lawn clipping and those annoying falling leaves can all be turned into naturally rich, FREE fertilizer, ready to mix into and layer on top of your soil in spring a few weeks before planting. That's how to create the healthiest, easiest, best-producing garden you could ever imagine, one that will only improve in the years to come as the soil becomes richer and richer. We can save our planet only though love and cooperation with Nature, rather than through abuse and foolishness.

Editor's note: Bernard and Lorie Engert live in Berkeley, California, and grow wonderful tomatoes.