An Old-Time Opinion From An Old Organic Farmer

By Eliot Coleman

I have always thought that the world missed the important message of Plowman’s Folly. The title of the 1943 surprise best seller caused readers to focus on author Edward Faulkner’s condemnation of the plow. But Faulkner was only condemning the specific action of the plow – inverting the soil and burying the surface organic matter in an airless layer at the bottom of the furrow. He did not object to tillage itself. In fact, Faulkner’s real message in Plowman’s Folly was to emphasize the beneficial effect on soil fertility from shallowly incorporating organic matter in to the soil. His even more radical message in the book was an argument for creating biologically based soil fertility on the farm itself rather than relying on purchased inputs.

“While the book (Plowman’s Folly) was intended to draw an indictment of the plow, the far more important purpose was to show the reader the need for highly developed biological activity in the soil.”

In strong contrast to today’s rush to judgement against tillage and the almost religious embrace of no-till, Faulkner recommended soils fed with disked-in or rotary-tilled-in organic residues because he believed that would make them perpetually productive with no outside fertilizer inputs.

“The earth is completely self-sufficient for nourishing the life it develops. . . The future of the human race depends upon the self-sufficiency of the soil that grows our crops. . .”

He stressed how the numerous biological and chemical processes in the soil, stimulated by the decomposition of organic matter, would successfully etch adequate mineral nutrients from the inexhaustible supplies in the soil particles and put them into solution.

“We may be sure that unless soil really is self-sufficient, its future complete exhaustion is predictable, regardless of future farm practice in the use of fertilizers. . .”

He explained this farm-grown soil fertility message more carefully in the sequel to Plowman’s Folly, A Second Look (1947), published as Ploughing in Prejudices (1948) in England, from which the  quotes herein are taken.

“Nature hands to humankind the key to this limitless store of plant food – the many acids that develop in the soil as organic matter decays. Including carbonic acid, we have more than a dozen organic acids that attack the mineral crystals, etching away in solution sustenance for plants. Soil yields nutriment in proportion to the quantity of these acids. Further, the amount of these acids depends in turn upon the quantity of decay that occurs. . . In other words, the more organic matter that has been mixed into the surface of a soil to generate these acids by decay, the more plant nutrient elements the soil will “manufacture” precisely where the plant roots will be hunting for them. . .”

            Faulkner even criticized the practice of making compost in heaps because he believed that the soil benefitted so much more if the organic matter decomposed within the soil.

“There can be no advantage in (heap) composting over surface incorporation of the equivalent organic matter. . . losses of carbon dioxide are at a minimum within the soil, thus assuring a maximum of carbonic acid for releasing minerals from the mineral portion of the soil. . .”

            In other words, the soil on the farm itself can become the farmer’s most efficient and most economically important mineral fertilizer factory as long as it is fed with shallowly incorporated organic residues.

“Soils cannot be deficient in minerals; they can only be delinquent in giving them up. And this delinquency will begin to diminish immediately the necessary well-distributed organic matter has been supplied in quantity.”

Faulkner was definitely describing what I will call a self-reliant agriculture, one that is universal and permanent. That has always been my idea of what a true organic farm should be. On our fields we have been practicing the old English system of “ley farming”, also called alternate husbandry, because the land alternates between being in pasture – sown with a mix of grasses, legumes, and deep rooting edible forbs – which is rotationally grazed by livestock (gaining fertility) and being tilled for row crops the following year (exploiting the fertility gained during the sod year). The livestock on our limited acreage have been 200 laying hens and their presence has provided inputs to the farm in the form of layer pellets becoming chicken manure. However, the high cost of getting certified organic feed delivered for our small flock has caused us to temporarily reconsider the economics of this farm component. I am aware that other farms purchase non-GMO rather than organic poultry feed because of cost. However, since almost all conventional small grains in the US are dried down before harvest by dousing the fields with Glyphosate, all non-organic industrial feeds introduce a Glyphosate residue that I do not wish to have in the eggs I am selling nor in the chicken manure left on my field. Next year we will be investigating to what extent the exceptional quality of our eggs might allow us to charge a considerably higher price.

Like most farms we have logically taken advantage of any free locally abundant compostable materials. We don’t have access to piles of spoiled silage (no local dairy farms) or autumn leaves (our predominant conifers don’t shed those sorts of leaves.) But, we do have access to small amounts of sea coast residues like clam or crab or lobster shells from our fishing neighbors plus seaweed from the coast after storms deposit it on the beach a half mile from the farm. Even after mixing all those with the hay we cut from our few acres of hay fields, we never felt we had enough compost for the vegetable land and we have traditionally purchased additional quantities from off the farm. Where we live, far out in the country, it costs us $75/yard delivered for composted manure from an organic dairy farm (the only type we have ever purchased) and we would like to reduce that expense to nothing.

The inspiration from re-reading Faulkner’s book, plus many years of thinking about reliable food production in a changing world – where inputs may no longer be available – has made me ask, “Why should we be importing organic matter to supplement our home-made compost when we can grow it right here”? So, we have determined to be ever more self-reliant and maintain the fertility of our soil without purchased compost. We will pursue that goal by 1.) shallow incorporation of all crop residues right after harvest (which means we avoid the work of taking them to the compost area.) And 2.) immediate planting of a green manure crop that is part of a carefully thought-out sequence of year-round, grown-on-site grass and legume green manures keyed to the vegetable crop that will come next in the rotation. It is my expectation that a rotation of those green manure residues, in addition to the tilled-in crop residues, will be as effective at maintaining soil fertility as the 1/4 inch of purchased compost we have been applying before each new crop.

I will choose grasses for green manures where I want maximum organic matter (winter rye meets that criterion better than any other green manure) and will choose legumes where the subsequent crop will benefit from the extra nitrogen. Mixtures of the two such as field peas and oats fulfil both criteria and work well as a fall cover that will winter-kill prior to an early spring vegetable sowing. For a summer green manure, buckwheat effectively smothers weeds and can be more quickly followed by a subsequent vegetable crop because it decomposes so easily. (Normally we wait a full three weeks after most green manures are shallowly mixed in before planting the next crop in the rotation to allow the soil to successfully digest the added organic matter.) If we need deeper rooting species to break up a hardpan, for example, we can incorporate other options like annual alfalfa, chicory, or tillage radish into our mixes. I also like annual rye grass because it has the type of extensive fine root system that I have always thought best for soil improvement. One further green manure we have found useful is a late-summer planted crop of a high-glucosinolate mustard variety on a field coming out of long-term pasture in order to knock back the wireworms before carrot or potato crops.

The response to Plowman’s Folly when it was first published is an interesting story. Surprisingly, even J. I. Rodale (publisher of Organic Gardening magazine) seemed not to notice how Faulkner’s most radical claims – no need for chemical fertilizers, healthier plants that resist pests, diminished weed pressure because buried weed seeds are not brought back to the surface from down below – fit right in with the organic system he was promoting. In Pay Dirt (1945) Rodale wrote a whole chapter criticizing the no-plow concept without apparently having noticed Faulkner’s emphasis on the value of soil organic matter and his linking of plant health and human health to a healthy soil. William Albrecht was initially dismissive of Faulkner’s reliance on the natural world as a model for agriculture, but he eventually came around to see value in Faulkner’s ideas. An important ally was Louis Bromfield who devoted chapter XII of Pleasant Valley (1946) to “The Business of ‘Plowman’s Folly’”. Bromfield concluded his comments by stating, “I do not believe that the rebuilding of topsoil could have been accomplished so speedily if we had plowed instead of using the trash farming methods advocated by Mr. Faulkner.”

The most interesting comments I found were those of Leonard Wickenden, a retired chemist (past president of the American Chemical Society) and passionate organic gardener. His first book, Make Friends with Your Land (1949) is such an excellent introduction to organic farming ideas that I heartily recommend it to all beginners. In Gardening with Nature (1958) he deals with the logical objection to Faulkner. If you are selling produce off the farm and not replacing the nutrients by importing fertilizers, you will exhaust the soil. Well, hardly so, replies Wickenden because, “If an acre of land contains up to 200,000 lbs. of potash (to full 36” root depth), is it likely that 200 lbs. which would be all that a generous dressing of pulverized granite (a popular organic fertilizer) would supply could make much difference.?” ”If we do as Mr. Faulkner advocates and incorporate in our soil an abundance of organic matter, perhaps evidence of depletion will not be perceptible for 10,000 years, so the problem can scarcely be considered pressing.” Wickenden goes on to marvel at the awe-inspiring synthesis of soil fertility in Nature and sounds a lot like Faulkner in the process. “Working on wastes from animal and vegetable life, hordes of microorganisms, in numbers beyond the comprehension of the human mind, produce from death and corruption a sweet-smelling soil, richly stocked with compounds to guard the health of vegetation not yet grown and with acids to dissolve minerals and prepare them as food for crops yet to come. Through age after age, death and resurrection have occurred and the Earth has never lacked its green carpet.”

An appreciation of the fertility improvement from incorporating organic matter into the soil has long standing in the scientific literature. Faulkner, as a retired extension agent, was well-aware of those studies. A 1908 Vermont Agricultural Extension Service bulletin, discussing the decline of soil fertility, states, “Doctors may disagree as to the cause, but agree as to the medicine – the use of manures, green manures and adequate tillage operations” and it stresses the importance of “acids formed during humification capable of dissolving mineral matter.” Back in 1916 professor C. H. Lipman of the University of California wrote, “Carbon dioxide dissolved in the soil water, the most important solvent of soil minerals which we have, makes a weak acid which carries out some of the most profound changes in the solution of potash or phosphoric acid otherwise insoluble in the soil.” William Albrecht in his chapter in the 1938 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture stated” organic matter may well be considered as fuel for bacterial fires in the soil, which operates as a factory producing plant nutrients. The organic matter is turned to carbon dioxide, ash, and other residues. This provides carbonic acid in the soil water, and the solvent effect of this acidified water on calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphates and other minerals in rock form is many hundreds of times greater than that of rain water. . . Organic matter is the source of the power without which the plant-food elements could not be changed to usable forms.”

This whole self-reliant-farm concept makes great sense to me because no farming system that is dependent upon fertilizers from off the farm can ever be a truly trustworthy option for feeding humankind in perpetuity. Nor can an organic farming system, with extensive reliance on outside inputs for fertility, ever be presented as a practical alternative to industrial agriculture for the millions of farmers across the globe who have no access to those inputs.

I am aware that the majority of today’s US organic vegetable producers use a lot of purchased “organic” inputs. So, this self-fed-farm concept will seem implausible to them. And even more implausible to the group of vegetable growers I listened to at an organic conference a few years ago whose leading topic of conversation was comparing the quantity of Chilean nitrate they were all using. (I know that is technically OK according to some certifiers, but it sounded a lot like a chemical farming mentality to me.) I have also wondered about the reality and the wisdom of laying down and growing vegetables in the six inch depth of purchased municipal compost that some no-till organic producers are recommending these days in books and on websites. Especially since much of the low-cost bulk compost, made from municipal waste residues, is very likely in today’s polluted world to be less pure than one might hope. We consider it our responsibility to protect our customers from risks like that of which they may have no knowledge. Additionally, the cost of covering an acre of this farm with a 6-inch layer of the high quality composted organic cow manure that we have been buying would come to $180,000; hardly an economically realistic, practical, or sustainable way to farm.

My reason for doubling down on the old-fashioned-organic style of home-grown, self-reliant, un-polluted, non-chemical, low-cost, soil fertility creation and maintenance, that I have outlined above, arises out of this old farmer’s hope that the continuing development of organic farming in the 21st century will represent progress towards a universal and endlessly reproducible clean-food production system powered by Nature rather than limited, technically legal, systems powered by delivery trucks. Although my ideas may appear out of touch with the latest trends in organic agriculture, they look more reliable to me every day.