Plowman's Folly

Plowman's Folly

by Edward H. Faulkner


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Mr. Faulkner’s masterpiece is recognized as the most important challenge to agricultural orthodoxy that has been advanced in this century. Its new philosophy of the soil, based on proven principles and completely opposed to age-old concepts, has had a strong impact upon theories of cultivation around the world. It was on July 5, 1943, when Plowman’s Folly was first issued, that the author startled a lethargic public, long bemused by the apparently insoluble problem of soil depletion, by saying, simply, “The fact is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.” With the key sentence, he opened a new era.
For generations, our reasoning about the management of the soil has rested upon the use of the moldboard plow. Mr. Faulkner proved rather conclusively that soil impoverishment, erosion, decreasing crop yields, and many of the adverse effects following droughts or periods of excessive rainfall could be traced directly to the practice of plowing natural fertilizers deep into the soil. Through his own test-plot and field-scale experiments, in which he prepared the soil with a disk harrow, in emulation of nature’s way on the forest floor and in the natural meadow, by incorporating green manures into its surface, he transformed ordinary, even inferior, soils into extremely productive, high-yield croplands.
Time magazine called this concept “one of the most revolutionary ideas in agriculture history.” The volume is being made available again not only because farmers, ranchers, gardeners, and agriculturists demanded it, but also because it details the kind of “revolution” which will aid those searching for the fruits of the earth in the emerging nations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806111698
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 02/20/2012
Pages: 174
Sales rank: 535,017
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.42(d)

About the Author

Edward H. Faulkner lived in Elyria, Ohio. He was a county agent in Kentucky and Ohio, a Smith-Hughes teacher of agriculture, and a soil and crop investigator. He wrote several other books, including Plowman’s Folly andits follow-up volume, A Second Look.

Read an Excerpt

Plowman's Folly

By Edward H. Faulkner


Copyright © 1974 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4874-8



BRIEFLY, this book sets out to show that the moldboard plow 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 moldboard plow. 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 plowing. 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 plow.

The entire body of "reasoning" about the management of the soil has been based upon the axiomatic assumption of the correctness of plowing. But plowing is not correct. Hence, the main premise being untenable, we may rightly question the validity of every popularly accepted theory concerned with the production of any crop, when the land has been plowed in preparation for its growth. That brings virtually all of our soil theories up for critical examination; so, in this book, the whole gamut of theory we have evolved concerning the growing of crops will be brought into focus for examination in the light of the discovery that plowing is wrong.

The discussion will be undertaken in language common to the layman, so far as this is possible, and throughout the text footnotes will be introduced to explain whatever may be perhaps out of range of the thinking of the average reader. The nature of the reasoning upon which this entire study is based makes it unnecessary to resort to any but the simplest of scientific terms. Moreover, there are few ideas which are not common knowledge-strange as that may seem. The vast amount of technical language created by scientific agriculture, as a result of an early and fundamental mistake, has produced its own confusions. Indeed, the mistake originally made might justly be called the basis for most, if not all, of the technology connected with present-day agronomy.

An agricultural experiment station has its uses, but these obviously would not have embraced the problem presented in this book, if those who work the soil had not got off to a false start in the matter of plowing. In brief, if a way had been found to mix into the surface of the soil everything that the farmer now plows under; if the implements used in planting and cultivating the crop had been designed to operate in the trashy surface that would have resulted from mixing rough straw, leaves, stalks, stubble, weeds, and briars into the surface—crop production would have been so automatic, so spontaneous that there might not have developed what we now know as agricultural science. Actually, we would scarcely have needed one. From one point of view, we have been creating our own soil problems merely for the doubtful pleasure of solving them. Had we not originally gone contrary to the laws of nature by plowing the land, we would have avoided the problems as well as the expensive and time-consuming efforts to solve them.

That we would also have missed all of the erosion, the sour soils, the mounting floods, the lowering water table, the vanishing wild life, the compact and impervious soil surfaces is scarcely an incidental consideration. We have really had a fling at scientific agriculture. The fling, in fact, appears to be the scientific counterpart of what our grandfathers used to call "sowing wild oats." It is time we sobered up and began to apply to the growing of farm crops the same basic science we have for so long been using in the factories, mills, and workshops of our reasonably progressive civilization.

We have equipped our farmers with a greater tonnage of machinery per man than any other nation. Our agricultural population has proceeded to use that machinery to the end of destroying the soil in less time than any other people has been known to do in recorded history. This is hardly a record to be proud of. It gains nothing in attractiveness, moreover, when we consider that our Chinese friends and the often despised peasantry of the so-called backward countries of the world can produce more per acre without machinery than the American farmer can with all his fine equipment. Any reasonably well-traveled person will confirm this statement.

One of the persistent puzzles has been the fact that an ignorant, poverty-stricken Egyptian who stirs his land with the ancient crooked stick can produce more per acre than his British neighbor whose equipment is right up to the minute. The explanation is that the poor farmer can't afford the equipment that would make it impossible for him to continue growing such high yields per acre. The full import of all this will be explained in due course.

There is double meaning in the statement that all of the trouble in producing crops seems to lie in the farmer's fields. The uncultivated fields and woodlands surrounding his land do not show any signs of trouble. Even the crops growing in the fence rows seem to thrive through droughts as well as in fine weather. Would that observation justify us in wondering whether the manner in which farmers handle their land might be responsible for the way crops grow under tillage? Certainly we should not overlook the possibility that a clue to the farmer's trouble might be found by a comparative study of cultivated and virgin soils.

Our conventional ideas of growing processes are due for drastic revision. Much thought and experimental work have been devoted to studies of plant growth, but there has been comparatively little consideration of the part played in plant and animal growth by the actual transfer, more or less directly, of previously used plant food from a lifeless body to one that is living.

We often think and speak of growth as if it were a building process-which indeed it is-but we are likely to assume without sufficient thought that the best growth would result from the use of materials not previously used in organic tissues. We think of our farm crops as getting a mineral solution from the land; and we think of that solution as originating from soil minerals directly, or from the fertilizers the farmer applies. We do not give much consideration to the biochemistry of the matter. We know that anything covered up in the soil is subject to rather prompt decay, if it is at all decayable, but we do not reason from that point to acceptance of the decay products as choice building material for crops growing in the immediate vicinity.

In our material civilization we have rightly learned to be suspicious of anything constructed of cast-off materials. Few people would buy an automobile that was assembled from used parts. And a suit of clothes made of shoddy material would not bring a very high price. Our basic distrust carries over into our thinking about the materials essential to the development of a plant. This would not be true if we did some critical thinking on the subject; but we have not done so. We have left the whole subject to our scientific men. They have learned the facts, and in many instances have published their findings in books or pamphlets which anyone who cares to do so may read; but few have cared to wade through the technical language in which such studies usually have been expressed. Such writings seldom make the headlines or the front pages, so we don't bother to read them. This may be distinctly bad for us.

Much of our knowledge of nutritive relationship is what might be called academic: pigeonholed after discovery and never developed into practical usefulness. Particularly is this true of our knowledge concerning plant nutrition. We know, of course, that no animal can subsist solely on mineral solutions in simple, inorganic form. We do not take our lime as lime water, or our iron as tincture-at least not to any great extent as a matter of nutrition. Our present knowledge indicates that the human race and the whole animal kingdom would disappear completely from the earth if deprived of that organic storehouse known as the plant kingdom. That being true, it is highly important that we have a thoroughly practical understanding of the nutritive relationships between plants and the earth; for those relationships are necessarily fundamental to animal well-being, including, of course, the human race.

For purposes of this discussion, it will simplify our reasoning if we think of inorganic solutions, such as those that occur in the soil where water is in contact with mineral crystals, as new, or primary plant foods; and the inorganic solutions that originate in the decay of plant or animal tissues as used, or secondhand plant foods. These are distinctly not the technician's terms for such concepts, but it will be shown herein that they are useful for the layman in understanding how plants may be made to grow best. It should be said, too, that in practice we would almost never find in the soil any organic solution entirely devoid of inorganic compounds. This is because the water which assists in the decay of organic tissues already carries a load of inorganic compounds when it is absorbed into the organic material.

The chief trouble with our farming is that we have concerned ourselves increasingly with the difficult techniques of supplying our farm crops with new materials for growth, when we could easily take full advantage of the almost automatic provisions of nature for supplying plants with complete rations in secondhand form. We have made a difficult job of what should be an easy one.

Several circumstances have conspired to distort our point of view on the nutrition of plants. Thirty years ago, farmers had not become so familiar as they are now with the possibilities offered by inorganic minerals as fertilizers. But, as they have learned about them, and as the costs of such fertilizers have been reduced from time to time, it has been progressively easier to use mineral fertilizers. Meanwhile the means of restoring organic matter to the soil has seemed at the same time to become progressively more difficult. The net result is that technical attention to the inorganic mineral supply has been more and more necessary; and the organic possibilities have simply vanished from consideration.

The last few paragraphs outline the basic nutritive concepts involved in this book. No new technical discoveries are to be aired here. The discussion is concerned wholly with reducing to practical terms, employable in anybody's back yard or on any farm, the scientific information possessed for decades but hitherto not put to any extensive use.

Green manures have been known and recommended for decades. For those to whom the idea is new, green manures are simply crops of any kind grown for use as decayable material in the soil where grown. Farmers have been advised for years to make frequent and regular use of green manures to supplement the always inadequate supply of animal manure. In keeping with this idea, county agents as early as thirty years ago urged farmers to make the plowing down of green manures the basis of their soil improvement program for very thin land. Then, when the results of those early attempts were reported, trouble loomed. Plowing down great masses of green manure proved such a colossal boomerang that subsequent attempts to improve growing conditions for plants have been cautious expedients rather than bold attempts to imitate the perfect example set by the natural landscape. It seems never to have occurred to anybody to question the effects of the universally approved moldboard plow.

The prevalent and generally accepted doctrine concerning green manures has accordingly been modified to two comparatively ineffective recommendations: (1) plow down the green manure crop early, before it has become woody and difficult to rot, and (2) if the crop gets out of hand and becomes woody before it can be plowed in, apply nitrogenous fertilizers to the crop itself before plowing it down.

Even these recommendations have always been recognized as makeshift procedures. It is only too obvious that tender rye or other green crops must contain less minerals than the same plants would if allowed to reach their full growth. And, while the second recommendation is of more recent origin and is supposed to be more advantageous, it has a fundamental weakness for which there is no completely effective remedy in nature. The purpose of adding the nitrogen fertilizer is to hasten the decomposition of the mass, thus removing the organic matter as a bar to further rise in the soil of water from deep in the earth. (It should be mentioned here that the plowing in of great quantities of absorbent material results in exhausting the water from the overlying soil layers.) The decay is hastened by this trick, but the decay products released are necessarily subject to being leached out of the soil by the first rains that fall after their release. A relatively small percentage of such nutrients can be retained by colloids-in soils which have enough colloids that are not already holding all the plant nutrients possible. The rest must inevitably be lost, unless by lucky chance insufficient rain falls to carry them away before roots arrive to salvage them. It must be remembered, too, that in most soils few roots ever reach the plowsole to do salvage work. The net effect, then, of this treatment is likely to be almost nil.

Later it will be shown that such use of nitrogen—any purchased nitrogen, in fact—is sheer waste of money, since nature is perfectly organized to supply the right amount of nitrogen to every plant. Later, too, the universal use in nature of the principle of direct transfer of organic compounds from the decaying dead to the growing living will be exemplified by illustrations from small-scale test work, supplemented by later field work, done during the past decade in a city back yard and on leased land in the country.

Most scientists probably are mentally unprepared to accept, without official tests, an idea apparently so new. An exception is Paul B. Sears, who in Deserts on the March has pictured plant nutrition as follows:

The face of the earth is a graveyard, and so it has always been. To earth each living thing restores when it dies that which has been borrowed to give form and substance to its brief day in the sun. From earth, in due course, each new living being receives back again a loan of that which sustains life. What is lent by earth has been used by countless generations of plants and animals now dead and will be required by countless others in the future.... No plant or animal, nor any sort of either, can establish permanent right of possession to the materials which compose its physical body.

Thus, pointedly, Sears brings to our attention a principle of plant growth which has not hitherto been sufficiently utilized, though most scientists have been aware of its academic existence at least. He says by implication that life necessarily depends upon the snuffing out of other lives—of enormous populations, in fact. We dislike thinking of ourselves as murderous, but the fact that we must be, if we are to live, is difficult to refute. As civilized beings, so-called, we keep the slaughterhouse out of sight of the dining room; but, unless we are vegetarians, our very existence depends upon keeping that slaughterhouse busy. Even the strictest vegetarian must snuff out many lives—those of plants—if he is to retain his own.

Such suggestions may sound like bits of philosophical quibbling; however, the ideas involved are so pertinent to the subject in hand that they need to be brought sharply into focus in our thinking. We have always accepted theoretically the interdependence of every form of life upon other forms; we have not so easily progressed to the thought that dead tissues contribute their substance to new living forms. This is the solemn, necessary truth; and the earlier it becomes a part of our thinking, the more quickly can we plan intelligently the necessary work of recreating the soils on our farm lands. We have been too squeamish to visualize dead tissue being transformed into living, though with every mouthful we eat we demonstrate precisely that fact. Let us be practical, even if being so proves painful to our stomachs.

Plants establish intakes, in the form of roots, for nutritive materials in the decaying fragments of last year's plants; and, left to themselves, they will use without loss every atom of the material that previously had been used in the dead plants. As farmers, we have not left the bodies of last year's plants where the roots of this season's crops could invade them. Instead, we have buried those decaying remains so deep that few roots could reach them. We have, by plowing, made it impossible for our farm crops to do their best. Obviously, it seems that the time has arrived for us to look into our methods of soil management, with a view to copying the surface situation we find in forest and field where the plow has not disturbed the soil. No crime is involved in plagiarizing nature's ways. Discovering the underlying principles involved and carrying them over for use on cultivated land violates no patents or copyrights. In fact, all that it is necessary to do—if we want a better agriculture—is to recharge the soil surface with materials that will rot. Natural processes will do the rest. The plant kingdom is organized to clothe the earth with greenery, and, wherever man does not disturb it, the entire surface usually is well covered. The task of this book is to show that our soil problems have been to a considerable extent psychological; that, except for our sabotage of nature's design for growth, there is no soil problem.


Excerpted from Plowman's Folly by Edward H. Faulkner. Copyright © 1974 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


The Chapters,
1. The Margin of Error,
2. What Is Soil?,
3. Soil Does Not Erode,
4. Traditions of the Plow,
5. "Research": Unsponsored ... Unconventional,
6. Proof on a Field Scale,
7. Soil by Machine,
8. King Weather Deposed,
9. Tile Treachery,
10. What About Soil Types?,
11. Coals to Newcastle,
12. Exit Pests,
13. Weedless Farming,
14. Mother Earth Can Smile Again,

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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had been wanting this book for a long time and, when I got it I was not disappointed. It is a must read for anyone who grows a garden or anyone who loves the land. It was first published in 1943 but the information is just as important today as it was back then.