New Lessons And Old Memories Down On The Farm

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A couple weeks ago I had an opportunity to go back in time. Growing up as a Michigan farm kid back in the 1960’s and 1970’s (I know, I seem to date myself a lot lately!) meant a lot of hard work. Even so, those days were some of the best times of my life even though I did not always realize it back then.

My parents not only farmed 150 acres, which in those days was a sizable farm, but they also put in a huge 2-acre truck garden. We raised the gamut from potatoes, tomatoes, sweet corn, peppers and everything in between that we could sell at our produce stand in the front yard since we were located right on M-60. After these “regular” crops were done, Dad put in turnips as a cover crop and people would come from miles around for their free turnips from “the turnip man” as he was known.

It was just normal for us three kids to be in the fields and the garden from dawn to dusk, literally, during our summer “vacation.” Most kids who are put to this test run the other way as soon as they can and I was no different. It is hard work. But, after being away for a while, I realized how very special digging in the dirt was. I have always tinkered in my garden, but this year I got the chance to go back “down on the farm” and help Ron when he planted his field corn and soy beans.

There is no other joy like smelling the scent of a fresh-plowed field and seeing the tiny seeds that will soon become mature plants feeding a nation being dropped in rows and covered all to the hum of a tractor. It was especially magical when we planted late one night after dark to the light of a full moon. It was like we had the whole world to ourselves, just us and nature. Even more miraculous was to dig down in just three days after planting and see a bean sprouted already; a new life from a seed that had looked dormant earlier. Pretty awesome.

Besides the sweet memories this experience brought back, this venture also taught me, up front and personal, the difference between tilling and no-tilling the ground. When I was a kid helping Dad plowing was the only option for preparing the soil for planting. Now farmers have a choice and the great debate is whether to till or no-till, with pros and cons on both sides.

Because of all the rain, farmers planting dates were pushed back at least a couple of weeks in most areas of the country this year. Consequently, many of them, even the die-hard ones who always tilled instead of no-till, didn’t have a choice for some of their ground because tilling takes longer as it requires usually three passes over a field with a plow and then disked twice to prepare it for planting. I soon learned that Ron was no fan of no-till as he moaned and groaned over these acres. Inquisitive me soon learned why.

No-till, also called zero tillage, is a way of growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil through tillage whereas in conventional tillage the earth is turned to a depth of 8 to 12 inches with a plow then disked twice or more to prepare the seed bed.

No-till increases the amount of water that infiltrates into the soil and increases organic matter retention and the cycling of nutrients in the soil. With lots of fertile topsoil being worn away by wind and water at rates figured in tons per acre per year, no-till does help preserve topsoil.

Traditional plowing loosens the soil so oxygen and water can reach the area where roots will grow. Although this method serves to aerate the soil, it also compresses the ground with the many passes over it with large equipment. With no-till, planting is done directly through the residues of previous plants and weeds with a device that cuts a slot a few inches wide followed by equipment that places the seeds and closes the trench. Both conventional methods and no-till prepare the seed bed and studies have shown that plant roots develop at least as well in no-till fields as in plowed. Although fertilizers like anhydrous ammonia, phosphorous and potassium are also equally effective on both types of prepared fields, plowing incorporates the fertilizer and crop residue into the soil, making the nutrients readily available to plant roots. Plowing organic matter under also prevents planters from becoming fouled with surface trash.

No-till soil may stay moister than tilled because surface residues trap water and protect the earth below from the evaporative effect of the wind. Thus, on types of ground that lose moisture quickly like sandy loam, no-till will help retain the moisture. One of the big problems with conventional agriculture’s heavy use of nitrogen is the leaking of these compounds into the surface water during runoff. By retaining rainfall, the untilled field also holds the chemicals, thereby reducing pollution potential. On the other hand, with no-till crop residues are left on the surface and when they decay they leach into the soil.

Cultivation is the general way that conventional agriculture controls weeds and it also opens the ground before and after planting. With no-till herbicides take the place of cultivation which leads some to call no-till as practiced in the United States no-till/chemical agriculture.

There is definitely a place for no-till as it has the ability to create a more natural soil that retains nutrients and water, prevents soil erosion and compacts less. But I would be hard-pressed to go that route after looking down the rows of corn and beans sprouting of a traditionally plowed field. There is still a lot to be said for regular plowing. The neat rows showing off the contour of the land give a field a beauty that no-till car ever equal.

I have experienced both now and the no-till was definitely a rough ride where we could hardly make out the line left by the planter marker. You can’t smell the good earth through the no-till and you can’t feel it in your hands. The plow was created for a reason and, though everything has its place, I still believe it is the direct link between man and the good earth.