I haven’t expressed my appreciation to you folks who bother to read The Alternative for awhile. So here it is .
Actually, I have no idea what that thing is. I just hope you enjoy it. Please write back with any comments, questions, or rebukements. If you are ready to have The Alternative off of your email, let me know.
Anxiously awaiting any feedback, Fritz
I just read another article calling organic farming “sustainable.” This claim cannot go unchallenged. Granted, we do not know the long term effects of the chemicals we use. But we do know the effects of tillage.
Except for pasturing livestock or crimping rye as a weed suppressor in soybeans, there is little way to deal with weed competition and make organic farming economically viable without tillage. Tillage is murder. The life in the soil that we can’t see from a tractor seat is the basis for the productivity with which we are blessed. Those creatures are our partners in the production of food.
That life includes fungi, bacteria, insects, worms, and numerous other organisms that burrow in and bind soil to create pathways for water infiltration and also make nutrients available for use by the plants. Mycorrhizal fungi, for example, can grow into plant roots and convert enough soil phosphorous to a usable form that none needs to be purchased as fertilizer.
I remember many years ago, as I stood with my neighbor Dean, we were having a wet spring much like this year. The man who had just delivered fertilizer said, “Pretty wet out there. You better work it up to dry it out.” Obviously, if it is too wet to plant, it is too wet to work.
The increased water infiltration mentioned above also allows for better drainage. That is why long term no-till fields next to conventionally tilled ones show less ponding after a rain. Plant roots need air as well as water. Tilling the soil smears shut the air and water pathways.
The use of tillage by farmers who also use chemicals is more puzzling than the tillage alone of organic farmers. Considering that organic farmers can be profitable without chemicals, why spray and also till the soils, thus causing erosion along with the destruction of the soil structure? Why use both, especially considering that no-till equipment is so readily available?
This is not to disparage all farmers who use tillage. No-till takes a long term commitment. I know a farmer who tried no-till for a year. Compared to his conventional tillage system it yielded less because conventional tillage is mainly there to remedy the damage caused by tilling the year before.
We live in a culture of short term thinking. Some studies indicate that no-till takes three to five years to overcome years of damage from tillage to achieve its full potential. When you see how drought years and wet years alike, are moderated by a more natural soil profile, you will be convinced.
The battle lies in overcoming the threat of politics and other artificial market distortions that make long range planning difficult in justifying short term sacrifices. We can see how tariffs have destabilized the markets and ethanol mandates make alternative crops less attractive. If tilling this year to undo last year’s damage brings a profit, why risk a new system? Because a more positive outlook on life, makes us happy.
Perhaps the reasoning behind the widespread use of tillage is that the soil, like fossil fuels, might outlast a civilization that will succumb to war, environmental catastrophe, or disease before the soil or oil are depleted anyway. And that’s very sad.