Growing Things

The devastation of fall tillage is everywhere.

Fall tillage is a relic of the Dust Bowl days; a time when technology required tillage to slow competition with the crop. The costs were high. There were houses where the dust blew into attics and the weight collapsed them. The soil became a lifeless medium only serving to store hauled in nutrients and crop roots.

Now we have chemicals to control weeds and planters that can plant corn and soybeans into almost any conditions. There is even an organic farmer who no-tills 5,000 acres in North Dakota. He’s a walking testament that no-till doesn’t limit size or success or require chemicals.

I had a job at a junior college in Oakland as an organic gardening teacher. I knew little of the subject through experience or book learning. What we learned, we learned together. In a way, it was more effective than dozing through lectures.

I had one student who worked at a beneficial insect company. At my house we had a rose bush that was hardly recognizable because of a thick coating of aphids. That student brought a small glass vial with a cotton ball to school and I took it home and put the Green Lacewing eggs in a crotch of the rose bush. Twenty-four hours later there was no sign of an aphid..

Once Dawn and I had paid for the farm and our main helper, Karl, decided to strike out on his own we changed from hog farmers to wildflower seed production. We found a guy in Southwest Iowa who would buy our seeds. They were certified by the Iowa Ecotype Project at the University of Northern Iowa. We planted Pale Purple Coneflower, Rough Blazing Star, Purple Prairie Clover and Side Oats Grama in 30-inch rows. It took a lot of hand weeding because the effect of herbicides was not confirmed through testing.

The Side Oats Grama was interesting. I drove our empty Buffalo Planter over 3.5 acres to create narrow strips of cleared soil. Then I pushed an Earthway hand seeder over those strips. The soil needed to be packed firmly to mimic a natural environment so I drove our dirt bike over the rows.

Soon, fine blades of grass broke the surface and it looked picture perfect. The hard work had paid off, almost. After about another week, wide pale green leaves invaded our beautiful Side Oats stand, right in the row. Most gardeners would recognize the invaders as Crab Grass. Our expensive seed from the university was contaminated. I called the director and he said, “Just keep it mowed for a few years.”

Side Oats Grama grows in an upright manner while Crabgrass creeps along the ground. Clean Side Oats seed could have been harvested by avoiding the lower parts of the canopy but the university isn’t going to go broke because of a poor product.

Eventually the Side Oats survived the competition from the Crabgrass and in subsequent years we sprayed a pre-emergent grass herbicide to control the Crabgrass. Crabgrass is an annual so the herbicide worked on it but allowed the perennial Side Oats to thrive. The seed we sold was pure.

There is some good information coming from the universities lately. No-till and strip-till have proven to be more profitable than growing corn and soybeans with tillage. But professors like that one from U.N.I. have discredited what comes out of the universities.

It’s too bad because we face an impending drought and everything most farmers have done so far this year will make it worse with their destructive tillage practices.

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