Fierce Plowmen & The Marsden Project
Fierce Plowmen & The Marsden Project

Fierce Plowmen & The Marsden Project

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

He held close, every day, the layers of his farm – the livestock, each species; the fields at their readiness or usefulness or at the fallow; the ripenings, the remainders, the margins, the rottings, the seeds, the pollen races, the droppings, the absorbent chaff, the everything of his, this farm world. Close as it all was to him it required and earned his attention. He could tell you what piece of that field had a shallower top soil, he could tell you the history of the grandmother of that Guernsey heifer and how it might influence the coming parturition, he could predict the bloom of different crops and talk of how the bees affected it all passing one to the other, he did speak of this strain of legume seed he had carefully gathered and replanted for a quarter of a century, and he could wax poetic about plowing. He loved to plow, loved the slicing of the earth, the flip, the crumbling curving wave, the evidence it allowed him. He never tired of ‘working’ his soil and having it work for him.

Great Uncle Ephraim farmed his whole life in Minnesota. His time spanned nine-plus decades from the post-civil war years forward. He was successful and solid. He believed to his core that he knew why he was successful, it was because he was a good farmer who trusted the evidence of his years and fields and cows. When America spawned its golden era of farming, from 1900 to 1920, Ephraim was there to absorb and apply. Most of his latter years were spent alone with his fields and his Guernseys. Those pre-chemical-warfare years of farming were rich in the profitable theories and practices of a many-layered and multi-tiered agriculture. Crop rotations, rotational grazing, and an applied respect for the finer moments of seasonal bio-rythmns made of his place an ever changing jewel of diversity. His was a complex approach, lacing different aspects together – the livestock were allowed and encouraged to compliment crops, cropping and soil management while the harvest of feeds always took into consideration the other components be they birthing, breeding, weather, or overall timing. For the intricate overlapping crop rotation cycles he employed, cycles that could run to six years, he designed his field sizes to advantage thinking in terms of ‘lands’ rather than fields and keeping those ‘lands’ at 4 to 10 acres maximum. Of his quarter section thirty acres were in woods and farmstead, the remaining were split in changing mosaic between pasture and crop land. He enjoyed giving pieces of his land three to four year holidays as pasture as much as he enjoyed plowing those up to bring them back into the cropping rotation. Great Uncle Ephraim loved to plow. In fact he would argue fiercely that what caused farmers to fail was lack of regard for the plow and plowing. In his last years he got wind of arguments against plowing, arguments which pointed to the moldboard as the thing which caused the great dustbowl. Those arguments angered and confused him, he didn’t understand any of it and was quick to say “I don’t know what I don’t know, but here farming is working the land and working with the land”. For him, if you were to farm in the hill country of Minnesota you had better learn to love the plow. Great Uncle Ephraim was a fierce plowman.

Fierce Plowmen & The Marsden Project
Brian MacNaughton’s farm.

The Poisons Take it All

Jumping back a ways, with a longer view, we can speak now of how it was that the great war efforts and the fragile economy saw the inevitable spread of heavy chemistry across the agricultural landscape. When the two world wars wound down there had to be a place to apply the mechanization and chemistry no longer required in European trenches. So it was force fed and dumped on our advanced and once elegant farming systems. We’ve seen the results and they have often been terrible. Chemical fertilizers, herbicides, defoliants, fungicides, insecticides, and sterilization elements all killing and misshaping our farming. The growing of food and fiber went from art and craft (as in Uncle Ephraim’s case) to industrial process and mining. The result has been a deteriorization of the environment, a diminishment of genetic diversity, a depopulation of the countryside and a reduction in our farm productivity. For most of these last forty years our sorry-butt political and academic leaders have argued that what we have is the best system of food production and that what we left behind was “drudgery, superstition, and poor yields”.

What our industrial system left behind was my Great Uncle Ephraim, and millions like him, and he never saw his labor as drudgery, he never felt his beliefs to be superstition bound, and he knew his yields were outstanding. He had secrets to share, he had grounded fears to pass on, and he wanted to give to young people his love of the cows and of plowing. But that was not to happen. Not directly.

Forward to The Beginnings

Now today, out of and in spite of the wasteland that is agribusiness, we see growing evidence, even an avalanche of hopeful examples all pointing to a return to farming as art and craft.

I’ve seen the evidence, I know what it looks like, smells like, hums like. I’m speaking of the very best that farming can be. I am speaking of the trail and picture of consummate regard for the four dimensional musical composition that a handmade farming might be. I’ve seen it, many times in my lifetime. But recently I saw it nearby. The best farmer I know is Brian MacNaughton. He has worked for us for several years, helping at the ranch all the while doing his own postage-stamp-size market garden farm huge in its production and fertility. I bring up Brian’s example because he is proof for me that the old ways, Ephraim’s ways, have become new again.

And lest you think I am pointing to Uncle Ephraim’s as the old way please allow me to point out that his ways were just representative of ONE culmination of an attitude and approach towards farming that is thousands of years in the making.

The Chinese author Chen Pu (also known as Chen Fu) wrote in 1149 “Nongshu” or “On Farming”. What follows is an excerpt.


Early and late plowing both have their advantages. For the early rice crops, as soon as the reaping is completed, immediately plow the fields and expose the stalks to glaring sunlight. Then add manure and bury the stalks to nourish the soil. Next, plant beans, wheat and vegetables to ripen and fertilize the soil so as to minimize the next year’s labor. In addition, when the harvest is good these extra crops can add to the yearly income. For late crops, however, do not plow until spring. Because the rice stalks are soft but tough, it is necessary to wait until they have fully decayed to plow satisfactorily.

In the mountains, plateaus and wet areas, it is usually cold. The fields here should be deeply plowed and soaked with water released from reservoirs. Throughout the winter, the water will be absorbed, and the snow and frost will freeze the soil so that it will become brittle and crumbly. At the beginning of spring, spread the fields with decayed weeds and leaves and then burn them, so that the soil will become warm enough for the seeds to sprout. In this way, cold as the freezing springs may be, they cannot harm the crop. If you fail to treat the soil this way, then the arteries of the fields, being soaked constantly by freezing rains, will be cold, and the crop will be poor.

When it is time to sow the seed, sprinkle lime in the wet soil to root out harmful insect larvae.

Chen Pu lived in the midst of the Song Dynasty, a period of tremendous agricultural productivity. This period benefited from the refinement of double and triple cropping in irrigated fields made possible by new farming techniques aided by the spread of information. Chen Pu published handbooks on farming which were circulated across the country. It is said that the richness of the farming from this period resulted in dramatic growth and stability for China.

Today China is as much at risk as the U.S. of losing its productivity, heritage and biological diversity as it grants to global corporations the right to poison in the name of agri-business.

We still have access to much of the information that supported our best farming though we may have lost the direct living connection and hand-offs from people like Uncle Ephraim. But do we have the will, as a people, to find our way back? I believe it may come down to what we collectively believe to be ‘truth’.

Fierce Plowmen & The Marsden Project
Brian MacNaughton’s farm.

Social Truths?

In our society, this time argues with us – each of us – that ‘social truth’ is trapped within a moveable constantly shifting and overlapping grid. It’s almost as though ‘social truth’ has become a circumstantial oxymoron, that in this day and age there is nothing completely true or absolute about our society. Aren’t we too various to be, all of us, of or about or dedicated to anything even the higher human pursuits? Can it be said of our society that as a whole it believes in the sanctity of life? Can it be said that our society absolutely values the natural world and bio-diversity? Can it be said that our society is on the side of spirituality? Questions of religious and political polarization as well as techno-artisinal spirit-wrestling are only pieces of a wider confusion that threatens to make of homogeneity a curious relic. We are, without always realizing it, allowing ourselves to be herded towards ‘concentration’ camps delineated by our chosen ‘persuasions’. I am a painter, writer and farmer. By those choices I am being herded towards a prejudged social encampment of people who are believed to be ‘concentrating’ on ‘liberal’ and self-gratifying endeavors and beliefs. I am seen by many as some weird kind of aging hippy with no regard for the politics of others. That, in spite of the evidence that I’ve spent my life, talents and interests working in the opposite direction. That is only important in this writing as I make a case for all of us to allow the best evidence to affect our next set of choices.

Farming is at a cross-roads right now. Industrial agribusiness is a miserable failure which struggles to compound the damage it has done by desperately ‘doubling down’ its wager in the arenas of scientific mutation and chemical warfare. Millions of people worldwide want to farm and suspect, against all corporate propaganda to the reverse, that given half a chance they could make a go of it. So they wiggle around in corners such as this looking for answers, clues, road maps and evidence. When they find the stories of Chen Pu and Uncle Ephraim and Brian MacNaughton you can see the electricity. But they still fight that new bugaboo I call ‘the acids of social truth’.

All through my adult life, because of my interests in things agricultural, artistic, and environmental I have found myself participating in committee discussions at seminal moments when well-meaning public-interest groups felt they had discovered the single-defining-argument, that piece of the puzzle which when applied would ‘force’ everyone else to accept the absolute inevitability of their prescribed agenda. And frequently it was apparent at that time that a risk existed that to push the argument to the absolute of that decision would change the rules of the game for a dangerously long time.

I was a member of two different organizations, one a non-governmental body and another a government task force, both of which were pledged to find a workable solution to the destruction of clear-cutting PNW forests. We had mountains of arguments and examples of the incredible potential for sustainable forestry practises, with a ‘farming’ approach to the woods rather than a ‘mining’ approach. That was the direction we were working in when some of the people in our midst had what they saw as an Aha moment that would ‘win’ the game for all time. Few of us understood that in that moment we traded our work towards elegant systemic solutions for a court-ordered edict disenfranchising not only people but biological diversity as well.

The lawyers and tacticians in our groups pointed to the federal endangered species act and said “if we can find just one species endangered by clear-cutting we will win this in the courts!” I and others said, “whoa folks, do we really want to change the rules of the game to that extent? What happens in the future IF your endangered specie should be shown to thrive elsewhere? Or if it should be found to be extinct in spite of this effort? What happens to the forests then? You are saying that ‘so long as this is our identified concern you can no longer clear-cut these forests’ – you are inviting that “when this is no longer a concern it will be ‘a Bob’s Your Uncle’ moment, simple as that, cut as fast as we can every tree we can ‘find’!”

Find? Finding? We speak of findings, in this context, as what the research would evidence. Semantically it is most telling that it would suggest that frequently we have ‘found’ something that was lost, perhaps in plain sight.

Yes, do what you must to save the Spotted Owl BUT do not make the future of our forests to hinge on that misplaced rusty pin. Instead SHOW and PROVE and EXAMPLE how sustainable forestry practises will grow more trees, provide ample lumber and jobs, protect the fragile forest eco-system and our environment.

Within this little aside of my connection to the spotted owl narrative I see the parallels to agriculture in general. In spite of the overwhelming evidence of what a rich inherited farming craft can give and has given us we still allow the linear thinkers in our midst to apply the bigger hammer at the expense of the mandolins. But that is no longer necessary BECAUSE we have hundreds of thousands of new farmers worldwide who have taken their initial enchantments with farming beyond implication and well into application. We have that strong shot at exampling and showcasing the elegant systemic solutions that ARE a craft and humanbased agriculture. But still we must beware the Aha moments in the hands of the grandchildren of those architects of industrial agriculture, those who, while they shop at Whole Foods hold to the belief that the future must be shaped by police and government edict.

  • Those who for wildly various reasons, want to outlaw the consumption of this or that piece of the food pyramid,
  • those who point to manures and say they harbor disease and must NEVER be used as fertilizer,
  • those who would, out of a concern for some empathetic connection to the bovine, outlaw the human consumption of milk,
  • those who would mandate the dehorning of livestock,
  • those who would outlaw the use of equine in harness because it is cruel,
  • those who demand that grains not be fed to livestock,
  • those who are on a mission to criminalize choice in farming,
  • those who would make it illegal for amateurs to farm,
  • and on and on…

I say all of this and more represents a body of folk with entirely too much time on their hands. Focus is lost. That focus that would provide some distance and clarity. While we pick at each other in these ways, multi-national corporations and storebought science continue to mutate life and sell poisons that destroy the biology of this planet. While we nit-pick and divert, war-waging governments continue to endorse the mining of the world. There are important things to outlaw, we don’t have time or excuse to mess with our neighbors. If we insist on keeping things close-at-hand, then we should be spending more time on our own farming adventure. What happened to the maturity of our culture and society? Where did it go?

I’m reminded of that line from the Dylan song, “we were so much older then we’re younger than that now.”

Fierce Plowmen & The Marsden Project
Brian MacNaughton’s farm.

And on that note

It took 9 years, three separate controlled experiments, side-by-side, conducted by a wheelbarrow-load of academics from the USDA, Minnesota and Iowa to determine dramatically and conclusively that we CAN affordably feed the world, improve the environment, grow the top soil, pay the farmers for the work AND end the addiction to expensive and destructive chemicals. And that was the unintended consequence of this research. So much so that some of the architects, most notably the USDA, hope it quietly goes away.

On October 19 of 2012 a food writer for the New York Times, Mark Bittman, (someone who has demonstrated a limited understanding of the culture of agriculture and a general disdain for small farms) took credit for announcing to the world that a simple fix had been found for farming. An Aha moment? This is how he opens his article entitled “A Simple Fix for Farming”

It’s becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, and profitably, with far fewer chemicals. And I’m not talking about imposing some utopian vision of small organic farms on the world. Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use — if it wants to.

This was hammered home once again in what may be the most important agricultural study this year, although it has been largely ignored by the media, two of the leading science journals and even one of the study’s sponsors, the often hapless Department of Agriculture.

Bittman references what we are calling the Marsden Project entailing 9 years of research in crop rotation systems analyzing a comparison of the industrial model of corn/soybeans with three and four year rotations. The New York Times has seldom bothered itself with any deep tissue analysis of our agriculture because it doesn’t sell perfume ads. But it is more than notable that this study got referenced there. My own biased and deep-tissued take on this study is that it is the most important accidental agricultural discovery of these last fifty years as much because of “who done it” as because of what it says. And that, it must be said, in light of the fact that they discovered absolutely nothing new. The Marsden Project has establishment industrial-agriculturalists eating their own propaganda. The Marsden Project clearly and dramatically concludes that the craft of farming beats out the industrial model of agriculture It produces more food and fiber while improving the soil and requiring little or no chemical inputs – period – unless of course you want to go deeper in and say that it invites bio-diversity, more people on the land, improved water quality, revitalization of rural America and less hunger. Need I go on?

Karen Perry Stillerman, writing in the Union of Concerned Scientists Blog, does an admirable if limited job of presenting a suggestion of the implications of this study if not much on the application of same. Keep in mind that she as a science writer is speaking to industry NOT to farmers. Here’s how she frames her discussion;

Substantial improvements in the environmental sustainability of agriculture are achievable now, without sacrificing food production or farmer livelihoods. When agrichemical inputs are completely eliminated, yield gaps may exist between conventional and alternative systems. However, such yield gaps may be overcome through the strategic application of very low inputs of agrichemicals in the context of more diverse cropping systems. Although maize is grown less frequently in the 3-yr and 4-yr rotations than in the 2-yr rotation, this will not compromise the ability of such systems to contribute to the global food supply, given the relatively low contribution of maize and soybean production to direct human consumption and the ability of livestock to consume small grains and forages. Through a balanced portfolio approach to agricultural sustainability, cropping system performance can be optimized in multiple dimensions, including food and biomass production, profit, energy use, pest management, and environmental impacts.

What interests me more is how she then shifts slightly to qualify this study, if only peripherally, with a nod to how it might apply in the “real world”.

Big Ag has worked hard for decades to instill a belief—in farmers, policymakers, and the public—that its chemical-intensive industrial farming methods are more productive than low-input methods, and more profitable for farmers. In recent years, study after study has cast doubt on this view, and now a team of government and university researchers has published perhaps the most compelling data yet showing that more sustainable farming systems can achieve similar or greater yields and profits, despite steep reductions in chemical inputs.

The so-called Marsden Farm study is a large-scale, long-term experiment conducted by researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the University of Minnesota, and Iowa State University. So no, these aren’t California hippies or east coast elites. These folks know the dominant agricultural landscape of the Midwest—corn and soybeans. But they also want to better understand how systems that incorporate other crops, and even livestock, compare when performing head-to-head.

Keeping it simple (or not)

Over a period of nine years (2003-2011) on the Marsden Farm at Iowa State, the researchers replicated the conventional Midwestern farming system—a highly simplified rotation of corn and soybeans on the same fields on a two-year cycle, with copious additions of chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Alongside it, they grew two multi-crop alternatives: a 3-year rotation incorporating another grain (triticale or oats) plus a red clover cover crop, and a 4-year rotation that added alfalfa (a key livestock feed) into the mix.

I suspect we will be talking about the Marsden Project for a good long time. No doubt this is NOT what the USDA and its conglomerate brothers and sisters would prefer. It is our sincere wish that folks don’t take the project findings and feel compelled to apply them as a direct simplified formula which encourages a modest return to crop rotation with a reliance on heavy chemicals and genetic engineering. That would be missing the point and the OPPORTUNITY. Some are already arguing that ANY return to grazing livestock on “crop” land would be a reversal because they would compact the soil and no-till (that bizarre cousin to chemical warfare farming) more difficult. To reference Uncle Ephraim ‘why the heck would we be afraid of straight ahead tillage when it is a proven tool for the very best of farming craft?’

This is the time to reinvite an abiding respect for the mysteries of life and how mixing and matching, overlapping and resting systems do give us our best farming future.

Fierce Plowmen & The Marsden Project
Brian MacNaughton’s farm.

There are greater losses and most important lessons

Great Uncle Ephraim loved his Guernseys. They were his ladies. The herd dwindled as he aged but still, in his bachelor nineties, he never failed to milk the half dozen cows. The ritual reminded him of his entire farming history and kept him alive. His grandchildren had no interest in the farm or farming except that the land had come to be worth a great deal of money. Every morning, after milking Ephraim would drive the short distance to town and have coffee and eggs with an old friend and complain that no one was interested in what he knew.

As the family legend goes, Ephraim’s grandchildren became more and more concerned for his comfort and safety. They couldn’t understand how he at 90 plus years old could safely do the farm work and take care of the domestic duties himself. One day, on a visit, they found him out in the field working while the stove was accidentally left on in the house. A family meeting resulted in the decision to move Ephraim, against his will, to a rest home. They had to secure a court order because he was completely against it. He argued “who will take care of the cows?” They promised him that the cows would be taken care of . He still resisted up until the orderlies arrived with the ambulance to forcibly take him away. Two days later, at the rest home, Ephraim’s old breakfast buddy arrived for a visit and told of how the Guernseys had been hauled to the stockyard and sold for hamburger. The very next day 95 year old Ephraim died of unknown causes.

Epilogue: The family sold the farm and all the tools and divided the money convinced that they had done the right thing. The new owners of the farm ripped out the fences, bulldozed the house and barns and added the 160 acres to their 1,100 adjoining acres of corn and soybeans.

My job has always been to make sure that my Great Uncle Ephraim, the fierce plowman, always had someone hammering away at the need for better farming. Don’t know that I have succeeded. I do know that events such as the Marsden Project offer the contradiction of a measure of good news weighed against the knowledge that it’s late and that we lost so much treasure when we lost all of those Uncle Ephraims, all of those Fierce Plowmen who were waiting to lend us their secrets.