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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Fjordworks Plowing the Market Garden
Fjordworks Plowing the Market Garden

Jay Bailey and Suffolks plowing in a clover cover crop. Illustration by Stephen Leslie.

Fjordworks: Plowing the Market Garden

by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance provided by Kerry Gawalt, both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, VT.

Meditations on the Art and Science of the Moldboard Plow

PART ONE: To Plow or Not to Plow?

The plow is a tool that is as old as agriculture itself. In many parts of the world people can still be found tilling the soil with primitive “scratch” plows with a hardened wooden point pulled behind oxen, buffalo, donkeys, or horses. The invention in 18th Century England of the cast-iron moldboard plow constituted the beginnings of the modern agricultural revolution. It allowed farmers to work heavier soil types unsuitable to the scratch plow or wooden moldboards and, once coupled with an efficient harness system for hitching to horses, greatly expanded the amount of land that could be tilled in a season.

Moldboard plows fashioned of wood were already in use by farmers of the Roman Empire. The earliest known moldboard plows date back to Ancient China of the Third Century BCE. Known as kuan, these plowshares were fabricated out of malleable cast iron. They featured a central ridge terminating in a sharp point designed to cut the soil and wings which sloped up towards the center to throw the soil off the face of the share and reduce friction. This type of plow was first brought to Holland in the 17th Century and was probably the first iron plow to be seen in Europe. The Chinese plow may have been the inspiration for the rapid improvements that occurred in European designs thereafter. The new Dutch plows had a curved wooden moldboard reinforced with an iron point and cutting edge.

The first routine use of the moldboard plow in Northern Europe dates back to the early 9th century, a time period that corresponds to the widespread adoption of the three-field crop rotation scheme of cereal grains, legumes (peas, beans, lentils), and fallow. This period marked the beginning of a gradual transition from oxen to horse as the principal mode of draft power on the farm. Prior to this, a two-field rotation had been common practice, but the adoption of horse power over oxen required a more intensive land use pattern because of the horse’s higher feeding requirements. In compensation, the work horse provided a faster, longer-lived, more versatile form of motive traction.

The development of the steel moldboard plow by John Deere allowed early 19th Century American farmers to turn over two acres of sod in a day (prior to this an acre was the approximate measure of how much a team of oxen or horses could be expected to plow in one day). This might not sound like much compared to the 20-30 acres that can now be typically plowed in a day with a tractor, but if you consider the capital investment necessary to own the tractor, the team of horses hitched to this elegantly simple implement begins to make sense to the small scale producer.

Fjordworks Plowing the Market Garden

Vintage two way plow. Sam White and Belgians.

For centuries, primary tillage for the production of annual crops has traditionally begun with a moldboard plow and even today the moldboard is still the basic utilitarian tool for soil and crop management on many small farms. Even though plowing is a common task it requires attention and skill. True mastery of the horse-drawn walking plow constitutes an art form. You have to know the intricacies of the tool and be a highly competent teamster to be effective. It can take years of practice. Prior to the introduction of tractors on the estates of Great Britain the plowman held an elevated position distinct from all other farm laborers. In this series of articles we will look at specific applications of both horse-drawn walking and riding plows in the management of a market garden.

In a horse-powered market garden in the 1- to 10-acre range the moldboard plow can still serve us very well as one valuable component within a whole tool kit of tillage methods. In the market garden the plow is used principally to turn in crop residue or cover crops with the intention of preparing the ground to sow new seeds. In these instances, the plow is often the most effective tool the horse-powered farmer has on hand for beginning the process of creating a fine seed bed.

The most often heard criticism of the moldboard plow is that its repeated use results in the formation of a plow pan (also known as hard pan) — an impenetrable floor just below the maximum depth of the share. This criticism needs to be balanced by considering the alternative methods of tillage.

The years following World War II ushered in what are surely the most rapid and radical changes in the history of agriculture. Farmers in the mid-west had only recently emerged from the devastating effects of the Dust Bowl years. In 1945 USDA agronomist Edward Faulkner wrote his treatise ‘A Plowman’s Folly’ in which he extolled the virtues of the disc plow. He chronicled the transition of the soil of his own farm — land that had been conventionally plowed for many years — to the alternative methods of using a disc plow and disc harrow to incorporate organic matter on the surface instead of burying it with the moldboard. Faulkner had many valid criticisms of the over-use of the moldboard plow and in many ways he was ahead of his time. He was often demonized by his contemporaries for his advocacy of alternative methods, though today many farmers follow his methods and solely rely on disc harrows, disc plows, field cultivators, or more recently, No-Till practices, to prepare the ground for their crops.

One of the most common tillage tools used on contemporary conventional and organic market gardens is the rotovator — a tractor-mounted rototiller. This tillage tool has the great advantage of reducing the number of implements and passes required to form a seedbed. In just one or two passes it can turn an over-grown garden bed into a perfect seedbed for waiting transplants. The tractor mounted rototiller rotates the tines through the soil by means of the PTO (power-take-off unit). In order to effectively till the soil the garden tractor is put in low gear and the implement is run at high speed — generally in the range of 2300 RPMs (revolutions per minute). The rotovator can be a useful tool, but if not employed judiciously it will eventually have detrimental effects on soil organisms and structure.

The intermittent use of the plow within the context of multiple crop rotations is a far cry from the routine seasonal turning of hundreds or even thousands of acres for the production of commodity field crops. On the small diversified farm the plow can be utilized strategically to actually aid in the quest to avoid erosion, increase soil organic matter, and maximize retention of soil moisture and nutrients precisely because of its ability to help the farmer manage the extensive use of cover crops.

Fjordworks Plowing the Market Garden

Discing-in cover crops.

At Cedar Mountain Farm, beginning in 1997 and continuing over the course of several years, we made the transition from tractor to all-horse-drawn implements in our market garden. Once we became 100% horse-powered the difference in soil tilth was quite palpable. Now a section of the garden that is spread, plowed, disced, harrowed, and cultivated with the horses is so friable you can plunge your hand deep into the loam, whereas in our tractor-powered phase, anywhere the tractor wheels had rolled — 3” below the ground was like pavement and the seedlings did not prosper. Even when the horses travel at a faster speed than the garden tractor the plows and harrows do not work the soil nearly as aggressively as tractor-powered tillage tools. The soil flora and fauna are not nearly as disturbed by the horse-drawn implements as they are by being run through such implements as rotovator or even the slower turning soil spader. And without the intermittent use of a chisel plow, the rotovator will form its own species of hard pan — as will a disc-plow and a disc harrow. On the balance, our experience has been that the fieldwork accomplished with the horse-drawn implements is gentler upon the ground even given the fact that we occasionally have to make multiple passes with secondary tillage implements to achieve acceptable results.

Whether or not the regular use of the plow will lead to hard pan is also a factor of your soil type. For the farm with a sandy or gravely loam the danger of creating a permanent plow pan with the moldboard is not as relevant as it is for the farmer working a clay or silt loam. On heavier soils the farmer has to be much more discerning about when to plow, as plowing when such unforgiving soil is too wet will haunt one for the rest of the season with cinder-like clods that never seem to break apart. Even when saturated, lighter sandier soils are less prone to the “smearing” effect of the plow (a smooth shiny appearance to the trough of the furrow that suggests the ground is too wet to be worked). In a dry year deeper spring plowing in a lighter soil might even help reduce the filtration of moisture back down through to the parent-rock as the dry of summer comes on.

The concerns stemming from issues of plow pan are perhaps most relevant to farms with deep glacial banks of topsoil such as are found in the Upper Midwest. Under those conditions, repeated plowing at the same depth may cut off the plant root zone from access to nutrients deeper down and affect the percolation of moisture through to these deeper zones. Here in New England most farmers are lucky to have 10” of quality topsoil. However, on any farm, varying the depth of successive tillage on any given section within a planned rotation of crops is a reflection of good common sense. In such a rotation, depth and type of tillage can be fine-tuned to best accommodate the needs of particular crops. For instance, if we have a section that was fall planted to oats and peas into which we are intending to transplant spring brassica, we know we can get by with simply discing and harrowing prior to planting because the transplants won’t be bothered by the resulting surface crop residue of the winter-killed cover crop. But if we are direct-seeding carrots into a section that has a catch-crop of over-wintered rye we will need to plow that in several weeks before the planting date in order to break down the rye’s seed-germination-inhibiting qualities and to have the crop residue digested into the soil to facilitate making a fine seed bed (we will also factor in enough time to get in at least a couple of stale- bed harrow passes prior to seeding to help reduce weed pressure).

Fjordworks Plowing the Market Garden

New Pioneer walking plow.

There was once an astounding number and variety of horse-drawn plows manufactured in North America — a plow for virtually every arable soil type on the continent. The nature of live horse power encouraged this kind of ingenious customized design because horses pulling a plow cannot power their way through obstructions the way a tractor can. The modifications of horse-drawn plow designs enabled farmers to work any kind of soil capable of yielding a crop. The majority of these walking and riding plows were mass-produced between 1880 and World War II. Many of these plows are still serviceable, with replacement shares and parts available through brand equipment dealers and vintage equipment specialists. There are also several innovative lines of new horse-drawn plows being produced. The small companies that manufacture these plows are now finding an increased demand for them all across North America and as far away as Europe. In part two of this series we will examine how some of these old and new plows are being utilized on contemporary horse-powered market gardens.

END OF PART ONE

Fjordworks Plowing the Market Garden

Spotlight On: How-To & Plans

Forging Rings in the Farm Blacksmith Shop

Forging Rings in the Farm Blacksmith Shop

by:
from issue:

Fabricating steel rings is a common task in my small farm blacksmith shop. They are often used on tie-rings for my customer’s barns, chain latches on gates, neck yoke rings, etc. It’s simple enough to create a ring over the horn of the anvil or with the use of a bending fork, however, if you want to create multiple rings of the same diameter it’s worthwhile to build a hardy bending jig.

Building a Community, Building a Barn

Building a Community, Building a Barn

by:
from issue:

One of the most striking aspects of this development is the strength and confidence that comes from this communal way of living. While it is impressive to build a barn in a day it seems even more impressive to imagine building four barns or six, and all the rest of the needs of a community. For these young Amish families the vision of a shared agricultural community is strong, and clear.

Delivery Wagon Plans

Delivery Wagon Plans

from issue:

While the low down delivery wagon is an improvement, the objectionable features are increased. But with all those objections the low down wagons increase every year. Their convenience outweighs all other objections. They are handy for country delivery and are fitted up inside to suit either grocers, bakers, butchers or milk delivery, or a combination of the four.

Box Jaw Tongs & the Cow Poop Theory of Blacksmithing

Box Jaw Tongs & the Cow Poop Theory of Blacksmithing

by:
from issue:

Making a pair of tongs was a milestone for a lot of blacksmiths. In times gone past a Journeyman Smith meant just that, a smith that went upon a journey to learn more skills before taking a masters test. When the smith appeared at the door of a prospective employer, he/she would be required to demonstrate their skills. A yard stick for this was to make a pair of tongs.

Blacksmithing with Pete Cecil Building a Fire

Farm Drum #29: Blacksmithing with Pete Cecil – Building a Fire

Lynn Miller & Pete Cecil talk about Blacksmithing basics, and Pete demonstrates building a fire in the forge.

Collar Hames and Harness Fitting

Collars, Hames and Harness Fitting

Farmers who are good horsemen know everything that is presented here: yet even they will welcome this leaflet because it will refresh their memories and make easier their task when they have to show hired men or boys how to adjust equipment properly. Good horsemen know from long experience that sore necks or sore shoulders on work stock are due to ignorance or carelessness of men in charge, and are inexcusable.

An Efficient, Economical Barn

by:
from issue:

A well thought out, functional barn should be the center piece of any farming endeavor, horse powered or fossil fueled, that involves livestock. After building and using two previous barns during our lifetimes, I think the one we now have has achieved a level of convenience, efficiency, and economy that is worth passing on.

A Horse Powered Round Bale Unroller

A Horse Powered Round Bale Unroller

by:
from issue:

We had experimented with unrolling the bales the year before and had decided to make a device that would let us move them with the horses and then unroll them. I used square tubing to make a simple frame with two arms attached to a cross piece which connected to a tongue. Small diagonal braces made the arrangement rigid and the arms had a right angle piece of square tubing on their ends which allowed a pin to be driven into the middle of the round bale from each side.

How To Prune

From Dusty Shelves: Pruning Guide from 1917

Homemade Cheese Press

Homemade Cheese Press

by:
from issue:

On the Gies farmstead we occasionally wallow in goat milk. From it we make our own butter, yogurt and cheese as well as drink some. This has prompted me to build a little cheese press to help with the extra milk. The press is made from inexpensive 1/2 inch thick plastic cutting boards used for the top and bottom plates and pressure disks, white pvc pipe, and a plastic floor drain cap.

Blacksmithing

Blacksmithing

from issue:

Modern farm machinery is largely of iron and steel construction, making an equipment of metal working tools necessary if satisfactory repairs are to be made. Forging operations consist of bending, upsetting, drawing out, welding, punching, drilling, riveting, thread-cutting, hardening, tempering, and annealing. Heat makes iron soft and ductile. Practically all forging operations on iron can be done more rapidly when it is at a high heat. Steel will not stand as high a temperature.

McCormick Deering/International No 7 vs no 9

McCormick Deering/International: No. 7 versus No. 9

McCormick Deering/International’s first enclosed gear model was the No. 7, an extremely successful and highly popular mower of excellent design.

Horse Powered Snow Scoop

Horse Powered Snow Scoop

by:
from issue:

The scoop has two steel sides about 5 feet apart sitting on steel runners made out of heavy 2 X 2 angle iron, there is a blade that is lowered and raised by use of a foot release which allows the weight of the blade to lower it and then lock in the down position and the forward motion of the horses to raise it and lock it in the up position. This is accomplished by a clever pivoting action where the tongue attaches to the snow scoop.

The Horsedrawn Mower Book

Removing the Wheels from a McCormick Deering No. 9 Mower

How to remove the wheels of a No. 9 McCormick Deering Mower, an excerpt from The Horsedrawn Mower Book.

Pulling A Load With Oxen

an excerpt from Oxen: A Teamster’s Guide

Farm Drum 32 Blacksmithing with Pete Cecil

Farm Drum #32: Blacksmithing with Pete Cecil – Finishing the Hook

Pete Cecil demonstrates basic blacksmithing techniques through crafting a hook in the forge.

Harvesting Rainwater

Harvesting Rainwater

by:
from issue:

Collecting rainwater for use during dry months is an ancient practice that has never lost its value. Today, simple water collection systems made from recycled food barrels can mean a free source of non-potable water for plants, gardens, bird baths, and many other uses. Rainwater is ideal for all plants because it doesn’t contain dissolved minerals or added chemicals. One inch of rain falling on a 1,000 square foot roof yields approximately 600 gallons of water.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT