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.
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.