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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 PST

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: Farming Systems & Approaches

The Forcing of Plants

The Forcing of Plants

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It is always advisable to place coldframes and hotbeds in a protected place, and particularly to protect them from cold north winds. Buildings afford excellent protection, but the sun is sometimes too hot on the south side of large and light-colored buildings. One of the best means of protection is to plant a hedge of evergreens. It is always desirable, also, to place all the coldframes and hotbeds close together, for the purpose of economizing time and labor.

Russian Dacha Gardening

Russian Dacha Gardens

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Russian household agriculture – dacha gardening – is likely the most extensive system of successful food production of any industrialized nation. This shows that highly decentralized, small-scale food production is not only possible, but practical on a national scale and in a geographically large and diverse country with a challenging climate for growing. Most of the USA has far more than the 110 days average growing season that Russia has.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 4

Assuming that you’ve found a farm you want to buy, next you’ll need to determine if you can buy it. If you have sold your property, and/or saved your money, and have the means to buy the farm you are sitting pretty. If you do not have the full price of a considered farm, in cash or any other form, you will likely have to look for financing.

The Woodfired Bottom-heated Greenhouse Bench

Cultivating Questions: The Woodfired Bottom-heated Greenhouse Bench

It took several incarnations to come up with a satisfactory design for the bottom heated greenhouse bench. In the final version we used two 55 gallon drums welded end-to-end for the firebox and a salvaged piece of 12” stainless steel chimney for the horizontal flue. We learned the hard way that a large firebox and flue are necessary to dissipate the intense heat into the surrounding air chamber and to minimize heat stress on these components.

Food Energy The Fragile Link Between Resources and Population

Food-Energy: the Fragile Link Between Resources & Population

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Now, after a one lifetime span of almost free energy and resultant copious food, the entire world faces the imminent decline (and eventual demise) of finite, fossil-fuel capital. Without fossil fuels, food can no longer be produced in one area and shipped thousands of miles to market. To suggest that the world will be able to feed the UN projected population of nine billion by 2050 is totally incomprehensible in the face of declining oil.

Henpecked Compost and U-Mix Potting Soil

We have hesitated to go public with our potting mix, not because the formula is top secret, but because our greenhouse experience is limited in years and scale. Nevertheless, we would like to offer what we have learned in hopes of showing that something as seemingly insignificant as putting together a potting mix can be integrated into a systems approach to farming.

Cultivating Questions A Diversity of Cropping Systems

Cultivating Questions: A Diversity of Cropping Systems

As a matter of convenience, we plant all of our field vegetables in widely spaced single rows so we can cultivate the crops with one setup on the riding cultivator. Row cropping makes sense for us because we are more limited by labor than land and we don’t use irrigation for the field vegetables. As for the economics of planting produce in work horse friendly single rows, revenue is comparable to many multiple row tractor systems.

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

Book Excerpt: The enclosed gear, late model John Deere, Case, Oliver, David Bradley, and McCormick Deering International mowers I (we) are so fond of had a zenith of popular manufacture and use that lasted just short of 25 years. Millions of farmers with millions of mowers, built to have a serviceable life of 100 plus years, all pushed into the fence rows. I say, it was far too short of a period.

The First Year

The First Year

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Prior to last year, I had felt I knew the nuances of the land quite well and fancied myself as knowledgeable about the course of the natural world. Outdoors was where I felt the most comfortable. The fresh air and endless views of fields, hills and valleys renewed my spirit and refreshed my mind. I didn’t think there was much that could fluster me when it came to the land. Until I became an organic farmer.

Wild Potatoes and Calcium

Wild potatoes bring increased calcium for better tubers.Have you ever cut into a potato to find a dark spot or hollow part? Early research shows that these defects are likely the result of calcium deficiencies in the potato — and that tuber calcium is genetically linked to tuber quality.

Mayfield Farm

Mayfield Farm, New South Wales, Australia

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Mayfield Farm is a small family owned and operated mixed farm situated at 1150 m above sea level on the eastern edge of the Great Dividing Range in northern New South Wales, Australia. Siblings, Sandra and Ian Bannerman, purchased the 350 acre property in October, 2013, and have converted it from a conventionally operated farm to one that is run on organic principles. Additional workers on the farm include Janette, Ian’s wife, and Jessica, Ian’s daughter.

Useful Birds

Useful Birds

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Whether a bird is beneficial or injurious depends almost entirely upon what it eats. Birds are often accused of eating this or that product of cultivation, when an examination of the stomachs shows the accusation to be unfounded. Accordingly, the Biological Survey has conducted for some years past a systematic investigation of the food of those species which are most common about the farm and garden.

Low Tillage Radish Onions

Low Tillage Radish Onions

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The radishes came up quick, filling the garden canopy completely that fall, and the following spring we found the plot was clean of weeds and rows of open holes were left where the radish roots had been growing. Well, we had a few extra onion plants that spring and decided to plant them in these holes, since we already had very clear lines laid out for us and a clean seedbed. What we got were the best looking onions that have ever come out of our gardens.

Wheel Hoe

The Wheel Hoe: A Tool For Shallow Tillage

When we bought this little farm I soon realized I needed a wheel hoe. The size of the horse and tractor dictated space wasting wide rows in crop production and, to some degree, so does my two wheeled tractor.

Back to the Land

Back to the Land

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Tired of living in a crowded urban environment with its deafening noise and bumper-to-bumper traffic and eager to escape what they saw as an economy bent on destroying the planet, Matt and Tasha left their home in the Washington, DC metropolitan area in March 2014. In doing so, they became modern-day pioneers, part of a wave of Americans who have chosen to go back to the land over the past decade, seeking to reclaim and rebuild their lives and to forge a deeper connection to the earth, the animals that inhabit it, and to each other.

A Year of Contract Grazing

A Year of Contract Grazing

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Contract grazing involves the use of livestock to control specific undesirable plants, primarily for ecological restoration and wildfire prevention purposes. The landowners we worked for saw grazing as an ecologically friendly alternative to mowing, mechanical brush removal, and herbicide application.

English Sheaf Knots

English Sheaf Knots

Long ago when grain was handled mostly by hand, the crop was cut slightly green so seed did not shatter or shake loose too easily. That crop was then gathered into ‘bundles’ or ‘sheafs’ and tied sometimes using a handful of the same grain for the cording. These sheafs were then gathered together, heads up, and leaned upon one another to form drying shocks inviting warm breezes to pass through. In old England, the field workers took great pride in their work and distinctive sheaf knots were designed and employed.

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