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Tillage 100 Years Ago

Tillage 100 Years Ago: Interviewing Two Good Farmers

The following interview originally appeared in How The Farm Pays published in 1902 and features William Crozier and Peter Henderson. Subsequently included in Lynn R. Miller’s Horsedrawn Tillage Tools. Back in print for 2020!

Q. After plowing comes the harrowing. Please describe your method.

A. In my experience with help, I have found ten men competent to plow where I have been able to get one competent to harrow; not that there is any more skill required in harrowing than in plowing, but from the fact that it is not so easy for the eye of the master to detect bad work in harrowing, and consequently men indolent or careless can run over the surface so that it may appear to be well done when it is not. For this reason, it is all-important to have a full examination made of the work, for harrowing has everything to do with the welfare of the crop – to have the soil thoroughly disintegrated and pulverized. This harrowing should penetrate to a depth of five or six inches, in order that the soil may be thoroughly and deeply worked.

Q. You take pretty strong ground in regard to harrowing. Give me your ideas of what is good work and bad work in harrowing?

A. Let us take a newly plowed field; the soil is mostly in lumps, small and large. A poor workman runs a harrow over the surface and smooths it and makes it fine; it looks well, but it is bad work; it is bad because when one sows seed on such ground it works down under the fine surface and among the lumps and clods, where it may sprout, but soon dies because the soil is too loose and open and is filled with air spaces. A good workman makes his harrow teeth work down in the soil among the lumps at the bottom, and breaks these up, or brings them to the surface, and so works the fine, pulverized soil down where the seed will lie in it, and sprout and grow perfectly because the soil is fine and compact around it. This is good work. It may not look so smooth to the eye, but it is better for the crop.

Q. But this rough surface would not be suitable for seed; then I presume the use of a roller would be necessary?

A. Yes – then the roller is used, followed again by the chain harrow, so that the surface may be made level and smooth for the seed.

Tillage 100 Years Ago
Acme harrow

Q. What harrow as a pulverizer do you consider the best?

A. I have heretofore used the imported Scotch harrow, which I had found to be the best; but this season a trial of the American harrow known as the Acme leads me to believe that it will supersede the Scotch as a pulverizer or leveler, for it is the best implement I have ever used for these purposes.

(Mr. H.) I am pleased to agree with you in this matter. After a thorough trial this season with this harrow, I find it to be the best implement I have ever used for the purpose of pulverizing and leveling the soil. It is not only a harrow, but under certain conditions of the soil it is to all intents and purposes a gang of small plows; or, in other words, in a soft or light soil you can plow the ground just as thoroughly for six feet wide as you can do it with the ordinary plow eight inches. The great value of this implement induces us to use more space for a description of it, and its uses, then will be probably given to any other implement in this work. Upon this account I would like to give the views of a well known farmer, whose experience with this implement has been longer than mine, and who is a high authority upon such subjects. This is Henry Stewart, of Hackensack, NJ, who, after using the harrow for six or seven years, says: “After plowing, the soil is worked over with the Acme harrow and is thoroughly broken up; the furrows are leveled; the whole soil to the depth of four inches at least is disturbed as though a series of small propeller screws passed through it; it is thoroughly mingled; the upper portion, which has been exposed to the air, is turned under and buried, and the whole soil is loosened up, broken and made mellow. This is the only implement, so far as I know, that does this necessary work, and with this the best preparation for crops is easily possible. That is to say, that the full effects desired cannot be obtained by, or through, any other one implement than this; because it does all that a plow could do, and it does all that the harrow can do to pulverized the soil, but it does what no mere harrow can possibly do in the way of turning over the soil and presenting a fresh surface to the atmosphere, and it does all that a cultivator can do, without the objectionable effects of that implement; and lastly, it does all that a roller can do in the way of pulverizing cloddy soil, without the objectionable effects of that implement in packing the soil so closely that the air cannot penetrate it.

Tillage 100 Years Ago

Q. You make a distinction between what you would call leveling the soil and smoothing it, do you not?

A. Yes. For instance, the Acme harrow levels and pulverizes the soil, while the Chain harrow smooths the surface.

Q. When you say that you harrow your manure after spreading it on the land (which I believe is an excellent plan, and one that was entirely new to me), what harrow do you use for that purpose?

A. I would, by all means use the Acme or a similar harrow, as for that purpose we require to mix in part with the soil. The great advantage of the Acme harrow for working up the manure, would be that you can regulate the depth of the teeth at will.

Tillage 100 Years Ago

(Mr. H.) In my experience among our market gardeners, where the pulverization of the soil is as perfect as we can get it for the reception of small seeds, I have used for the past two years a smoothing harrow known as the Disc harrow, which consists of some sixty sharp discs placed on revolving shafts, so as to cut the soil to a depth of three inches by one inch in width, which fines and levels the ground as completely as can be done with a steel rake in the hands of an expert workman, but whether such an implement would answer the purpose as well for the requirements of a farm as the Chain or Acme harrow I am not able to say.

(Mr. C.) One great advantage of the Acme harrow over all others is the disposition of the teeth, which are so placed that on sod that has been plowed it cuts and pulverizes it, without dragging it to the surface. The present season I turned down a piece of sod on which I sowed mangels and planted potatoes. The thoroughness of the cultivation by the use of this implement was such, that I was enabled to work the land up in ridges – which is my usual practice with such crops – as easily as if it had been stubble land.

Q. What do you deem a proper day’s work for plowing for a man and team?

A. One acre on sod land and one acre and one-fourth on stubble.

Q. What area should a man and a pair of horses harrow in a day, to do it properly, with the Acme or other harrow?

A. From four to five acres, to do it thoroughly.

Q. Of course you are aware that about twice that area is harrowed when done in the ordinary way?

A. Yes, and even more. But I consider that such labor thoroughly done is the best investment the farmer can make. My experience of thirty years has been varied and extensive, and every succeeding year only impresses the more strongly upon me the fact, that to get good crops you must have thorough pulverization of the soil.

Tillage 100 Years Ago

Q. Of course you use the various kinds of cultivators for the various crops. What implement do you at present use for cultivating corn?

A. Cultivators are now so varied and improving every year, that it is hard to say that any particular one is the best. There are many patterns more or less valuable. My rule in all such things, when purchasing at an implement or a seed warehouse, is to ask what tool is in largest demand for a certain purpose, and I usually find that the public in the long run finds out which is the best article, and that the article most in demand is the one usually having the most merit. At present I have found that the cultivator known as the Planet Jr. Horse Hoe does the best work in this way, and as it is mostly used in this vicinity, public opinion bears me out.

(Mr. H.) I agree with you in that entirely, and as a seedsman I can well endorse it; for whenever a customer asks for any particular tool, the answer I make to him (unless I have certain knowledge myself of the subject), is to go and ask the clerk having charge of that department to select for him the kind that is in most general demand, and as a rule it will be such as is the best. However, I may state that I have used for nearly twenty-five years a simple form of cultivator – which any blacksmith can make – known as the Harrow-tooth Cultivator. It is merely a triangular harrow having from twelve to sixteen teeth, which we use to stir up the soil almost immediately after a crop has been sown or planted, and this we continue to do once a week or so, between the rows, until it may become necessary to use (in particular crops) a cultivator to work deeper, such as the Planet Jr. but the use of this Harrow-tooth cultivator is of great importance in checking the first growth of weeds, and as it is light and easily worked, a vast amount of labor can be saved by using it often enough, so that the weeds will never be allowed to be seen.

Tillage 100 Years Ago

Q. Do you make much use of the roller on your farm, Mr. Crozier?

A. I used it on all crops and particularly on my pastures early in the spring. I thoroughly believe in the practice which you so persistently advocate, of firming the soil for all seeds and plants. You, in your limited areas in market gardening, can afford to do this with the feet, which probably there answers the purpose of firming the seeds or plants better than the roller, but on a farm that, of course, would be impracticable; but, whatever method is used the principle should never be neglected, of compacting the earth around newly sown or planted crops, especially in hot, dry weather, and particularly so on loose and porous soils.

While you, as a gardener, advocate the use of the feet to firm the soil, in sowing and planting, I, as a farmer, advocate the use of the roller. The object in both is the same; and I am satisfied beyond any shadow of a doubt, that millions and millions of dollars are annually lost to the farming community, through a want of the knowledge of the vast importance of firming the soil over the seed. This is particularly the case with buckwheat, turnips and other crops that are sown from the month of July until September, as at such seasons we very often have long-continued droughts, and the soil is like a hot ash heap, and to expect germination from small seeds when sown in such soils, without being firmed against the entrance of the hot air, is just about as useless as if we threw them in the fire.

(Mr. H.) I consider this subject of so great importance, that I think we should take the liberty to again print here the article which I read before the National Association of Nurserymen held at Cleveland, OH, in June of 1879, entitled, “The Use of the Feet in Sowing and Planting.” I have written a great deal on horticultural subjects in the last twenty years, but I think (and I say this advisedly) that the value of this article to the horticultural and agricultural community is more than the whole I have ever written, put together, and I have great satisfaction in knowing that thousands of men have thanked me for impressing so strongly the necessity for this work. This article has been reprinted in thousands of newspapers in the past four years, but if it, or some other similar advice on the necessity of firming the soil after sowing, was ever placed before the eyes of the farming community and acted upon, thousands would be saved from mourning the loss of wasted seed, manure and labor; for in a country vast as ours, a new crop of inexperienced men are annually engaging in farming and gardening. In no European work on farming or gardening that I have ever seen, has the importance of what we have so strongly argued for been referred to, probably for the reason that in the cooler and more humid atmosphere of most European countries the necessity is not so great.