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Gilbert Fritz
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I started reading the book Plowman's Folly, since it was one of the earliest books to advocate no till farming. The Author definitely has an opinionated tone. And I have already, in the introduction, found some suspicious sounding science.

For purposes of this discussion, it will simplify our reasoning if we think of inorganic solutions, such as those that occur in the soil where water is in contact with mineral crystals, as new, or primary plant foods; and the inorganic solutions that originate in the decay of plant or animal tissues as used, or second-hand plant foods.


Plants establish intakes, in the form of roots, for nutritive materials in the decaying fragments of last year's plants; and, left to themselves, they will use without loss every atom of the material that previously had been used in the dead plants. As farmers, we have not left the bodies of last year's plants where the roots of this season's crops could invade them. Instead, we have buried those decaying remains so deep that few roots could reach them.


As I understand it, this is false. Plants are mostly built of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen, which come from water and carbon dioxide. A very small percent comes from minerals in the soil. So plants get most of their bulk from the soil, and dead plants are mostly eaten by microorganisms, not other plants. Finally, the mineral fraction, if plants do derive it from dead plants, has been previously mineralized by soil organisms.

Is all that correct? And was this discovered after 1945, when the book was published, or is the author just oversimplifying things?
 
Gilbert Fritz
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An interesting quote;

You naturally would expect an art as old as agriculture, and as fundamental, to be developed to a fine state of perfection. At least, it would be expected to be far ahead of so recent an art as the use of electricity. Yet the history of agriculture has been a continuous series of disappointments. No race of people ever remained to solve the problems of the area it had worn out. Instead, as fast as the race had harvested the cream of fertility from one area, it sold, or just left, the land to its successors and moved on to richer fields.


Why not, I wonder?
 
Gilbert Fritz
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Unless cleared, or cut over, the forest continued its lush, rank growth. It was busy making lumber. It was converting into the finest imaginable walnut, gum, oak, cherry, maple, and pine the rotting leaves and other debris that lay on the ground just above the tree roots. In terms of today's living, the lovely woodwork of your floors, stairs, door frames, and in other parts of your house is made largely from reconditioned material -- from rotted leaves, rotted wood, and all manner of decayed material. This fact will bear remembering as you read further. It is important.


Another mistake of the same sort as above.
 
Gilbert Fritz
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Not the least of these inherent human traits that have served to perpetuate error in the farming business is the incorrigible feeling on the part of people that they can be of assistance to plants in their growth. The statement appears at variance with our basic thinking, but, actually, there is nothing that anybody can do to assist a plant that is growing in its natural environment. And when we grow plants in an artificial environment, the best we can possibly do is copy as closely as possible the essentials of the natural environment. You know how you swell with pride when you succeed handsomely with your flower or vegetable garden. You imagine you have really helped the plants to grow -- and, in a sense, you have. Yet, probably you set them in an unsuitable environment, then proceeded to further sabotage (unconsciously) the natural provisions for the welfare of plants. You are perhaps not peculiar in this respect. Everyone else does essentially the same thing and feels just as proud as you do, in spite of the error of his ways.


A good quote!
 
Gilbert Fritz
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At the outset, the soil was disced thoroughly in order to destroy whatever vegetation was at that time growing on it. In the spring of 1939, there was little but a scattering stand of weeds. In 1940, rye fully three feet tall -- a fair stand all over the surface had to be disposed of. The disc harrow so completely mixed in even the rye crop that little sign was left of any vegetation cover. Following the mixing in of this decayable material, the land was marked off in rows. To do this marking, a specially designed implement was used which simply "tramped" over the field -- behind the tractor, of course firming the soil together again at points where plants were to be located. By exerting considerable pressure at each such point, this implement reconnected the capillary contacts which the discing had broken up. (To visualize the effect of pressing the soil together again, just recall what would be the effect of snipping the lamp wick above the oil level; then later sewing the pieces together again.) The natural wicking action of the soil -- destroyed temporarily by the discing -- was restored in the vertical column of soil just under the point where a plant was to be set. That this actually was the effect of this pressure we have plenty of evidence. Even though the soil surface was dry and the weather hot in 1939, the bottom of a great many of these "tracks" showed moist even in the middle of the day. Unless the capillary connection had been restored, this could not possibly have been true.


I would like some discussion on this. Are the folks who always insist on not stepping on beds wrong? What about our Hugelkulture which loosens the soil? What about dry farming experience which holds that unless plant roots can drive deeply, they will not do as well? In fact, what about the wildly held permie tenant that tap roots are important?

Will this hold true in places like Colorado, where there is often very little water in the soil even far down?
 
Scott Strough
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Gilbert Fritz wrote:
At the outset, the soil was disced thoroughly in order to destroy whatever vegetation was at that time growing on it. In the spring of 1939, there was little but a scattering stand of weeds. In 1940, rye fully three feet tall -- a fair stand all over the surface had to be disposed of. The disc harrow so completely mixed in even the rye crop that little sign was left of any vegetation cover. Following the mixing in of this decayable material, the land was marked off in rows. To do this marking, a specially designed implement was used which simply "tramped" over the field -- behind the tractor, of course firming the soil together again at points where plants were to be located. By exerting considerable pressure at each such point, this implement reconnected the capillary contacts which the discing had broken up. (To visualize the effect of pressing the soil together again, just recall what would be the effect of snipping the lamp wick above the oil level; then later sewing the pieces together again.) The natural wicking action of the soil -- destroyed temporarily by the discing -- was restored in the vertical column of soil just under the point where a plant was to be set. That this actually was the effect of this pressure we have plenty of evidence. Even though the soil surface was dry and the weather hot in 1939, the bottom of a great many of these "tracks" showed moist even in the middle of the day. Unless the capillary connection had been restored, this could not possibly have been true.


I would like some discussion on this. Are the folks who always insist on not stepping on beds wrong? What about our Hugelkulture which loosens the soil? What about dry farming experience which holds that unless plant roots can drive deeply, they will not do as well? In fact, what about the wildly held permie tenant that tap roots are important?

Will this hold true in places like Colorado, where there is often very little water in the soil even far down?
If you plow/till, then yes you need to press the soil down on the seeds to get them to germinate. And yes, tillage doe dry the soil by breaking the capillary action and exposing the top portion of the soil to more air contact. I personally don't enjoy the authors explanations. However, while most of what he talks about has better explanations, the general gist is not wrong per se. The main thing is our understanding has advanced since that book was written. Remember it was written in 1943. Glomalin for example was not even discovered until 1996. It's and interesting read. I read it way back in the 70's. But the actual science of many of his observations has advanced a whole lot since then.
 
Neil Layton
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Gilbert Fritz wrote:

I would like some discussion on this. Are the folks who always insist on not stepping on beds wrong? What about our Hugelkulture which loosens the soil? What about dry farming experience which holds that unless plant roots can drive deeply, they will not do as well? In fact, what about the wildly held permie tenant that tap roots are important?

Will this hold true in places like Colorado, where there is often very little water in the soil even far down?


As with so much of this, I take an ecosystem approach to this kind of question. When in doubt, I simply ask "What would Mother do?".

Yes, tap roots remain important for the same reasons discussed in the literature.

Trampling is probably okay within limits. In a natural ecosystem large grazers, many of which are now rare to extinct, would trample the ground but many of these would follow established pathways to move around their habitat, in some cases taking weeks between visits, often dropping manure and then pulverising this into the mud (providing nutrients for mud-puddling moths and butterflies) and pushing seeds into the soil. There are plants that will cope with trampling, just as there are plants that will cope with, even respond well to pruning (animal browsing), coppicing (beaver feeding) and so on.

Jumping up and down on the soil, or running a tractor over it, is probably a bad idea, but I don't think you should be scared of occasionally walking over a bed in your size 45 boots.

My own (limited!!!) experience with hugelkultur suggests it's an artificial system with its own problems, notably the requirement to keep the nitrogen levels up. I've taken to diverting a substantial proportion of natural fertiliser on to it. Otherwise production just collapses (this may change as the wood decomposes, but I'm not far enough in to be sure).
 
leila hamaya
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Gilbert Fritz wrote:An interesting quote;

You naturally would expect an art as old as agriculture, and as fundamental, to be developed to a fine state of perfection. At least, it would be expected to be far ahead of so recent an art as the use of electricity. Yet the history of agriculture has been a continuous series of disappointments. No race of people ever remained to solve the problems of the area it had worn out. Instead, as fast as the race had harvested the cream of fertility from one area, it sold, or just left, the land to its successors and moved on to richer fields.


Why not, I wonder?


i believe this is false, and not just false, but a very damaging assumption.
but i also think this is a commonly accepted base assumption, maybe people dont vocalize it so plainly, its more like something underlaying other (and also false IMO) assumptions. the underlaying assumptions being - all people seek to exploit their environment to their own detriment.
and this was just not true for so many bazillions of people who lived, even some living this way in spite of their culture's push for damaging exploitation of other life forms. but there was also tons of different cultures, who had a lot more respect and care for the land, each other, and the non human persons they shared the land with.

if he had said "the history of european agriculture", or the eurocentric cultures, it would be more true, but it is not true for the majority of humans on the planet throughout history.
i do believe a number of races and peoples had to learn this lesson the hard way, how not to deplete their environment, but to instead make it better and more life supporting, for all lifeforms. figuring out how much to leave alone and leave to regenerate, and developed rules and guidelines for avoiding that level of exploitation, for avoiding exploitation entirely! and only taking what they needed, receiving and being gifted these things, rather than taking, forcing, and exploiting. there is a big difference between receiving something, and exploiting it.

but inside of dominator culture, somehow the dominators want to make it seem as though everyone is just like them, and people who live in those cultures are almost trained to be this way, and to justify thats just the way people are.... unfortunately since this culture seems to have hijacked the collective, forcefully asserts itself as the only way...refers to only itself, and then applies its limited perceptions for all people everywhere.
 
Tyler Ludens
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I agree, leila. Certainly there is evidence that native people in the Americas lived in place for many thousands of years and worked with Nature to create some of the most productive ecosystems on Earth (the Eastern Forests and the Prairies), just the opposite of exploitive agriculture. But this is little known and not part of the story we're raised up to believe. The belief in humans as inherently destructive encourages and excuses bad behavior, in my opinion.
 
leila hamaya
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people have lived in my neck of the woods for thousands of years, and have helped to create one of the most beautiful and diverse forests in the world here.

i suppose i should give the author some slack, writing from the 1940s.
and it is not that i am trying to demonize those that have this perspective, it is what people are entrained to think.

the belief in scarcity as being the norm, that it is all very linear, a zero sum game, that people will always take and take till theres nothing. i see those perspectives as the anomaly, and very distorted...to me it seems the universe is based on abundance, and such an overwhelming abundance, everything always moving to ridiculously over the top abundance, that humans would have to work very hard for a very long time to fundamentally mess it up ! and as absurd as this sounds, it is what some humans have done, and continue to do so at an alarming pace. and then assume, this is what everyone, everywhere has always done.

and then there's the phenomena of those who are just swept up into it, just being born into these cultures, but at odds with them. maybe thats the majority, but made to seem like a minority. i like to think of this, these people who i know lived, maybe living very quietly, so no one ever noticed, it is not recorded, they arent famous.

it's as though people feel they have no choice, but to go along, without questioning what they are going along with...because these anomalies, of dominator culture, of essentially a rape culture, makes itself as the only authoritative voice that matters, that there is no choice.
....and even if they do question and attempt to do something different they are blocked and ineffective.

ah perhaps i am getting tangential here, but not really in how i read these quotes. to me this is all linked. i dont think i would like this book, anyway ! i have a sense of the kinds of assumptions and ideas the author has, and i can tell we have very differing perspectives. yet i can somewhat appreciate some of the quotes...somewhat almost agree with a few things.
 
Mike Haych
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leila hamaya wrote:
if he had said "the history of european agriculture", or the eurocentric cultures, it would be more true, but it is not true for the majority of humans on the planet throughout history..


It would seem that it's not just a European problem.

Research shows that in the Loess Plateau, what was once a pristine nurturing ecosystem, was fundamentally altered by human impact, leading to almost total ecological devastation over a vast area. People living on the plateau experienced a gradual social and economic decline. Each passing generation did not worry too much that the environment was in decline and what happened took place over such a long time and on such a scale that few people were aware that those changes were taking place.

and

The Fertile Crescent's current desperation stands as testament to the steepest downturn of local fortunes since the end of the last Ice Age. For 8,000 years Iraq and its neighbors led the world as the source of most things embodied in the term "civilization." Technology, ideas and power flowed outward from Iraq to Europe and eventually to America. Iraq's decline holds lessons the world should heed. So how did Fertile Crescent peoples lose that big lead? The short answer is ecological suicide: They inadvertently destroyed the environmental resources on which their society depended. Just as the region's rise wasn't due to any special virtue of its people, its fall wasn't due to any special blindness on their part. Instead, they had the misfortune to be living in an extremely fragile environment, which, because of its low rainfall, was particularly susceptible to deforestation.

and in the Amazon

Hunter-gatherer groups were once generally nomadic, living in small temporary settlements for 4-5 years until all natural resources were exhausted - then they moved on.

although the Jomon culture in Japan is the longest surviving in human history from around 13,680 BC to 410 BC.

 
Gilbert Fritz
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It might be objected that more oxygen is required in the soil than can enter the undisturbed mass. Perhaps. In that case we should study the undisturbed forest floor. The surface of the soil where the giant sequoias grow was suitable for their needs a thousand years before the mouldboard plough was invented. It is not thinkable that such giants could have developed in the absence of an optimum amount of oxygen in the soil. It must be, then, that growing plants do not require more oxygen in the soil than naturally enters it in the absence of water.


Another quote; he is objecting to the use of plowing to aerate the soil. I have started a thread about this in the ulcer factory, since it might get to heated for the main forums.

Somehow, this thread which I started to document my thoughts on the book have turned into a book bashing. However, I don't know if that is a bad thing; the limited science and more exaggerated style common seventy years ago might make some of us question our own assumptions.
 
Gilbert Fritz
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Also, here in Colorado, vegetation on untilled areas dries up rather quickly once the rain stops. A dense soil limits both capillary action and root penetration. Some loosening might be in order.
 
Gilbert Fritz
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The side discussion on whether primitive cultures wrecked the land or not is another big can of worms. I will soon have a long, and, I hope, thought provoking post on this in the ulcer factory.
 
Gilbert Fritz
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It had been clearly shown that the cause of the drying out of land, where considerable organic matter has been ploughed in, is that organic matter.


Such details had to be learned. Before we learned them in 1939, we lost a good percentage of the sweet potato plants that were set in this field, because the particular site they occupied was underlaid by absorbent organic matter that kept their roots from getting water.


I can't quote it all directly, but basically he is saying that plowing in such a way that organic matter all ends up in a layer somewhere underground soaks up all available water, while mixing it in thoroughly does not do this. I'm not sure why the two would be different in this respect, or whether his reasoning is valid. What do you think?
 
John Polk
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I gather that his thinking is that using a mouldboard plough will put most of the organic matter at 6-8 inches below the surface, where the roots cannot reap that water (until their roots penetrate that deeply). His recommendation to use a disc harrow instead would mix that organic matter into the top 6 inches of soil where it would be of more use to the plants throughout their lives.

I believe that this is another "it depends" scenario.
I do concur with him that the organic matter would be more beneficial if it was well blended with the soil, rather than sandwiched in between the top soil and the sub soil. The results would vary based on several factors: deep rich soil vs. shallow soil, regions with summer thunderstorms vs. summer droughts, and other factors as well.

His teachings seem to be geared to large acreage monocropping. Most of us permies would be out of our element in such a setting. We are looking more towards a food forest of many species, than to 100 acres of wheat or corn. Mouldboard ploughing is not in most of our futures. By default, we tend to follow more in his footsteps of mixing the organic matter into the soil rather than burying it beneath the soil. The 'critters' will take it to where they live, which should be our primary goal.

 
Scott Strough
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Gilbert Fritz wrote:
It might be objected that more oxygen is required in the soil than can enter the undisturbed mass. Perhaps. In that case we should study the undisturbed forest floor. The surface of the soil where the giant sequoias grow was suitable for their needs a thousand years before the mouldboard plough was invented. It is not thinkable that such giants could have developed in the absence of an optimum amount of oxygen in the soil. It must be, then, that growing plants do not require more oxygen in the soil than naturally enters it in the absence of water.


Another quote; he is objecting to the use of plowing to aerate the soil. I have started a thread about this in the ulcer factory, since it might get to heated for the main forums.

Somehow, this thread which I started to document my thoughts on the book have turned into a book bashing. However, I don't know if that is a bad thing; the limited science and more exaggerated style common seventy years ago might make some of us question our own assumptions.
He is correct there 100%. But that is not to say that there doesn't need to be a disturbance of some kind. Whether it is earthworms, arthropods and insects, burrowing animals or the trampling of the great herds or even fire. Disturbance is part of it. That disturbance though, is poorly mimicked by the plow. Much better simulated in agriculture by other things, like high density rotational grazing (cell grazing or Holistic management), turning your pigs out into the forest to acorn finish them, prescribed burns etc.... If there are no beaver to make a pond, it's up to us to do that in our Keyline design. If there is no elephants, mammoths or mastodons to thin out the trees, then it is up to us to chop and drop. If the great herds of bison are gone, then up to us to simulate their migrations with livestock. The forests and the grasslands are both poorly managed generally in modern times. He got that part right. But it took geniuses like sepp holzer, Bill Mollison, Alan Savory and so many others to figure out that removing all disturbances is equally poor management as too much or the wrong kind of disturbance, like the clear cut and the plow.

Like I said earlier, he is not wrong per se. But the science has advanced significantly since 1943.
 
Mike Haych
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A legal copy of the book can be found here - https://soilandhealth.org/copyrighted-book/plowmans-folly/

Topsoil destruction through history in Topsoil and Civilization at https://soilandhealth.org/copyrighted-book/topsoil-and-civilization/. Also a legal copy.

CONTENTS

Preface
Acknowledgments
1. An Overview
2. The Nile Valley
3. Mesopotamia
4. The Mediterranean Region
5. Crete and Lebanon
6. Syria and Palestine
7. Greece 8. North Africa
9. Italy and Sicily
10. Western Europe
11. Here and There-Past and Present
12. The United States
Bibliography
 
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