To Plow or Not to Plow, That is the Question!

By Myron Horst

Note: Whether you garden or farm or not, I believe that you will find this article interesting. The subject “To plow or not to plow” is a much more important subject than what most of us realize. There is a surprising conclusion.

In farming and in gardening there are opposing voices, those saying that the ground should not be plowed or tilled and others saying that the soil should be plowed. Both methods appear to work, but which one is the best? One of the challenges in life is discerning the best solution to take.  There are many things in life that “work” and highly educated people promote them as being the answer, but in the end there are consequences or side effects that outweigh the good. It is also important to ask the question: “It is better as compared to what”. For our family, we are not just interested in producing food to eat, we also want to produce the most nutrient dense food that we can.

No-till farming has been growing in practice here in the U.S. The method used by most farmers today is to spray Roundup to kill the cover crop or weeds that have grown in the stubble of the previous crop. The new crop seeds are planted with a special no-till planter through the dead plant mat that is left on the ground. No-till farming has enabled farmers to be able to farm a considerably larger number of acres because all they have to do is spray and plant. No plowing and no cultivating.

For me, the subject to plow or not to plow came up again when we watched the video “Back to Eden.” It was a documentary of a man who had an impressive looking garden. The documentary had excellent pictures of beautiful plants. Most of the shots were close up and it looked impressive. He did not plow or till, but used a mulch layer on the ground to suppress the weeds and build a rich black soil. He had been gardening this way for a number of years and was getting good results. The method of gardening was presented as God’s method, and as an almost no work garden. I was convinced enough to try it on some of our vegetables.  A lot of Bible verses were quoted throughout the video. But is he right?

I found a website, called “Farming God’s Way”. It is an organization that is teaching African farmers how to farm and to provide for their families. They too advocate not plowing and putting down a layer of mulch. They call the mulch layer “God’s blanket”. They intersperse the teaching on the farming method with Bible verses. It sounds like a very Biblical method. But are they right?

The voices cautioning that the ground should not be plowed or tilled have been around for a long time. Newman Turner and Ruth Stout from years ago both strongly recommended that the ground should not be plowed.

A number of years ago, our family went to visit the Rodale Institute’s organic research farm in Pennsylvania for their farm open house. I was very interested in their no-till system that appeared to be a real answer. They had developed an organic no-till system that did not use chemicals. They invented a large roller that would roll the cover crop and kill it by crimping the plants. The roller was mounted on the front of the tractor and a no-till corn planter was pulled behind the tractor for a one pass planting. The cover crop created a mat, or mulch layer that helped conserve moisture and provided nitrogen for the crop. I was impressed with the system and we went back the next year to learn more. That year I was not as impressed. There were a number of problems that they had not been able to fix and the yields were not as good as conventional tilling.

On the other side of the subject is the teaching of Carey Reams. Reams stressed the importance of plowing to reverse the calcium and phosphates in the soil. Calcium tends to move down in the soil which is evidenced by stalactites and stalagmites in caverns. Phosphates tend to rise to the top where they can be washed into streams and rivers. By turning the soil over, the calcium is kept in the topsoil layer and the phosphates are buried back in the soil. Calcium is an important element in producing nutrient dense, high brix food.

So which method is best, to plow or not to plow? For me as a farmer in researching a farming method, I like to go to the oldest agricultural book, the Bible, and see what it says. On this subject it opened a window into a totally new perspective for me, that enabled me to see the collision course that farming is on today.

About the Garden of Eden it says this: Genesis 2:15 “And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.”

  • The Hebrew word translated “dress” means to till. Even in the garden of Eden it was necessary to cultivate.

In Ezekiel 36:34-35a it says that plowing and cultivation was an important part in the land becoming like the garden of Eden. “And the desolate land shall be tilled, whereas it lay desolate in the sight of all that passed by. 35 And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden”;

  • Tilling, or plowing appears to be an important part of creating a fertile and very productive field or garden.

Isaiah 28:23-26 It says this: “Give ye ear, and hear my voice; hearken, and hear my speech. 24 Doth the plowman plow all day to sow? doth he open and break the clods of his ground? When he hath made plain the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad the fitches, and scatter the cummin, and cast in the principal wheat and the appointed barley and the rie in their place? For his God doth instruct him to discretion, and doth teach him.”

  • Plowing produces clods of earth. Cultivation breaks up the clods.
  • This passage says that God’s method is to plow the soil – the opposite of what the Back to Eden film said, and the Farming God’s Way states. In my research, on almost every subject, I have found Christians saying and believing opposite things to be true. It can be confusing and misleading if you take what one person says without checking things out yourself.

The oldest agricultural book has some strong words about no-till farming and this is what opens the window to a bigger perspective of the subject.

Proverbs 12:11 He that tills his land shall be satisfied with bread: but he that follows vain person is void of understanding.

Proverbs 28:19 He that tills his land shall have plenty of bread: but he that follows after vain persons shall have poverty enough.

  • Plowing and cultivation are important for success in farming and in gardening to produce an abundant crop.
  • “No-till” is following “vain” persons who think that they know and have the answers, but in the end it results in poverty.

So, is the old agricultural book right? Is no-till following vain persons? Does no-till result in poverty? There are some interesting things that have come out recently.

Rodale Institute released the yield data for their 2011 yield trials of conventional tillage and their no-till system. The conventional tillage system yielded 95 bushels of corn per acre and 39 bushels of soybeans per acre. The no-till system yielded less than half the yield of corn even though more seeds had been planted per acre – only 40 bushels of corn per acre. The no-till soybeans only yielded 20 bushels per acre. Only half the yield with no-till is a sure way to poverty. http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/20120627_challenging-yields-challenging-weather

In conventional farming, no-till comes in a package. It requires the use of lots of chemicals – Roundup to kill the grasses and weeds, GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) seeds to resist the Roundup, pesticides and fungicides to kill the bugs and fungus because the crops are so low brix that the bugs and fungus try to eat it up to return it to the soil. No-till is a method that is promoted by the Monsanto Corporation who gives huge donations to many of the big university agricultural departments. So, of course, the no-till trials show the no-till advantage. But one thing to remember is to ask the question: “No-till is better as compared to what?”. They are not comparing no-till to properly remineralized, plowed, and cultivated soil, and they are not looking at the long term effects of the whole no-till system. They are looking primarily at short term crop yield comparisons.

The no-till revolution has resulted in a very high percentage of conventional soybeans and corn being genetically modified to resist Roundup. A New York Times article talking about GMO Roundup Ready crops says: “Those crops made it so easy for farmers to control weeds by spraying glyphosate [Roundup] that Roundup Ready crops now account for about 90 percent of soybeans and around 70 percent of the corn and cotton grown in the United States. And use of glyphosate skyrocketed, at the expense of rival herbicides.” They go on to say how super weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup, and Dow Corning is looking for approval for their GMO corn that is resistant to 2,4, D (an ingredient in Agent Orange) so that 2,4,D can be sprayed after the corn comes up, instead of Roundup to control the Roundup resistant super weeds.
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/26/business/energy-environment/dow-weed-killer-runs-into-opposition.html?pagewanted=all

We can see, that at the heart of the GMO controversy is actually the question, “To plow or not to plow?” No-till has resulted in GMO seeds being used in a high percentage of our crops. What is the effect of GMO grain? Does it improve health or destroy it? Just released this fall is a French study on the long term feeding of GMO grains to rats. The rats grew huge tumors and 70% of the females died. If you have not seen the pictures of the rats, the pictures are worth a thousand words. You can see the pictures at:
http://www.naturalnews.com/037249_GMO_study_cancer_tumors_organ_damage.html

Russia halted all imports of GMO grain after the French study came out. http://rt.com/business/news/russia-monsanto-corn-ban-005/

We see a progression of following “vain” persons promoting no-till. No-till requires the use of herbicides, such as Roundup. The use of Roundup results in the need for GMO crops. GMO grains have the potential of resulting in cancer. But that is not all. There are more consequences of following “vain” persons:

The United Nations in a report states that the suicide rate for farmers worldwide is higher than for non-farmers. In the Midwest of the U.S. where most of the corn, wheat, and soybeans are grown, suicide rates among male farmers are two times higher than the general population! This is a sad and telling statistic. No-till farming has not resulted in grain farmers becoming more successful. They have become more dependent on the big corporations and the chemicals and seeds that they sell. The more dependent that they have become, the more it drains their wallet. Finally, in despair and financial hopelessness they commit suicide.
http://www.un.org/esa/sustdev/csd/csd16/PF/presentations/farmers_relief.pdf

The suicide rate among farmers dependent on Monsanto is highlighted by the suicide problem among farmers in India. The Infowars.com website reports that in India every 30 minutes another farmer commits suicide. Over 250,000 farmers have committed suicide in India alone in the last 16 years! They often committed the act by drinking the same insecticide that Monsanto supplied them with. http://www.infowars.com/monsantos-gmo-seeds-contributing-to-farmer-suicides-every-30-minutes/

The Hindustan Times reports: “India’s Bt cotton dream is going terribly wrong. For the first time, farmer suicides, including those in 2011-12, have been linked to the declining performance of the much hyped genetically modified (GM) variety adopted by 90% of the country’s cotton-growers since being allowed a decade ago. Policymakers have hailed Bt cotton as a success story but a January 9 internal advisory, a copy of which is with HT, sent out to cotton-growing states by the agriculture ministry presents a grim scenario. ‘Cotton farmers are in a deep crisis since shifting to Bt cotton. The state of farmer suicides in 2011-12 has been particularly severe among Bt cotton farmers,’ says the advisory.  Bt cotton’s success, it appears, lasted merely five years. Since then, yields have been falling and pest attacks going up.” http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/Business/Ministry-blames-Bt-cotton-for-farmer-suicides/Article1-830798.aspx

As I reflect on the above information, I realize that what that old agricultural book said: “He that tills his land shall have plenty of bread: but he that follows after vain persons shall have poverty enough.” is more accurate and not as radical as what it first sounds. The long term results of no-till is not sustainable because of its heavy dependence on chemicals and GMO seeds and the poverty that they bring with them, not only to the farmer, but also to those who eat the GMO grains. Healthcare costs have skyrocketed in recent years and are draining the wallets of the consumer, bringing them poverty and dependence on the government to supply healthcare.

It is helpful to be able to step back and see the bigger picture. In the end, the big corporations such as Monsanto and Dow Corning will fail because their products are not sustainable and end in poverty. It all goes back to a subject that at first appears to be relatively unimportant – To Plow or Not to Plow — That is the Question!

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