Goodbye plow?

(Published in Grail World 71/2012)

There is next to nothing that is not questioned in our time. This is also the case with an agricultural device that has been the emblem of the peasantry for thousands of years and is also a symbol of peace: the plow.

So it says in the Bible: "Then they forge plowshares out of their swords." (Micah 4,3). This reforging of a weapon into a peaceful tool is also shown by a sculpture in New York that the Soviet Union donated to the United Nations in 1959.

More effective than weapons?

Nomadic peoples often overran the settlements of the settled people, the farmers. Scythians, Huns, Magyars, Arabs and Mongols conquered huge areas in a very short time and even created world empires. But these empires passed. Because only the sedentary farmers could take permanent possession of the land with their plow, which ultimately proved to be superior to the sword.

The Romans created one of the longest-lived world empires; they were farmers from their beginnings. With peasant persistence they won all of Italy. Then they were unfaithful to their old virtues and planted the seeds of their slow demise themselves:
“Rome once grew up and subjugated the world because it was a people of free and healthy peasant warriors. When it destroyed the very foundations of its power, made its peasants dependent colons and farmhands, had its bread supplied by speculators and its wars carried out by hirelings, it was ripe for its downfall: it had become unfaithful to its innermost being. " (4, p. 85).

A silent revolution?

For centuries, advances in agriculture went hand in hand with improvements in plows. It was not uncommon for a suitable plow to be a prerequisite for reclaiming new land.

The first arable farmers used a primitive digging stick. Over 10,000 years of farming, the plow evolved from a hoe that was pulled across the field. Countless designs of the plow emerged, depending on the resources available or adapted to the needs of the existing soils.
Iron plowshares were important improvements (China, 3rd century BC). The pre-cutter (the six) and the wheel plow date from Roman times. (3, p. 192).

In the beginning, people were used as pulling force when plowing. Then draft animals did this strenuous work for them. First oxen, which the ancient Egyptians hitched to their plows, later horses, camels and other draft animals. Steam engines were also used for plowing large areas for decades before the triumphant advance of tractors (mostly with diesel engines) began.

For a long time the plows could only pull furrows through the soil and loosen the top layer. Only in the 18th century was it possible to turn the cut earth beam. This method of turning the earth beam is also used by today's tractor-drawn plows.

"The hallway is also useful,
who the barren clod
with the karst smashes
or harrows with thorns.
Ceres blesses him -
the goddess of agriculture -
the work in the field.
I also advise
the fallow open
to turn again;
Run the plow crooked
through the clods,
and rummage restlessly
The earth around until it is fine
and lying there crumbly .. "
         Virgil (70-19 BC).

Does the plow destroy the life of the soil?

For decades, the plow has been suspected by ecologists of changing soil biology in the long term:
• With modern plows, the soil is torn up to a depth of around 30 cm and turned. Almost all plant remains and most of the weeds are incorporated.
• The soil life is massively disrupted.
• The earthworms - valuable humus producers - are almost chopped up during plowing and can no longer process the plant remains.
• The plow destroys the tunnels dug by the earthworms. These cannulas improve soil aeration and facilitate water absorption.
• Water can evaporate more easily from the surface that has been torn up by plowing, the loosened soil dries out faster and becomes more susceptible to erosion.
• The plant remains lying on an unploughed surface reduce the risk of the top layer being blown away by the wind.
• Last but not least, plowing is expensive and requires a lot of energy (diesel oil).

Plowless agriculture?

Avoiding expensive plowing is said to have significant advantages, but it also has its downsides. The following arguments are put forward against this "conservative method":
• A well-plowed field looks neat and tidy, while a no-plowed area looks like fallow at first.
• At least during the first years of ploughless development, yields decrease.
• More weeds grow, which are usually fought with chemical pesticides. This makes the no-plow method problematic for organic farming. Chemical pesticides are to be avoided here; organic farmers have to find new crop protection strategies for arable farming without the plow.

The end of a symbol?

At the moment, the opinions of farmers differ widely about the value and unworthiness of ploughless development. However, especially on soils at risk of erosion, the advantages of conservative (no-plow) arable farming seem to predominate.

Will the most important agricultural implement for thousands of years, the epitome of an agricultural tool, have had its day in a few decades?

(1) Der Spiegel, 16/2010 page 138.
(2) Gööck Roland, Inventions of Mankind, Sigloch, Blaufelden, Volume I: Health - Food - Living - Building, undated
(3) Werth Emil, digging stick hoe and plow, Eugen Ulmer, Ludwigsburg, 1954.
(4) Zierer Otto, From bondage to freedom, Das Bergland-Buch, Salzburg, 1979.
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Agriculture without a plow: