Editor’s Note: Not as well-known to no-tillers as Plowman’s Folly and its heralded author/champion Edward H. Faulkner was the responding book that contradicted it. Iowa’s Walter T. Jack boldly defended the moldboard plow against Faulkner in The Furrow and Us, released in 1946, with prose every bit as powerful as that of his nemesis. See www.notillfarmer.com/FaulknerJack for Rattan Lal’s summary of the debate.
This controversy between no-till and plow tillage was dubbed by Time Magazine as the “hottest farming argument since the tractor first challenged the horse.” Lal writes: “The plow tillage argument won, especially in the South, where the clay-ridden thin soils and perennial poverty made N-dependent no-till methods impractical during the 1950s and 1960s.” But the South would also birth the commercial adoption of no-till in 1962 (Herndon, Ky.).
We found Jack’s great-grandson, Zachary Michael Jack, who has written about the debate and also edited a special anniversary edition of The Furrow and Us. He agreed to share an original, personal contribution with our subscribers in this milestone year for the no-till practice.
— Mike Lessiter, No-Till Farmer
Rifts in farm country are common as dirt. Somewhere under the broad canopy of most family trees, gun-loving Republicans square off against bleeding-heart Dems. Cokes vie with Pepsis for top billing in our pantries. John Deeres lock horns with International Harvesters in the classic contest between green and red.
Lord knows, we’re a riven people.
I, too, grew up with a split identity; first as the great-grandson of Walter T. Jack, one of America’s most vocal pro-tillage advocates in the late 1940s and, second, as the son of one of eastern Iowa’s most dedicated no-till farmers. When I was barely a teen in 1986, as Great-Grandpa Walt’s then-40-year-old book extolling the benefits of the plow, The Furrow and Us, gathered dust on our shelves, my Boomer father, Michael, became a poster boy for no-till farming in our area. Dad had been named the outstanding owner-operator in his district that year for no-tilling 100% of his corn and soybeans.
The Furrow and Us cover, promotion
To add insult to injury, Dad had taken out of production 16 acres of what had once been Great-Grandpa Walt’s most prized land, transforming it into grassed waterways, contours, grade-stabilization structures, and 5 acres of wildlife habitat. Michael Jack began his no-till program in 1981, just 5 short years after the regime of Earl Butz (U.S. Ag Secretary) concluded a tenure in which farmers were urged to plant “fencerow to fencerow” and “get big or get out.”
An Organic Mindset
Caught in a familial no man’s land between till and no-till, what was I to make of my family’s prominent role in the half-century-long till vs. no-till debate? By the mid-1980s, I had belatedly fallen in love with my great-grandfather’s dusty pro-plow tome, which I’d pulled down one night from Dad’s bookshelf, desperate for a good read.
Deep in pre-teen egocentrism, I was probably more smitten with the notion that someone in my rural family had once achieved modest fame than with the less-than-sexy topics covered in Great-Grandpa’s agrarian opus. Chapters like “Lime and the Art of Liming,” “Field Versus Plot” and “Base-exchange Simplified” didn’t exactly have me feeling my oats.
Dad never encouraged me to read The Furrow and Us, nor did we speak of what I could only assume was an apocryphal text whose name should never be spoken. Eventually, though, curiosity got the better of me, and I poked the elephant in the room: If Great-Grandpa defended the “propriety of the plow,” as his book’s dust jacket claimed, how come Dad treated the same implement as the devil’s own?
I don’t remember exactly what Dad said in defense of his own devotion to the gospel of no-till, but I remember my teenage takeaway. That is, Great-Grandpa Walt hadn’t condemned no-till in theory but rejected it in practice on the grounds that its use demanded the sort of chemical inputs that would endanger the very soils the yeoman farmer was sworn to protect and husband.
If America’s postwar plowmen and women would rotate crops religiously, plant and till-in nitrogen-rich cover crops, and apply lime each autumn, no-till corn might be profitable in ideal conditions. It might work on the flat, fertile and garden-sized Kentucky plot whereupon Walter Jack’s foil, Plowman’s Folly author Edward Faulkner, claimed to have achieved miraculous, experimental results with no-tilled sweet potatoes and tomatoes. But it would not work on Walt’s rolling 300 acres without chemical fertilizers by the trailer-load.
“In the Granddad vs. Dad, till vs. no-till ‘battle royale,’ the anecdotal evidence suggests Dad wins in a walk-off.” But according to the USDA Census, “good ol’ Grandpa Walt, defender of the moldboard, wins in spades…”
Jack’s Philadelphia-based publisher pitched him as a martyred patriot rising up to defend the sanctity of the plow as emblem of all that was good and holy. But, in fact, Great-Grandpa was a pragmatist. If given the choice between deep plowing his fat black loam without chemicals and with cover crops, proper crop rotation and carefully maintained soil pH, he would take the plow, thank you very much.
If given the choice between using the previous year’s crop residue coupled with herbicide for weed control, or instead carefully tilling, cultivating and hoeing, he’d hoe his row “old school.” In many ways Great-Grandpa, true to his Quaker roots, had championed the traditional methods of chemical-free growing that would be certified as organic farming in Dad’s “Disco Era.”
In Common Cause
My dad may have been tapped as the owner-operator of the year in 1986, and feted throughout the district for his conservation practices, but yet he had achieved his remarkable no-till results with well over 1 pound of nitrogen per bushel per acre yield. Decades later, acknowledging these same difficult ironies caused Dad to shed tears in recollection of the Faustian bargain he and other 1980s and 1990s farmers had struck at a time when profitable commodity crop farming felt like spiritual failure for sensitive souls who just happened to be talented agri-businessmen.
Today’s sustainable farmers have followed in the footsteps of my father and his unconventional band of 1970s no-till popularizers and proselytizers, though Digital Age no-tillers are smarter and more efficient with their use of fertilizers, reducing nitrogen use per bushel/acre to well under 1 pound on average and simultaneously increasing yields. In the Granddad vs. Dad, till vs. no-till “battle royale,” the anecdotal evidence suggests Dad wins in a walk-off. Yet no-till is still a decided minority in American agriculture, estimated at just 37% of U.S. acres for which a tillage system was reported in the most recent census. In that sense, good ol’ Grandpa Walt, defender of the moldboard, wins in spades … and plowshares.
For my part, I feel certain the percentage of no-till in the Corn Belt states will approach 50% in the coming decades as my own Gen-X cohort contemplates retirement, unless price shocks and inflation chill our ongoing efforts at soil conservation. Already, in the more marginal croplands of the Mountain South, no-till cracks 50% as a share of acres. Montana’s share is 73%, suggesting that no-till’s bright horizons may be most evident in places where temperature, precipitation and soil extremes foreshadow a future where no-till may be widely implemented as a hedge against climate change right in the American Breadbasket.
I like to think that somewhere high in agricultural heaven, Edward Faulkner, Walter Jack and Michael Jack are watching the rows we hoe (or don’t) in common cause. Despite vociferous differences, these three disparate yeomen shared a love of the earth, a recognition of the limits of its fertility, and a belief in the ingenuity and industry of the most mindful, soil-loving farmers.
The No-Till History Series, appearing throughout 2022, is supported by Montag Mfg. For more historical content, including video/multimedia, visit www.No-TillFarmer.com/historyseries.
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