This article is a web-continuation of Squaring Away Generational — and Theoretical — Differences on the Plow, (click here) about the debate between Edward H. Faulkner and Walter T. Jack as told by Jack’s great-grandson Zachary Michael Jack. It appeared in No-Till Farmer’s No-Till History Series in February 2022.
By Rattan Lal, Don C. Reicosky and J.D. Hanson
Editor’s Note: This summary of the Faulkner-Jack Debate is an excerpt from “Evolution of the Plow: Over 10,000 years and the Rationale for No-Till Farming,” by Rattan Lal, Don C. Reicosky and J.D. Hanson (2007).
The Dust Bowl created a controversy about the usefulness of the ‘‘moldboard plow’’ as a tool for seedbed preparation. There were two strong but opposing schools of thought: no-till and plow tillage.
The no-till movement was spearheaded by Edward Faulkner, who wrote the book Plowman’s Folly, published in 1942. Faulkner, an extension worker in Ohio thus opined: “Briefly, this book sets out to show that the moldboard plow which is in use on farms throughout the civilized world is the least satisfactory implement for the preparation of land for the production of crops. This sounds like a paradox, perhaps, in view of the fact that for nearly a century there has been a science of agriculture, and that agricultural scientists almost to a man approved use of the moldboard plow ... The truth is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.”
While some refer to plowing as “recreational tillage,” plowing enhances soil fertility and increases agronomic yield when fertilizers are not used. Certainly, the bountiful harvest from many soils depended largely on the fact that these soils were tilled to mineralize soil organic matter (SOM) to make nutrients available.
Faulkner continued the discussion on the traditional aspects of the plow: “The answer to the question, Why do farmers plow? Should not make it difficult to arrive at. Plowing is almost universal. Farmers like to plow. If they did not get pleasure from seeing the soil turned turtle, knowing the while that by plowing, they dispose of trash that would later interfere with planting and cultivation, less plowing might be done. Yet farmers are encouraged to plow. The plowing is approved; or, you knew of the plowing, farmers are advised to cut deep into the subsoil in every furrow. Such advice comes from farm papers, bulletins, county agents, and a long list of other sources from which farmers commonly welcome suggestions and information. There should be clear-cut scientific reasons to justify a practice so unanimously approved and recommended.”
The irony demonstrated in Faulkner’s comments is summarized in the following statement: “The entire body of reasoning about the management of soil has been based on the axiomatic assumption of the correctness of plowing. But plowing is not correct.”
The opposite view, strongly in favor of using moldboard plow, was spearheaded by Walter Thomas Jack in the book, The Furrow and Us published in 1946.
Views by Jack were based on the common observations of an increase in soil fertility through mineralization of SOM by plowing. Jack thus opined, “The method of stirring the soil without turning under the top with its crop residues was practiced by primitive people of every land since the beginning of time. The principle was outmoded with the advent of the woodboard type that turned only a portion of the surface under, since the wood surface could not be induced to scour ... Only after it was discovered that soil building agencies were living organisms supplying fertility and tilth to the soil, was the present moldboard plow designed.”
In the same writing, Jack presented his views on science of agronomy by stating, “Those hostile to present tillage practice (plowing) point out that, since most of the N requirement of the plant comes from the air, there is no need to encourage soil bacteria to supply the major portion, therefore the organic matter in the form of trash and manure has just as well remain on the surface as a guard against erosion. This argument seems to be a radical departure from the true principle of agronomy.”
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.” 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.
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.