News from Up the Creek

The World Beneath Our Feet: Farmers Reduce Cultivation to Let Nature Work its Wonders

By Mike Madison / Photography By Hans Bennewitz | March 01, 2015
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Farmers cultivating life soil
Every crumb of soil has an abundance of micro-organisms in it, making it a complex architecture.

When schoolchildren visit the farm, I make a point of digging up some uncultivated soil and handing chunks of it around. Most have never examined soil before.

It’s not dirt. It has a complex architecture to it, and it is permeated with little crooked passageways, some the work of worms and arthropods, and some where roots have died and decayed. Slightly larger tunnels may be bored by burrowing spiders or sand wasps. And on a coarser scale, there are vertebrates that burrow in the soil; voles, gophers and squirrels are the most industrious, and the lazier animals (snakes, toads, lizards, small owls) will occupy those burrows when the rodents have abandoned them.

The native soil is full of life. Every crumb has an abundance of micro-organisms in it: algae, bacteria and fungi. The delicate hyphae of fungi are easily seen without a lens; following a rain, they may push a mushroom up to the surface. Invertebrates are numerous and, with any luck, you might surprise a big carabid beetle snoozing in his den. The roots of plants—trees, weeds, crops—lace it all together into a vibrant, active ecosystem.

So what does the farmer do when he cultivates a field? He hitches a few thousand pounds of sharp steel to the back of a tractor and drags it through the soil, demolishing its structure and destroying much of its life. The farmer prepares his beds and plants his crops, and the soil organisms that survived set to work at rebuilding their ecosystem. And then, a few months later, wham!—the tractor is back, cultivating again.

When I first started farming I was an industrious cultivator. I kept the soil well tilled and harrowed smooth, the beds neat and free of weeds. But over the years I came around to the view that cultivation is not so benign, and that plowing up the native soil is akin to dynamiting a coral reef or burning a tall-grass prairie or clear-cutting a forest.

And so I cultivate less, and the look of my farm is less neat—indeed, it is rather shaggy around the edges. In part I achieved this by shifting to perennial crops that are grown without cultivation; olives, figs, apricots, citrus, persimmons and blackberries (there is even an acre of peonies) may get an annual mowing to knock down weeds, but no tillage.

Even in my gardens I have largely abandoned cultivation. In the fall I mix together in a bucket a pound each of seeds of radishes, turnips, spinach, kale and broccoli, and I just throw handfuls of the mix into the field with broad gestures. A light harrowing covers the seeds, and the first rain gets the garden under way. It comes up half weeds, but if I need a handful of radishes, for example, I can gather them pretty quickly. In my cultivating days I used to wear out the steel of a hoe in the course of a year; now I seldom pick up a hoe.

To decrease cultivation is contrary to the historical development of agriculture, which has been a process of intensification: more energy, more labor, more irrigation, more cultivation. But I’m hardly alone in pursuing a historically contrary practice. All over the Central Valley you can find cultivating tools rusting away at the edges of the fields that they once worked, providing a refuge to weeds and a home to rabbits.

The reason that the tools are retired is that the formerly cultivated fields are now in orchards—walnuts, almonds, pistachios, prunes—which do not require cultivation. The great and ongoing transformation of Central Valley agriculture from row crops and field crops to orchards and groves is not driven by concern for the welfare of the soil ecosystem; it is driven by the net increase in dollars per acre per year. But even if the virtues are accidental, the outcome is nonetheless positive: We have healthier soils in the region than we did two decades ago.


Mike Madison operates a family farm near Winters, California, producing olives (Yolo Press Olive Oil), figs, apricots, melons and cut flowers. His books about Sacramento Valley agriculture include Walking the Flatlands and Blithe Tomato.

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