Cultivating without plowing: from American natives to permaculture

Cultivating without plowing: from American natives to permaculture

Modern industrial agriculture is based on the use of heavy vehicles to plow the fields and on herbicides to control weeds.

It is a vision of our culture, in which man wants to have full control over the cultivated field and intervenes to eliminate any external factor. By turning the clod upside down, the plow decompensates and impoverishes the soil, while nature is able to activate a formidable machine of biodiversity. Where microorganisms and transformations aim to preserve it and keep it fertile permanently.

Centuries of plowing and weeding have accustomed us to think that there is no alternative, in reality these techniques are not necessary to cultivate, indeed, they are really inconvenient. Other experiences demonstrate this, from the indigenous people of North America to the natural agriculture of Masanobu Fukuoka and permaculture, passing through forerunners such as Falukner, Russel Smith and the very nice Ruth Stout.

Agriculture of the indigenous peoples of North America

In the second half of the eighteenth century, when Europeans brought their agriculture to North America they did not know the agricultural techniques and lifestyles of native peoples. They considered their agriculture backward, even if the natives had no particular problems in finding food and the natural environment where they lived appeared uncontaminated. Westerners saw great riches in the New World to exploit, and even the most well-meaning (such as the Quakers) convinced the natives that European farming methods were convenient.

The Hou de no sau nee and the Senecas are among the groups that have managed to preserve more information about their ancient agricultural traditions. First People Worldwide, an organization that funds development projects for local communities around the world, has identified the four principles of tribal societies:

  • Community is essential for survival.
  • Existence is sustained on balance and harmony.
  • Nature is a source of knowledge.
  • Sustainability and resilience.

According to these principles, Native American agricultural techniques were very different from ours. They consisted mainly of sowing, transplanting and digging. The spaces for the vegetable gardens were obtained by making circular incisions on the trees in the woods, in this way the trees lost their leaves and raised flower beds were created there for the cultivation of vegetables, enriching them with vegetable and animal waste, leaves and further woodland soil. Later the area was abandoned so that it could spontaneously recover. The harvests were abundant, consisting mainly of maize, beans and pumpkins. These jobs were usually done by women while men were engaged in hunting and fishing. The collection and use of natural vegetation were also very important for these peoples who had a very wide knowledge of spontaneous plants.

According to reports in American bulletins, such as those of the Clinton-Sullivan Battle, the US military said they found many fields of corn, beans and pumpkins and large orchards. Their reports describe how they destroyed millions of bags of grain in 1779 and were baffled by the region's agricultural production.

We have evidence of how the Quakers offered to teach Native Americans new agricultural techniques in 1790 near the banks of the Allegany River. European agriculture stood out for completely clearing the soil before farming. The aim was biological simplification: “the only thing that must remain in a cabbage field is the cabbage”. However, this process has caused them a lot of problems.

At the beginning this type of agriculture went well because it took place on naturally fertile land that, by definition, had never been plowed. The yields were slightly higher. It had not been considered, however, that to plow and keep the field clean required a huge amount of work and even cattle to plow the fields. So it became necessary to allocate land for grazing animals or for their fodder. When a field is plowed, fertility immediately decreases and therefore the necessary substances must be constantly reintroduced, so even the composting activity needed a lot of work. Many men from that time, instead of devoting themselves to hunting and fishing, devoted themselves to agriculture, not so much because the work was heavier but because it had increased considerably.

Even today, interventions following the tillage of the land involve the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and complicated and expensive machinery, generating pollution, producing impoverished food and reducing plant and animal biodiversity.

Fukuoka, father of natural agriculture, also said that the first mistake is when the land is plowed.

Criticism of plowing

Faulkner and the madness of the farmer

Even before the publications of the more famous Fukuoka or Bill Mollison, others criticized the system based on large-scale plowing. Edward H. Faulkner in 1943 challenged common conventions with no small difficulty. He was an accomplished agricultural educator with a degree in agriculture from Cumberland College, initially not finding a publisher for his book Plowman's folly (Farmer's Folly). Eventually Oklahoma Press decided to publish his work which sparked an unprecedented debate among academics in the field and beyond, the book aroused a great reaction and in less than a year had eight reprints and 250,000 copies sold. Faulkner had touched a nerve, for him plowing was unnatural and destructive, he wrote:

From a certain point of view, we have created the current problems related to the soil precisely for the dubious pleasure of solving them. If at first we had not gone against the law of nature by plowing the land, we could have avoided the problems and also the efforts to solve them, costly both in terms of money and time. (...) We would also have avoided erosion, acidification of soils, increased flooding, lowering of groundwater, disappearance of wildlife, hardening and impermeability of the soil.

These theses created a lot of dissent, numerous publications came out to contradict him but also had some supporters: the sandstorms of the thirties, caused by the intensive agricultural techniques promoted by the government, were still very present in people's memories. Faulkner's ideas also found support from Hugh Bennet, a scholar of soil conservation, and part of the public took his side. Time magazine called the debate "the hottest confrontation on agricultural issues since the tractor first challenged the horse." In those years the United States of America was in the middle of the Second World War and orthodoxy prevailed, the discussion on these issues and Faulkner's popularity were soon forgotten.

Russel Smith: conserve the soil

A few years later J. Russel Smith, an advocate of soil conservation, also published a book in favor of non-tillage. Tree Crops: a permanent agriculture was first published in 1953 and focuses specifically on what happens when sloping land is cultivated.

Smith also saw plowing as the cause of many problems but as long as these techniques were carried out in the valley it was still acceptable. He focused on the erosion to which sloping land is subjected after plowing, it made his heart "bleed" to see the hills in China, once fertile and green, reduced to sandy and gravelly deserts furrowed by deep ravines. Smith traveled a lot, documenting both the serious instability caused by some agricultural techniques, and some cases of good environmental adaptation by agriculture.

Ruth Stout: gardening without back pain

Photo of farmhouse the straw thread

Another testimony in favor of not plowing the land comes from a charming woman named Ruth Stout. She was a horticulturist who, in her small way, managed to put in place practices to minimize the work in the garden and in the vegetable garden, she kept a column on Organic Gardening and wrote many books including How to have a green thumb without an aching back ( 1955), the Ruth Stout no-work garden book (1973), I've always done it my way (1775).

In these books he tells, in his light and witty way, how he managed to cultivate a vegetable garden for two people all year round, take care of several flower beds, take care of a column every week, reply to many letters, do housework and cook. … Not doing any of these things after 11am!

His horticulture techniques were mainly based on the use of organic mulch, a lot. He preferred hay, although he also used straw, leaves, kitchen scraps, pine needles, weeds etc. When the mulch lowered due to rains or decomposition processes, it added more. Stout also believed that there was no need to dig, use cover crops, weed, water or spray various substances.

Masanobu Fukuoka and Bill Mollison

Masanobu Fukuoka was a Japanese farmer who for 50 years cultivated cereals, fruit and vegetables on his farm without ever plowing the land. With his natural farming techniques he was able to restore balance in his soil, creating an environment where the spontaneous vegetation and cultivated plants were in contact and in balance, he did not even need to fertilize, extinguish weeds or use chemicals.

Photo of farmhouse the straw thread

In 1975 he released his first book The Straw Revolution in which he exposes the principles of natural agriculture, the techniques he used and his philosophy of life. The book was a huge success and a very important role in inspiring many farmers who nowadays follow its principles successfully.

In the 1970s, another alternative farming movement began to expand from Australia where it was born.

In 1978 Bill Mollison and David Holmgren published the first of their Permaculture One books. Permaculture is a design system based on the observation and understanding of natural systems. We try to integrate human activity with natural processes with great attention to resources such as water and soil, promoting resilience and stability in natural ecosystems.

Here is that practices such as large-scale land clearing have not arrived. In permaculture the crops are very differentiated according to needs, climate and soil, but also by the distance from the house. There are various "zones" designed, the ones closest to the house / farm are more cared for, with irrigation and systems to control weeds (use of mulch), while as you move away from the central area, you leave room for orchards , to semi-wild and wild crops.

This type of system aims at self-regulation and food autonomy and is very efficient from the point of view of the use of energy and resources, in this way, as in Fukuoka and Stout, you can get rid of many unnecessary practices. Permaculture has become the most widespread and effective alternative to industrial agriculture, its design-based approach has been very successful also because over time it has been able to integrate the ideas of Fukuoka and those of Emilia Hazelip's synergistic agriculture.

Permaculture, unlike industrial agriculture, can be adapted to territories and situations, it is a good candidate for solving some environmental problems of our time and for rediscovering healthy agriculture, free from pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals.


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