A Revolution without a Plow
Discovering Plowman's Folly (1943)
Two months ago, while researching this newsletter on the origins of organic labeling, I came across a single paragraph in a 300-page book that mentioned Edward H. Faulkner’s book Plowman’s Folly. I recognized the title as an old book sitting on my shelf, its origins to me a mystery. For The Library this week I decided to pick up this thin volume from 1943 to see what I could learn. Read on!
Taking Bearings is supported by readers. To support my research and encourage my writing, please subscribe and consider becoming a paid subscriber.
“No crime is involved in plagiarizing nature’s ways.”
—Edward H. Faulkner
The Single Solution
Edward H. Faulkner worked as an agricultural agent in Kentucky and Ohio and started experimenting during the last years of the Great Depression. Faulkner believed he solved a series of farming problems with a single, simple solution: abandon the moldboard plow. Although the agricultural science establishment remained skeptical, Faulkner evangelized.
Instead of plowing cropland, farmers should use a disk harrow, which would mix organic matter into the surface but no deeper. This practice mimicked nature. And as he pointed out, “Nature is perfectly organized.”
All the scientific advice about agriculture assumed plowing. But plowing was contrary to nature and, thus, all theories rested on errors. Faulkner called for a revolution to end the “divine right of plows.”
Plowman’s Folly reports on Faulkner’s experiments and reflects his reasoning. The moldboard plow dug too deep and disrupted the capillary action in the soil. Unable to hold water as well, the soil eroded, natural drainage failed, weeds proliferated, more fertilizers were needed. The moldboard plow was the “villain” in farming’s drama, something that symbolized the arrogance of human domination of the land.
Faulkner started in his garden and quickly expanded to field scale. These trials convinced him that his method was correct. He shared his results. But most of the book contains not so much a rigorous study as new assumptions, observations of natural behavior, and Faulkner’s reasoning. Without alternative data or experience, Plowman’s Folly sounds convincing—if a bit overpromising.
Faulkner describes how decaying organic matter at the surface means farmers will no longer need to apply nitrogen to supplement soil. “One small discovery, then, makes possible the discontinuing of a considerable expense in farming.” You could apply that logic to his entire no-plow approach, because according to Faulkner, the benefits of that one change would accrue to farmers if they rejected the plow in favor of the disk harrow:
no more erosion
no more worry about drought
no more drainage problems
no more pests (or pesticides)
no more fertilizers
no more weeds
better crop—and financial—yields
All the details are contained in the book; take a look, if you want.
When I picked up the book, I immediately checked the copyright date—a historian’s habit—and saw 1943. Although Faulkner lived in Ohio near Lake Erie, I knew that the previous decade’s dust bowl on the plains would undoubtedly have shaped the context of his experiments and fervor. The winds may not have picked up and carried Ohio topsoil to Washington, D.C., like it did from Oklahoma, but the ongoing crisis in American agriculture certainly compelled Faulkner’s interests.
Besides that crisis, a organic agriculture movement was beginning. J. I. Rodale started Organic Farming and Gardening the year before Faulkner’s publication. They were friends, and Rodale praised the book. Plowman’s Folly quickly sold 50,000 copies—numbers that shocked me after having read its rather mundane prose. Something besides Oklahoma dust was in the air.1
A deeper historical context also aided my appreciation of the book as a historical artifact. At the turn of the 20th century, an agricultural journalist named Hardy Campbell had developed a “scientific farming” technique, especially suited for the plains. The method consisted of fallowing fields to conserve moisture after being prepared by a deep plowing, packing the subsoil, and topping the field with a dust mulch. This dryland farming method proved the latest hope for plains farmers, much like the “rain follows the plow” idea attempted to will a solution into place. As a common aphorism put it, though, “Dry farming works best in wet years.”2 Going against this idea that deep plowing would allow water to collect and store until needed shows some of what Faulkner was working against.
In the early pages, Faulkner wrote, “We have really had a fling at scientific agriculture.” It was time to sober up, he said. It was a colorful way to express this sentiment. Sometimes, we can still wonder about this fling and if we have sobered up enough.
Compared to 1943, today’s alternative farmers have inherited some of Faulkner’s spirit, even if not all his methods. Yet no-till agriculture is part of farming’s reform movement that continues, and a quick internet search will tell you that Faulkner is considered a “father of no-till agriculture.” This method also is part of more regenerative agricultural practices meant to improve ecological systems while growing food.
I had no idea I was diving into such a foundational text when I pulled the small yellow book off my shelf.
A final legacy is worth mentioning. Faulkner may be right in all his conclusions and details (although I am skeptical). But regardless, he is simplistic. In a rich and intertwined natural world, changing one method seems unlikely to upend all that came before. He sounds like the revolutionary, one who identifies a single solution that can solve all problems. The world, I believe, is more complicated.
I wrote a profile of a local farm, Skinny Kitty Farms, that is newly posted and consistent with this week’s newsletter theme.
I’ve been working through a series of stories about local food needs. The second story posted today (first one is here). It emphasizes how COVID accelerated and changed the the relationship between regional farmers and food banks. I hope you’ll read it here. It is published with Salish Current, an outlet that covers Northwest Washington. This independent, fact-based news source delivers daily stories of high quality right to your inbox. We’d love for you to sign up to receive these free, never-behind-a-paywall stories and help the readership grow and increase regional awareness. Click here to sign up!
As always, you can find my books, and books where some of my work is included, at my Bookshop affiliate page (where, if you order, I get a small benefit).
Taking Bearings Next Week
I can’t believe I’ve come around to The Wild Card again next week. As I get busier and busier, these come faster and faster. I’d better figure out what to do. Stay tuned!
Robin O’ Sullivan, American Organic: A Cultural History of Farming, Gardening, Shopping, and Eating (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015), 27.
Allan G. Bogue, “An Agricultural Empire,” in The Oxford History of the American West, eds. Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A. O’Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 300.