Guy’s news: Waiting for the plough

A pair of pigeons is edging closer on the branch outside my room. She is tolerating his wooing… from a distance. This is no weather to be starting a brood – or planting vegetables. Like the pigeons, we are in limbo, waiting for the sun to make its appearance; they could be building their nest, and we should be ploughing in readiness, but nothing is happening.

Ploughed ground usually dries faster, provided the furrows stand up and allow air into the soil; should we have taken our meagre chances and ploughed last month? Plough too soon, and the furrows will slump in heavy rain, reducing to an airless pudding which is slower than ever to dry and can go sour. The ideal is to plough far enough ahead to allow soil fungi and bacteria to start breaking down the residues of previous crops, compost and manures into soluble nutrients, but not so early that those nutrients are leached by the rain before crops can use them. Achieving such perfect timing is not so easy when grabbing whatever opportunities the weather provides.

Ploughing is a well proven, but deeply flawed, pragmatic compromise; by inverting the soil and leaving it bare, soil life is damaged and the danger of soil loss is multiplied many times. Against this, the new crop is given a weedfree start and the aeration can provide a short-term fix for soil compaction, therefore aiding root growth. The truth is, we don’t know how to grow many crops without ploughing – especially without the aid of chemical herbicides. This year, working with other members of our co-op and a research initiative called Innovative Farmers, we are experimenting with only cultivating narrow strips to plant into. The idea is to give the crop enough competitive advantage without ploughing the whole field. Like most innovation, it will almost certainly fail first time, but I hope it will provide experience to build on and be the first step towards a less compromised, more sustainable growing system. It seemed like a great and worthy idea in the calm of January; I suspect I may be cursing my enthusiasm in the heat of June.

Guy Singh-Watson

7 responses to “Guy’s news: Waiting for the plough

  1. We also have a tractor sat with the plough on the back ready to go, but forecast doesn’t look hopeful, strange old winter! We are also interested to see how the Coop other innovation, a spacing machine will get on. Meant to remove need for plough, work shallower and distribute the dung etc rather than bury. Meant to be more subtle, like turning soil with fork in garden, but machine looks anything but sutble.
    What I do know is as soon as the sun does shine, it will go bonker and no time for watching pigeons mating!

  2. Plenty of effort has and is being exhausted trying to unlock the holy grail of no till. Thus far it seems there is no real option, only to invert the sod when coming from grass,resulting in carbon gas being released from the soil. Autumn harvests allow for the planting of Winter cover crops which feed soil biology and prevent leeching of soil nutrients ,thus retaining carbon. When Spring comes they incorporated into the Soil. Timing the destruction of one crop whilst clearing the surface of weeds, so your new sow seeds can grow without competition is the trick! Guy will rise to the challenge!

  3. …and with another icy front approaching, I expect ploughing will be further delayed. Holding thumbs. Organic Farming markets well as a posh, idyllic, life choice, but clearly its risky, frustrating & thoroughly challenging work.

  4. To you all. Thank you for my wonderful veg. I really do appreciate all the hard work and I enjoy the news on the farms. Spring will soon be here and then you can take on the challenges in the sunshine.
    Wendy and Russ

  5. Fascinating! I know lots of experimentation has gone on in Africa with just hoeing weeds and leaving them to mulch to soil then planting seeds in cup shaped holes with a ridge on the lower side to catch rain water.

  6. Interesting as usual. Not sure about organic being posh – it’s a life style choice, nothing more than being careful about the food we eat and what we put into our bdies. Bit like Waitrose – good food at realistic (as opposed to unsustainably cheap) prices but why posh?

  7. I agree with Peter Lane, it is lifestyle choices. My children wear hand me downs and sale clothes not brand names so we can afford to eat organic. We saved up for solar panels not hotel holidays (we went camping). Ditto the small electric car not a huge 4×4 (we don’t live on a mountain track). We made sacrifices to be able to afford to live close to our work and schools so we can walk and cycle there. I don’t think our children or friends see us as posh or the other extreme, crusty eco warriors (that’s what we used to call eco activists when I was a teenager) just caring and conscientious. We feel mainstream and damn lucky to have Riverford helping us make the right choices.

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