The hoe and the plough

Everyone can use a hoe. One of the most enchanting and productive market gardens in Europe is managed completely by hand and using natural methods of growing. Appropriately enough, it is called Eden, and it is run by Rod Alston, north of Sligo and close to the Irish Organic Centre in Co Leitrim, Eire. Its nearly one hectare has been developed over 19 years to produce soil in the bed-system of growing that is easily hoed to remove surface weeds, making it ready for planting up with the next crop. This is reproduced by the market garden at Ragman’s Lane Farm, Gloucestershire, also managed by hand by Mandy Pullen. The easy nature of the soil in these two market gardens comes from the use of beds that never need treading on because all the work can be carried out from paths. The application of composted matter as yearly mulches seems to make hoeing easier at the same time as feeding the soil and improving its fertility. (Fertility is defined here as microbial activity, giving soils the ability to break down organic matter and make the nutrients available to crops.)

As a contrast to these market gardens, a recent study has shown that there is little difference between organic and conventional farmland when the chemical and physical characteristics were examined, such as soil structure, organic matter content or nutrient content (interim results from Temperate Research of the International Research Dept., HDRA). The fact that this was unexpected shows how little organic farm systems have been studied and how tenuous is the support for some widely held but largely unsubstantiated beliefs. (At least microbial activity was found to be significantly higher in organic farm soils.) In reality, the common factor between organic and conventional farming is most likely to be the reliance on the tractor and plough. To this can be added other practices in organic farming that were taken from conventional farming and that are increasingly seen to have ecological consequence (such as cutting hay for silage affecting farmland birds). But the point here is that there may be an even greater reliance in organic farming on ploughing because, in the absence of the use of herbicides, cultivation through ploughing is the predominant method of clearing weeds. (It is followed swiftly in order in organic farming by flame weeding, a technique that is not far short of ecocide.) I have a cautionary tale to tell you of how difficult it is for non-farming people to pick their way through the rhetoric that is increasingly surrounding farmland use and its management.

In this last year, a community-based trust has employed me to design and build with them a community market garden on land they have acquired in their community. I had to propose, within the design, a method to clear and manage a part of the land for annual crop use, the land being rough pasture that is heavily populated with ragwort. It also has docks, nettles and thistles and is matted with bailer twine. One organic conversion advisor, infamous in Yorkshire organic circles, often used to recommend to new entrants that they spray-off surface vegetation before entering the conversion process since he maintained it would markedly reduce problems in later years. Moreover, the conversion period then of two years would re-establish your sainthood from sinnerdom. ‘Legal’ as this may be, I also sought hopefully a more principled approach from another adviser who told me that I needed to use a plough with a good set of spring tines. I was to do the following:

“Just rip it up and maybe subsoil and keep fallowing till July…... Don't put in any structural or landscape bits till you have battered the perennial weeds into submission.”

I found I couldn't recommend either of these two extremes to the trust and, because they had immersed themselves in the design process, I had the opportunity to take them through the reasons why. Herbicide use was a non-starter – how can communities learning how to take responsibility justify on the one hand their removal of herbicide use in school grounds as a protection of their children and then conceivably use it on land that would grow their food? On the option of ploughing, I concluded that the HDRA research could be linked to some evidence of the ecological consequence of ploughing that would explain why the study didn’t show a difference between organic and conventional farmland. And, although it was not part of my explanation, I am aware that I should not overlook the slaughter of earthworms that happens during and after ploughing! Here was my central point.

A recent newspaper report pointed the finger at farm ploughing as being a significant source of carbon dioxide release to the atmosphere so adding to the list of villains blamed for potential climate change (Independent 8th December, 2000). Turning soil over stirs oxygen into it and, while ploughing successfully combats weeds, the oxygen causes rotting of crop residues and other organic matter in the soil, resulting in the release of carbon dioxide into the air. One calculation has it that the world's farm soils have lost about 100 billion tons of carbon over the centuries of farming, most of that loss occurring within the past 100 years. But Rattan Lal, professor of soil science at Ohio State University, believes that much of that carbon could be recaptured within the next half-century through simple improvements in farming methods such as reducing ploughing. Ploughing is "the equivalent of setting a match to soil organic matter", says Don Reicovsky of the US government's Soil Conservation Research Laboratory in Minnesota. He calculates that the soils of the US corn-belt prairies "have lost between 30 and 50 per cent of the carbon they held when they were first cultivated". If farmers reduced their ploughing, the process could be reversed. The US Department of Energy estimates that three-quarters of the carbon lost from US soils could be returned within 50 years through changes in farming methods and other land-use improvements such as little or no ploughing; preventing soil erosion; ceasing to cultivate poor, marginal land; restoring degraded soils with manure and composts; and planting trees. (For further reading see the downloadable publication Sustainable Soil Management – Soil System Guide on the Alternative Technology Transfer to Rural Areas website,

The supporters of organic farming assert, often with ideological fervour, that their methods have environmental benefit through cultivation that leads to improvements in the composition and structure of farm soils. They will say that organic farming is part of a sustainable agriculture. However, the HDRA study argues that these coveted assumptions are useless, that there are no absolute answers particularly when insufficient thought is given to all the processes involved, and that the best process of approaching a truly sustainable food production has still to be determined. In this, it will be important to test solutions against human need and human scale since farming systems that rely heavily on mechanical machinery - such as broadscale agriculture - allow this to dominate in the choices made for land use (large areas of cereals and other crops grown just to feed livestock) and that the dependence on machinery is at the expense of our own self-reliance (and competency) and at the expense of the health of the soil, and quite often at the expense of the aesthetic of the location. Looking at the larger picture, the example of the market gardens suggest we should be considering how well a broadscale agriculture fits in with the aims of our civilisation when we face increasing concern about the imbalance between the extent of farmland in the UK in comparison to, and at the expense of, wilderness (consider the predominance of a grass-astroturfed countryside, again just to feed livestock).

In the years to come, it will be seen that organic farming, born not much over 50 years ago, is probably an ill-thought-out and inflexible reaction to concerns about the changing effects of farming because it is just another subset of broadscale farming practice. The recent advocacy by an organic farming organisation of non-evidence based reasoning in determining organic standards continues this thoughtless trend (see evidence to Agriculture Select Committee, 1st November, 2000). And it is no surprise that the recent parliamentary report on organic farming noted that there is much research needed solely to underpin the rationale of organic standards as they are at present (Second Report, Agriculture Select Committee 17th January 2001).

Mark Fisher, 11 February 2001

The concept designs and full design for the community market garden can be dowloaded from Reports, research and designs