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Thursday, June 26, 2014
Lessons of Amish Agriculture
I really want to share here is the well thought out cyclic crop
rotation system in place here. The horses are really a costly extra
that absorbs way more time and effort than described here. This type
of farm works very well with a small light tractor able to pull at
most a three blade plow, although such plowing is presently
spent with the cattle is not mentioned either. Again modern hardware
is wonderful along with a front end loader and a properly designed
flat surface and back up bar stall system to keep the shoveling to
is not just about huge fields. It is also about the right tools and
applying brake horsepower whenever possible.
farming has been handed down from parents to children for so many
generations that the reasons for doing so are almost forgotten. For
example, the rotations of our field crops work so well that they’re
seldom questioned. This is a four or five year rotation with corn in
a given field every fourth or fifth year. The corn is followed with
oats. In the falls after the oats are harvested the stubble is plowed
and wheat sowed. This is then top-seeded the following March or April
with legume seeds using a hand-cranked or horn type seeder, usually
on frozen ground. This is also the time we find the early nesting,
horned lark’s nest. The dropping seeds cause enough disturbance to
flush the incubating bird.
the wheat is cut and threshed in July, the stubble is mowed, and
almost miraculously, the wheat field converts to a hay field. The
next spring and summer several cuttings of hay are made, and then the
hay field is pastured in the fall. During the winter the old sod is
liberally covered with strawy manure in late winter or early spring
the sod is plowed and in may planted again the corn, and the rotation
or cycle is completed.
the Earth for Future Blessings
an ecological, angle, what has to be bought and added in the form of
chemicals to raise a crop of corn in a field like this? Nothing,
except the seed corn which is usually treated with a fungicide. With
the legumes converting free nitrogen to the soil from the air, no
extra fertilizer is needed.
no insecticides are needed in this field, because in corn following
hay there are not crop damaging insects. We have never used a soil
of us aren’t too concerned if there are some weeds and grasses in
our corn. in fact, I want some there. Occasionally we get summer
thundershowers that dump several inches of rain in half an hour or
less, which is more than even the most absorbent soil can take. It is
during storms like this when we depend on a smattering of quack grass
and sod waterways to hold the top soil.
the topsoil can be attributed to the tilth of our soils. Research at
Oberlin college shows our traditional, horse-worked farms absorb
almost seven times more water before becoming saturated than
conventional, no-till farms.
this time no-till farming with its dependence upon vast amounts of
chemicals is being touted as an answer to prayers. This method is
promised to give us green fields forever, but they fail to say that
these green fields will be strangely silent -gone will be the
bobolink, the meadowlark and the sweet song of the vesper sparrow in
farming and living independent of the electrical grid, the Amish are
not contributing, at least not directly, to the destruction of
hundreds of farms and communities in southeastern Ohio, where the
Ohio power plants spew out sulfur dioxides which are blamed as part
of the acid rain soup which is killing forests and lakes in the
Nabhan wrote in the desert smells like rain about two sonoran desert
oases. The first one in Arizona is dying because the park service
turned it into a bird sanctuary and, in order to preserve the
naturalness, removed the Indians who farmed and lived there. The
other oasis across the border in Mexico is thriving because it is
being tended by a village of Papago Indians as it has been for a long
time. An ornithologist found twice as many species of birds here than
at the bird sanctuary in Arizona.
think it is the way it is with small-scale diversified farming. On
this type of farm we enhance our place for wildlife rather than being
a setriment into a “wildlife area,” I’m positive the numbers
and species of wildlife would dwindle.
week our family did a survey of nesting birds around our farm
buildings. This doesn’t include the bobolinks, redwings,
meadowlarks and sparrows in the fields, nor the vireos, tanagers,
warblers and thrushes in the woods, nor the rough-winged swallows and
kingfishers along the creek. Even though the nesting season is over,
we still thought we could get a fairly accurate count of young birds.
We came up with thirteen species and over 1800 young fledglings
within 200 feet of our house. As Mr. Nabhan’s Indian friend said,
“that’s because those birds, they come where the people are. When
the people live and work in a place, plant their seeds, and water
their trees, the birds go live with them. They like those places,
there’s plenty to eat, and that’s when we are friends to them.”
Jackson has often said, “the pleasantness or unpleasantness of farm
work depends upon scale-upon the size of the field and the size of
the crop.” the Amish have maintained what I like to think is a
proper scale, largely by staying with the horse. The horse has
restricted unlimited expansion. Not only does working with horses
limit farm size, they’re ideally suited to family life. With horses
you unhitch at noon to water and feed the teams, and then the family
eats what we still call dinner. While the teams rest, there is
usually time for a short nap. Another fringe benefit is that God
didn’t create the horse with headlights, so we don’t work nights.
I haven’t heard of any of our neighbors calling the extension
service’s 800-stress hot line.
have seventy tillable acres which is more than the average farm in
our community. We couldn’t take care of more. With this size farm,
there is usually something to do, yet we are never overwhelmed by
Work is Spread Out
normal conditions, the work is spread out from spring to fall. The
fieldwork begins in March with the plowing of sod. This is leisurely
work, giving the horses plenty of time to become conditioned. This is
our “quiet time,” a time to listen to god and his creation as we
are a part of the unfolding of spring.
is for plowing corn stalks and sowing oats, spring beauties and
May, glorious May, we plant the corn, turn the cows and horses out to
pasture and revel in warblers and morel mushrooms.
making is in June, along with strawberries, shortcakes, pies and
jams. The bird migration is over, and summer settles in.
and work on the farm peaks in July: threshing, second cutting hay,
transparent apples, new honey, black berries and the first katydid.
already hints of autumn and silo filling. The whine of the fillers is
heard throughout the land. we fill our ten by forty silo with the
help of four neighbors.
wheat and Macintosh apples mean the month of September.
is corn harvest and cider making and loving the colors and a serenity
only October can offer. As the month draws to a close so does the
lot of what you may consider recreation we get on our own farm. The
year is a never-ending adventure. This year we had four firsts: our
first Kentucky warbler for the farm; our first ever luna and imperial
moths; and after waiting for over thirty years, I saw my first giant
Support of a Community
the greatest difference between Amish and conventional agriculture is
the community life or support we have. Outside of the two years away
from home when I was drafted, I’ve never lived anywhere else. But
it is easy to see that in non-Amish farming communities the farmer
that farms traditionally is often considered an eccentric, a person
too stubborn to adapt. Around here the conventional farmer is the
years ago I had an accident which required surgery and a week in
hospital. My wife tells me the first words I told her in the recovery
room were, “Get me out of here. The wheat has to be cut.” Of
course she couldn’t, and I need not have worried because we had
my dad binded the wheat, the neighbors shocked as fast as he cut.
When his team tired, my brother brought his four-horse team, and by
support-time the 12 acre field was cut and shocked.
year the neighbor that was first to help us last year needed help.
Since a bout of pneumonia a month ago, he hasn’t been able to do
much. So last Thursday six teams and mowers cut eleven acres of
alfalfa hay. Then on Saturday afternoon with four teams and wagons
and two hay loaders and fifteen men and about as many boys, we had
the hay in his barn in less than two hours.
we spent almost as much time afterwards sitting in a circle beneath
the maple tree with cool drinks and fresh cookies, listening as one
of the neighbors told of his recent trip. He and a friend visited
draft horse breeders in Illinois, Iowa and eastern Nebraska, and what
a story he to tell of nice horses and nice people, of the worst
erosion he had ever seen from those Iowa hills following eight inches
of rain, and how those Iowa farmers rained invective down on our
president. “Ach,” he said, “all they want is more government
couldn’t help but think of my young friend who got married last
September, and then bought his dad’s machinery and livestock and
rented a farm. He really worked on that debt, milking by hand,
selling grade b milk, tending a good group of sows, cultivating corn
twice, some three times with no herbicides. As he and his wife are
now nearing the end of their first year of farming, most of their
debts are paid off. He didn’t tell me this, because he’s much too
humble, but he did say to me while threshing, “you know, farming is
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