In my last post (Battle Royale (Agrarian Style)) I revealed that I have indeed used a tool on a tractor to accomplish an agrarian goal. I used a single shank subsoiler, aka chisel plow or ripper, to help prepare a hillside to become a productive orchard. There were definitely ways that I could have used hand tools only to suit this purpose, but it would have taken years worth of work and crop rotations. This solution allowed me to jump ahead with minimal investment of time and money, and with minimal negative consequences. Read on if you are interested in the reasons behind this exception to my rule (Hand Tools: The Simple Choice).
The land that I am currently preparing has very likely been in constant agricultural production since the Revolutionary War or earlier. This was a populated and popular farming area consistently since shortly after colonization, and there are pre-Civil War farm houses still standing throughout this county. There is one on this very farm as if to remind me of the land’s recent history. The last 100 years of agriculture has taken an especially hard toll on this land. The heavy clay soil sits atop shale bedrock that is only a few feet below the surface. The shale gravel subsoil is within just a few inches of the surface, and in places it is the surface layer itself. The steeper the slope on the hilly terrain, the more gravel is exposed, and the valleys are lush with deep soil and wet growth. Because of the thin soil on the slopes, any rain quickly runs off into ephemeral streams and promptly leaves the property, and we have been getting noticeably less summer rain here over the last 10 years.
The question at the base of the problem is – how do I most effectively capture rainwater on the property and where it is needed without major earthworks projects? There is a farm pond here (The Farm Pond), but to get the water back out to the growing areas would require pumping and lots of it. This is a great emergency back-up to have but I would not want to rely on it as my primary method of irrigation. There is a water line from the house well, but the prospect of modern drip irrigation just rubs me the wrong way. It is a better solution than most, but putting that much plastic in the field and using the electric well pump constantly to put highly calcareous and iron filled shale aquifer water on the topsoil constantly doesn’t appeal to my frugal nature. Without amending the soil situation, most of it would be wasted anyway.
The truly permanent and efficient way to solve this would be to terrace the hillsides, as the Chinese preferred. This method would be long lasting, highly productive, and visually pleasing, but highly labor intensive and leaving the land in a state that modern Americans would find confusing and possibly annoying. How would you get a tractor through there?
This all leads me to land on keyline plowing, a la P.A. Yeoman and proselytized by Mark Shepard. It seems to be exactly the intermediate solution that I was searching for, both effective in its purpose and acceptable to the modern farmer. The concept is straight forward – by using a subsoil plow to cut level lines across the hillside (imagine a topographical map) you arrest the flow of water down the slope. By sloping these lines slightly towards the shoulders and ridges, you actually have water running out of the upper hollow towards the lower shoulders, moving water from where it is abundant to where it is scarce. By using a subsoiler to do this, you create a broken furrow where once the water’s traversal has been slowed, it has somewhere to soak into, now reaching the subsoil that it previously wouldn’t have irrigated, having run off the surface rather than soaking further in. With furrows at 18″ depth and spaced about 10′ apart, this allows the hillside to hold water in the soil profile by the thousands of gallons that in the past would have run off and become a problem in the valleys.
Now that I have land that will be holding water much longer after a rain, I can plant fruit trees (Tree Planting Season) with much less worry for how I will keep them thriving, especially through their first few years of life. And as an added bonus, I can plant into these furrows knowing that whatever I plant there has broken aerated and irrigated soil down to 18″ to send roots into – no small bonus.