No till has been great – except

Published 8:41 pm Tuesday, January 3, 2017

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No-till and minimum till farm operations have produced huge benefits in our region, for agriculture and for the environment.

Moldboard plowing, which “plowed under” cover crops and old crop stubble, was expensive, time consuming and contributed mightily to pollution. Sandy land, once plowed, could blow away during strong March winds, carrying nutrients with it. More typically, soil was washed away in heavy spring rains, thus becoming a significant contributor to the nutrient overload of the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

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As far back as the 1980s, farmers were being encouraged to create buffers between their fields and ravines that traditionally had been the pipeline for eroded soil to enter streams. In time, injected fertilizer, no-till and minimum till practices were put in place, and the effect has been dramatic.

By reducing tillage, farmers have significantly reduced soil erosion, by both wind and rain, and as a result, have reduced the amount of silt entering the creeks and rivers of the Chesapeake estuary.

Such practices also reduce farm labor, reduce the waste of fertilizer by focusing it around plants and, overall, have increased yields. Modern farming practices are thus beneficial to farmers and non-farmers alike.

An incidental casualty of minimum till farming is one that should probably not be missed but is by the hobbyists who practiced it — arrowhead hunting.

Springtime and early summer were favored times to hunt for stone artifacts. It was then that fields had been plowed, disc harrowed and planted. Soil was at its finest (and most vulnerable to erosion) at that point and invariably a big thunderstorm — a real trash mover, in local jargon — would wash soil down balks and, in the process, uncover stone arrowheads, axes and other remnants of pre-colonial habitation.

Farmers, farmers’ children, neighbors and — to their shame — trespassers converged on fields after a big rain to hunt for “tips.” And, in time, some pretty amazing collections was obtained. (I was routinely accused of paying more attention to possible arrowheads in the sand than grass and weeds in the row during June peanut chopping.)

Anthropologists and archaeologists can get downright indignant over such scavenging because it’s not done scientifically. A genuinely rare artifact might be found and its location not recorded, thus greatly diminishing its historic value and thus possibly reducing the value of a historic site.

All true, no doubt, but to arrowhead collectors a half century ago, the thrill of finding a really nice arrow tip, axe or grinding stones (mortar and pestle) was real and the pleasure of owning such artifacts quite satisfying

The argument has become moot with minimum till farming, however, because it has pretty well ended artifact hunting. It was a nice pastime, but what’s happened in agriculture is far more important and beneficial than a chance to find an arrowhead.