Farming: a continuing revolution

Published 5:57 pm Tuesday, May 9, 2017

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No-till and minimum till are the gold standards in farming today. They save fuel, conserve moisture, prevent erosion and accompanying nutrient runoff. And on top of all the above, no-till produces more corn, soybeans, cotton or peanuts than could ever have been imagined a half century ago. What could possibly not be to like?

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But the evolution to no-till was slow in coming. Up until the Great Depression, moldboard was powered by horses or mules — mostly mules in America’s Southland. Then, land was conditioned by small disc harrows, again pulled by teams, and then the land was dragged smooth with horse-pulled drag tooth or spring harrows.

Finally, the team was hooked to a two-row set of planters to plant corn, soybeans or, with a special planter invented by Ayers, peanuts.

That horse-drawn equipment, mostly invented and introduced after the Civil War, introduced a revolution in farming that allowed larger acreage to be planted by fewer people. It was coupled with the introduction of stationary gasoline engines, which could run anything from corn shellers to washing machines.

Tractors accompanied trucks and cars in the march toward modern farming and by the end of the Great Depression, tractors were finding their way onto more and more farms. But it was just a tiny beginning. The end of World War II unleashed America’s great manufacturing capacity on peaceful ventures. Bigger, more efficient tractors and the equipment they could launched the revolution that continues today.

Our poor little peanut farm was still using horse drawn equipment, modified to be pulled behind a tractor, when we were kids. We would drag out the old two-row corn planter in the spring, wire brush off any rust, use cylinder oil to grease the link chains that drove it, and head for what would be a cornfield. In a tradition that was still being practiced by a declining few, we planted soybeans along with the corn in some fields with the goal of turning in our herd of Hampshire hogs in the fall to forage for food.

Peanuts were planted — very slowly — with the old pair of Ayers’ peanut planters, but only after the land into which they were planted was worked repeatedly. An almost powdery condition was considered ideal.

Once those old planters had been used for the year, they were scraped free of dirt and coated again with burnt cylinder oil, to be stored for another year.

They were on their way out, however, and soon four-row, eight row and larger planters and the plows, discs and other equipment needed to prepare land for them were making their way onto the stage.

And then, there came no-till. Again, what’s not to like?