Column: Innovation: technical and cultural in farming; The Worm Forgives the Plough

A long time ago, I read that one of the problems in agriculture is that children used to learn practical mechanical things.

A long time ago, I read that one of the problems in agriculture is that children used to learn practical mechanical things by hanging around the blacksmith shops and watching new things being made along side the making and shaping of horseshoes.

Nowadays, my source said, there are no more blacksmith shops in our towns and villages.

There are the fabricating shops, which do some of the same things, but kids can’t just hang around and learn like they used to. The point is that young people need to learn by doing.

You can read a book or study the texts but one really needs to get hands onto the things and work them, make them, form them.

I found that at my ranch, the more tools and equipment we had, such as welding equipment, big vices and anvils for pounding steel, the handier the boys became.

I learned so much at my uncle’s elbow while he helped me adapt a mower to a tractor, like straightening a bent axle.

My forge, which beats cutting torches for heating larger pieces of metal, has taught many young people how to bend steel without weakening it by bending it cold. Those experiences might just steer a youngster to engineering of one kind or another.

Some historians credit agriculture and the smithing shops with many of the inventions, which went on to be the foundation of the industrial revolution.

Good or bad, tools were powerful and the shaped and sharp plowshares helped feed growing populations.

New techniques and tools or equipment can help or hinder soil health, depending on how they are used.

Zero and minimum tillage equipment was invented to overcome over ploughing which is disruptive to the health of bacteria in soils and which causes much erosion.

A 1973 book called The Worm Forgives the Plough, by John Stewart Collis, Penguin Press, was formative in a cultural revolution in agriculture which sought to restore fertility by better farming practices. Much research and on-farm trials have passed under the bridge since that book.

Recently on the scene as a guru in agricultural practices is Gabe Brown from North Dakota. (Google him if you are interested) He and his family farm thousands of acres.

He has become an avid promoter of “cover crops” which can be seeded over existing crops or put in fields recently cultivated. His method, which I call a cultural practice, is to plant many, even hundreds, of different seeds in order to have a stand of plants in which different plants having different nutrient needs bring up out of the subsoil a great variety of minerals.

This is a case of not putting all your eggs in one basket by planting only a few varieties and risking that the climatic and soil conditions are correct for what you have sown.

This introduction of biodiversity into swards of fodder (fields) is innovative. Worms and dung beetles process dead plant materials into growing plant food.

New cultural practices, like new technologies and machines, need to be learned by trial, by demonstration, and by adoption from those who dare to lead.

David Zirnhelt is a member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association and chair of the advisory committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching program which is starting at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake this January.