The health of the soil is a determiner of the health of plants, animals, humans, ecosystems and even the economy.
When we see a fresh ploughed field, our first reaction is often: ‘That looks neat with its even soil and rows.’ We are used to this vision due to multiple beliefs, like that the soil should be turned around so it can breathe, or that the soil should be loosened to be able to seed. However, the quality of the soil has degraded the last decennia. Besides using pesticides, ploughing is also a reason for this effect.
Our knowledge about soil is increasing and we are much more aware of the importance of the life in the soil. This life exists out of many organisms who keep the soil healthy by converting remains of plants into humus. Bacteria, archaea, moulds, algae, slime fungi, protozoa, nematodes, arthropods, worms and gastropods are all present in the soil and they convert organic waste into nutrients. It is alive, it eats, it digests, it poops and it dies. Besides this, they eat each other, they help each other and they exchange substances with each other. This complex network builds the soil for us.
When you don’t till, it means that the remains of the previous plants (roots included) stay in the soil. So, the new vegetation is planted directly without adjusting the soil first. Multiple effects of this are:
- It protects networks of moulds and the whole soil-ecosystem.
- It increases and protects the structure of the soil (aggregates).
- The soil can retain water better (water retention).
- It decreases erosion.
- It feeds the soil life (more diversity in the soil means more biodiversity on the surface).
- The carbon in the soil is retained better.
- New vegetation can have bigger roots.
- Less work, machines and fuel is required.
When you do till, the soil is being turned around and is decomposed. Several consequences of this are:
- It destroys networks of moulds. These networks are responsible for producing acids and enzymes that take care of nutrients for plants. Moulds also help plants by preventing diseases and plagues. Besides this, they are an important part of a healthy soil-ecosystem.
- The structure of the soil keeps getting interrupted and this causes an increase of erosion. Also, the amount of water that can be retained by the soil, decreases.
- The carbon that is stored in the soil, comes up to the surface which causes oxidation.
- It disrupts the habitat of the organisms that live in the soil.
- It increases the speed of the evaporation of water.
The soil doesn’t like to be left naked, but we see it as something usual. However, a bare soil is not normal. The soil will do anything to cover itself with weeds or wild plants. These are functional and protect and recover the soil. On the other hand, we do anything to stop the weeds from growing, even though it is completely natural. There is also another way to recover the soil, namely seeding the soil with green manures that produce nitrogen. Also composting is an option when wanting to recover the soil, and in permaculture this way gets the most focus.
The soil will need time to recover. Stopping with ploughing and pesticides is the first step. The result is a soil life that is in balance and also an increase of life on the surface (insects and birds).
Experiences in the Netherlands
Not ploughing is becoming more well known in the Netherlands. An article from a website about agriculture, called Akkerwijzer, gives an explanation about how not to plough and also let farmers speak about it:
‘Since I don’t plough anymore, I see more soil life and humus. Also, after quite some rain, the soil stays clear of water and there are no unwanted streams on the field anymore. Besides this, there is no erosion of my slopes now. The revenues definitely do not suffer from not ploughing, they actually profit from it. Lastly, not ploughing makes my work easier and faster.’