With the creation of a mechanical tractor, in the 1800s, tilling became a common, expected practice of all farmers. Any farmer worth his bread ripped the ground and crumbled the soil to make a smooth planting surface, then tilled between rows to kill weeds.

Strangely enough, this practice has slowly destroyed the structure of soil, killed the microbes that balance the ground and brought on a huge erosion problem of these powdered soils.

It’s staggering how much topsoil is lost every year due to this tilling breakdown. As time has gone on, farmers have been compelled to buy bigger and more equipment to continue this traditional practice. Added to the mix is the application of tons of product that further disrupt the essential life-cycle of the soil, which continues to result in lower and lower nutrient values of whatever is the yield.

Wow! Don’t get mad at me!

This is proven and documented.

Just as “common” cattle farming has decimated pastures and waterways, “common” farming with machines has destroyed the structure of soil.

An aggravated farmer is going to say “what other way is there?”

The good news is there are better practices that protect the ground, grow healthier food sources, make much lower demands on cash outlay and create a healthy profit margin.

Let me tell you a bit about mycorrhizal fungi, an essential binder in the soil. This is amazing little worker that extends far into the soil — from root tips, where it acquires nutrients in exchange for carbon compounds excreted by roots.

Among its many other functions it can stimulate generation of antioxidants and phyto-nutrients in the food crops, which spells better health for us. This exchange is known as “symbiosis”… kind of like bartering.

Plants colonized by mycorrhizal fungi can grow 10% to 20% faster than non-colonized plants. This is a normal process of the soil in a healthy environment. In a soil that has been doused with manmade chemicals/fertilizer, it doesn’t happen because the applications interrupt this relationship between microbes and plant roots.

Read about mycorrhizal fungi; you’ll be amazed! (Check out amazingcarbon.com.)

This is just one of many that perform symbiotic duties where we don’t see. The whole environment below the surface of the soil is a colony of life that works together to build strong plants; then there are insects that work in that mix; and all come together to help a plant do its best.

Tilling destroys this colony building.

A word on insects: For every pest insect species there are between 400-1,700 beneficial species. Without them our ecosystem would collapse.

Think about that next time you decide to apply pesticide, because it’s not just the pests that die.

Plants, like us, need to “work” or they get lazy. Some stress is needed for them to perform well. For instance, when a grass plant is cut, the plant “sees” it as a wound and will seek extra nutrients to heal the cut. All plants behave similarly. Cutting a lawn high (3.5 to 4 inches) encourages deep roots while shading more weedy plants — with no synthetics.

How to begin a better way? Stop chemical applications and quit tilling. Plant cover crops and keep all bare soil covered with something. Did you ever see nature till anything?

Instead there’s constant matter falling onto the soil, creating a rotting cover, or a series of weed species will cover bare ground, because nature fights a vacuum.

Soil life is all about life and death, rotting and renewal. The least disturbance we can do to the ground, the better the life beneath the surface can do their jobs to feed us.

After so many generations of doing it the “other” way, it’s hard to believe that the best thing we can do is less. This isn’t a new fad for farming. There’s actually a group of farmers and livestock people who are doing this and have been for many years.

Slowly, they’re getting the word out and educating those of us who see that current methods are failing. These people have learned through trial and error, tough lessons and small successes — which led to good profitability — that there is a better way. Nature had the right idea all along!

Next week I’ll introduce you to some of the movers and shakers and share a bit about their stories. Then I have some great news for how you can get first-hand teaching from some of them — right here in Greene County!

Meet me back here next week!

Sherrie “The Dirt Girl” Ottinger is a dedicated ecologist, speaker, writer and lifetime Tennessean. All comments and questions should be emailed to velokigate@yahoo.com.