In a nutshell, here is my confession: I had compacted the soil.
Fed it artificial food. Removed organic matter without putting any
back. Laid the ground bare. Disrupted the soil community of microorganisms
by use of tillage. Poisoned the soil with chemicals. And dumped
my commodity on the market and wondered why I got a dump price.
I had broken the law. I was a criminal. Not in the legal sense,
but in a much more vast, universal sense. I had broken the law of
Our farm seeks to follow natural laws governing the relationships
between grazing animals and the grassland. Why? Laws bring order
from chaos. They operate at all times, in all places whether or
not we are aware of them or believe in them. Some laws may not necessarily
be apparent but disobeying always leads to predictable consequences.
There are physical laws, like the law of gravity. There are civil
laws, which bring order to society and govern our relationships
with each other. There are moral laws like "Don't lie"
and "Don't kill". And there are several laws that apply
The law of compaction:
The heaviest impression on the soil for millions of years was
a hoof, not a tractor track. What happens to a soil that is compacted?
What are the consequences? Water runs off instead of percolating
in. Soil moisture wicks out. The soil can't breathe. It suffocates.
There is no exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Physically
there is less room for the roots to grow and less room for soil
biota -- microorganisms, worms, bugs, etc. Would you like to raise
your family in a single crowded bedroom?
The law of fuel:
All life, soil or otherwise, runs by consuming fuel and burning
energy. Carbon, in the form of sugar, fuels our bodies. Carbon,
in the form of gasoline, fuels our cars. And carbon, in the form
of organic matter, fuels the soil. Weeds can refuel soil with
organic matter, a job at which they are well suited, but what
farmer wants weeds in the field? We till to burn up those weeds
and other organic matter.
Take away the organic matter, including weeds, and you take away
the soil's ability to feed itself. Now you have to feed it. So
you start with annual doses of commercial fertilizers to replace
the food--the organic matter-- that has been taken away. But commercial
fertilizers are an inadequate food replacement. If you ate only
a vitamin pill, a glass of water, and a bag of potato chips every
day, would you survive? Probably. Would you thrive? No.
The law of collecting
energy to be stored as carbon: Farmers are solar
energy harvesters. They use a green leaf to capture sunlight and
turn it into usable energy either for human and animal consumption
or for soil consumption. If the soil is laid bare, sunlight is
wasted and falls to nothing. Modern farming leaves the soil bare
for at least part of the year or a whole year in the case of summer
The law of maturity:
Adults are better able to handle stress than youngsters. Soil
with a mature plant community above ground and a mature soil biota
community below ground is better able to produce in times of drought,
flood or other stress. Most cultivated crops are less than a year
old and are youngsters.
The law of plant
balance: Whatever you cut above the ground, you
cut below the ground. If you take all of the top growth, the bottom
growth is also taken. Most western continuous-grazing practices
remove as much top growth as possible. This takes away the plants'
ability to feed themselves.
The law of long
term health vs short term gain: Doing the minimum
required to get by is usually more costly in the long run. Yet
most of farming today is geared for the short term: the next operating
loan payment, next equipment payment the next commodity check
in the mail.
The law of diversity:
All life requires a rich diversity of food for best production.
But "modern" agriculture focuses primarily on three
fertilizer nutrients. Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P), and Potassium
(K). It may come as surprise to many that these elements are not
lacking at all but are unavailable to the chemically dependent
plant/soil. The question is not "How much should you apply
as artificial fertilizers?" But, "How do I set up the
conditions where these elements are made available to the plant
when needed and in their most stable and usable form?" These
are the very conditions modern farming manages against. How ironic!
Diversity is nature's strength. Mono-cropping is modern agriculture's
The law of cover:
The soil is meant to be covered. The only barren place on nature
is a desert. The earth will do anything to put her clothes back
on once she is laid bare. This is one reason why weeds exist.
If you don't cover her with plants of your own choosing, she will
use plants of her own. Often times, if we observe how and where
the weeds emerge, we may learn something of what the soil's needs
The law of wounds:
The soil surface is very much like our skin. When you scrape or
cut yourself, you bleed. When the soil is cut, life bleeds away.
Water, nutrients, and soil wash away. What is left behind is raw,
unproductive, dry dirt.
The law of scabs:
When you are scraped or wounded you form a scab, an ugly protective
covering, until healthy skin can grow again. Weeds are the scabs
of a wounded soil. They may be unsightly, but are absolutely necessary
to aid in the healing process. Yet most farmers - including me,
in a previous life - have a zero tolerance for weeds. So weeds
are eliminated with herbicides. What we should be asking is: "What
were the conditions that brought the weeds in the first place?"
Herbicides are a band-aid that masks the wound. They do not, indeed
cannot, cure the ailment. The healing can only come from within.
The law of time-tested
success: If it worked that way for millennia, it's
a good bet it will work that way tomorrow! Decades of machines,
technology, and modern practices cannot necessarily replace millennia
of successful genetic and cultural evolution. Some evolutionary
traits may have come into existence by accident, but they remained
because they were successful. They remained because they could
naturally reproduce and were efficient users of energy, nutrients
and space, and could out-compete other species or outlast the
The law of balance:
In the physical world it is well understood that if there is equal
pressure on all sides of a focal point, balance is present. The
needs of plants and the needs of animals on the soil, our focal
point, are perfectly balanced and complimentary. The wastes of
the one are the food of the other and vise versa. Separating this
most basic relationship leads to unbalanced soil.
We remove foraging animals from the land and wonder why we have
a fertility problem with our soils, and then we concentrate our
animals in a confined feeding operation and wonder why we have
environmental problems. Besides, instead of buying all that equipment
and spending all of that energy swathing and bailing hay to transport
it to the cattle, why not just allow the cattle to graze it where
The law of giving
back what you take: If you take life from the land
you must put life back. There is no known substitute for the real
thing -- artificial fertilizers or otherwise. This means no more
harvesting alfalfa and sending it to feed someone else's cattle.
Build the soil, don't deplete it.
The laws of good
business: By letting someone else sell for me, I
never knew or developed a relationship with the people who would
ultimate purchase and eat the food grown on my farm. One of the
laws of good business is asking "Who are my customers?"
and "What do they need?" I had no idea. I had never
asked these questions.
Instead of researching our customer base and creating a marketing
plan, most farmers', myself included, marketing strategy consisted
of phrases like, "Well I guess it's time to get rid of the
hay now." Yes, I was as guilty as anyone in breaking the
laws of business.
Also, all business begins with the premise that you must have
something to sell or offer at a profitable price. (Without a profit,
any notions of helping the environment or others cannot be realized,
since a poor man cannot look past his own needs.)
The law of forgiveness:
Finally, the most important law. All living things have, at some
level, the capacity to "forgive" -- to start over, to
begin with a clean slate, to waken to a new day. God has the capacity
to forgive man. Man has the capacity to forgive his fellow man.
A pet has the capacity to forgive its master for a wrong. And
the soil has the capacity to forgive man for his inadequacies.