The laws of farming
Joel Huesby reveals his rule book for sustainable farming

By Joel Huesby
Posted September 28, 2004

Slowly it dawned on me why my farm was not supporting me and my family.

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 the land.

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 to farming.

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 fallow.

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 weakness.

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 may be.

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 predators.

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 it grows?

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.

For the story of how Thundering Hooves began, see:
My name is Joel Huesby, and I’m a recovering farmer …