Renewable Farming

Why you can take part in encouraging a new, living foundation for civilization

“Where tillage begins, other arts follow.”

That inscription is carved into the stone wall above a main entrance to Iowa State University’s Memorial Union. 

Here’s the rest of that historic quote from Daniel Webster: “The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.”

Oct. 14, 2017 By Jerry Carlson — However, over-tillage of soils has also led to the destruction of many human civilizations the past 7,000 years. That was dramatically documented in 1938 and 1939 by Dr. W. C. Lowdermilk assistant chief of the U. S. Soil Conservation Service. For almost two years, he intensively studied the tillage histories of western Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

His full report, finally published in 1948, is one of the most-cited documents in USDA’s collections of soil conservation. You can download a PDF of his “Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years” at this link.

Our family has one slight personal connection with Dr. Lowdermilk. My wife Jill, whose father was associate director of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, met Dr. Lowdermilk’s son John at a church youth camp during their high-school years at Arlington, Virginia. 

That report’s historic perspective helps us realize today’s urgent need to start a much more biologically benign form of “tillage” to rebuild soil integrity and productivity. In just a few decades, aggressive tillage and soil erosion has dragged American farmlands dangerously toward the destruction which Dr. Lowdermilk records. The hills and valleys of North Africa, once the breadbasket of the Roman empire, are largely eroded wastelands and deserts today from overgrazing and over-tillage.

Today’s surging interest in unleashing biological activity to restore “Soil Health” points the way back to restoring soil carbon, soil life and long-term productivity.

Perhaps one phrase which begins to capture this concept has emerged in this week’s Ground Work message sent by AgriEnergy Resources to its clients.  Look to see how AgriEnergy uses the term, “Biological Tillage.” Neat. 

By AgriEnergy Resources agronomists

“Tilth” has two definitions (according to Webster). We’re all familiar with this entry: “the state of aggregation of a soil esp. in relation to its suitability for crop growth”. But how about this one: “cultivated land”?

That’s right … tilth means improving soil aggregation with tillage! However, don’t think that tillage can only be done by a tractor. Tillage also is done naturally, that is biologically, by plants and by microorganisms. Tilth matters because good tilth means better seedbeds, better water infiltration, better drainage on heavy soils and better water holding on light soils. It also means superior root penetration and exploration. Each of these things is a desirable goal because when tilth is better, the yields are better.

Increasing biological tillage is a practice that should be embraced by growers because it is less expensive to improve soils with biological practices than it is with mechanical practices alone. The down side is that it is not as easy. Conditions within the soil need to be as favorable as practical for plants and their rhizosphere organisms to establish, thrive, and create the soft, spongy soil that allows plants to take seasonal stress events in stride and finish strong. But don’t despair. Though not as easy, achieving tilth naturally is a straight forward matter of recognizing and correcting conditions that impede it.

If you think a better seedbed would help your crop, then apply Residuce® to your residues. After all, harvest is the first day of the rest of your next crop’s life. Our AgriEnergy Residue Management Program is especially useful on soils that tend to be crusty, compacted, or in fields where some compaction was unavoidably created during harvest.

If bigger roots are wanted, which is so on nearly all produce crops, or on any crop grown in nutrient-poor soils, then SP-1™ applied on or near the seed at planting will enhance root growth and rhizosphere establishment and activity.

If you have a field that has lost its natural tilth because of prolonged herbicide or fungicide use, but it still has good structure, it can be restored. 

The positive effects of biological tillage are longer lasting than those of mechanical tillage. Modern growers are embracing this reality and are employing inputs and creating practices that best achieve their ultimate goals of increased economic yield and superior soil health.


We’re hopeful that farmers will meld accelerated residue digestion into their management along with cover cropping and the kinds of mechanical tillage which amplify soil life rather than disrupting it. Such as vertical tillage. 

AgriEnergy pioneered in residue digestion with microbial blends. Now there are several on the market. A firm which specializes in microbial combinations, Biodyne Midwest, offers products that look particularly promising. Hopefully, farmers who are innovators and early adopters will quickly pick up and use “biological tillage” to full advantage.

In 1972, ag publisher Frank Lessiter captured a fresh concept in the term, “no-till farming” and built a highly successful magazine with that brand: No-Till Farmer. Today’s agriculture could benefit from a fresh brand which points to rebuilding the biological power in living soil. The company Biodyne Midwest uses a term, “fencerow soil” meaning rich soil that has been cultivated only by natural life. 

“Biological Tillage” is a catchy handle; maybe AgriEnergy has started something. Wordsmiths of the world can work on that. “BioTill” for short? Think on these things. You can be a leader of a thriving generation of growers. Since you’ve chosen to read this, perhaps you already are!