The beauty of the broadfork

The beauty of the broadfork

In the first paragraph of the landmark 1943 book Plowman’s Folly, Edward H. Faulkner said, “The truth is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.” Nonetheless, 40 years after that publication cracked the foundations of agricultural science, most farmers still plow. Why?

The rational is that soil is tilled to loosen it in order allow oxygen and water to reach the roots. Loose earth enables roots to spread evenly as they grow. However, plowing fields leaves a broken-structured soil lying on top of an undisturbed, compacted layer that is too deep for a plow to reach. The top soil layer – now broken up, can become hard and compacted when it rains. Feet, wheels and trailers can further compact the soil. In its original, untilled state, soil is not compressed – and it stays this way.

What is no-till farming?

At a time when fertile topsoil is being worn away by wind and water at rates that are figured in tons per acre per year, a drastic new soil-conservation measure is certainly in order. No-till farming might more appropriately be called no-till/chemical agriculture. No-till farming is a way of growing crops or pasture from year to year without disturbing the soil through tillage. In conventional tillage, the earth is turned to a depth of 8 to 12 inches with a plow. In no-till farming, planting is done right through the residues of previous plantings and weeds with a device that cuts a slot a few inches wide, followed by equipment that places the seeds and closes the trench.

What is a broadfork?

Broadforks are the perfect tool to help you adopt the no-tillage method in your vegetable patch. No-till farming is a better way to grow crops from year to year without disturbing the soil. If you want to increase the amount of water that infiltrates the soil, increase organic matter retention, and leave more nutrients for your produce, the broadfork is your tool.

The broadfork is a simple yet powerful gardening tool that serves the purpose of efficiently loosening soil without flipping it upside down. The broadfork can trace its origins back to the grelinette, a tool invented in France by André Grelinin the 1960s. The broadfork was Introduced in the U.S. in the early 1990’s by Eliot Coleman, master grower and author of The New Organic Grower.

Here’s how the broadfork promotes healthy soil

Soil is composed of layers that actually accomplish important purposes. Bacteria, fungi and earthworms working below the surface are all actively creating tunnels that give the soil structure. This lively structure develops in different soil depths that have the right moisture and aeration conditions. Turning the soil over using a rototiller or by double-digging disrupts ecology – destroys those benefits.

Maintaining soil structure — and the soil food web it supports — is an important component of successful vegetable production. Using a broadfork you simply lift the soil up a bit without inverting it. The long tines break up any compacted layers below. This allows more air to penetrate and create the right conditions for the bacteria and other soil organisms plants need to take up nutrients. The ecology of the soil is disturbed very little. A final shallow cultivation on the top 3-4 inches is all that’s needed to finish the process. Additionally, working soil with a broadfork will not allow dormant weed seeds hidden in the depth of soil to germinate.

How to use a broadfork

The broadfork is a human-powered tool which requires a minimal effort or energy, relative to the work it produces. It’s a terrific aerobic workout with tremendous benefits.

Photo: The Talon XL Broadfork

Working in already loose, but not necessarily prepared soil, the grower stands on the crossbar with his or her full body weight and sinks the tines deep into the bed – about a foot. Then, using the tremendous leverage of the long handlebars, the soil is loosened by working the handles back and forth in a kind of rowing motion. Finally, the broadfork is moved back about a foot, and sunk back into the soil again.

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