Saturday, May 14, 2011

Indians No-Tilled 500 Years Ago

Our friend Fred Shaw, Shawnee Nation Storyteller has told us much about the past of this land before the white man settled here. They used innovative practices to feed themselves. Relics abound on this farm and this area which was good for hunting and growing corn.

There is not too much no-tilling going on around here yet as it is cool and damp once more. It is amazing how we farm today with machines like others before us farmed by hand with very crude tools.

FARGO, N.D. – As the adoption of sustainable agriculture practices become more commonplace today in American agriculture, some of those methods now being adopted are similar to those practiced four centuries ago by the Iroquois nation in what is now New York.

That became apparent during a presentation by Jane Mt. Pleasant, an associate professor in the Horticulture Department at Cornell University and also director of the American Indian Program at the school.

Mt. Pleasant spoke at the recent Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Winter Conference in Fargo, with her speech focusing on indigenous agriculture and its links to contemporary agricultural sustainability. She used her expertise in Iroquois agriculture to support that contention.

According to Mt. Pleasant, records dating as far back as 1687 for areas in the Iroquois nation, which was located in the area which is now New York State, indicated some very high yields for crops grown by the Indian group.

These yields, according to Mt. Pleasant, were actually higher than the results being experienced by European farmers growing wheat and other small grains at the time. In fact, she termed the wheat yields in Europe as “miserable” with a kernel of wheat seed often yielding only 10 kernels at harvest time. These conditions didn’t start improving until the European farmer started to include forage crops in their planting rotation.

Despite that, the farming industry in the U.S. was actually patterned after the system developed in Europe, which included using the plow and teams of animals to till the soil. Lacking the draft animals and plows, the Iroquois actually used a basic no-till system, once the trees in the forest area were cleared and the planting mounds established.

Though many hail the moldboard plow as the tool that helped agriculture the most, Mt. Pleasant isn’t convinced. In fact, she contends the plow caused more problems than it solved.

“If you keep plowing soils continuously there is no attempt to increase soil organic matter and they eventually reach a pretty stable level of about two percent,” she said. “As a result, very little nitrogen is added to the soil. We now know that plowing is the single, largest threat to soil organic matter to everyone involved in agriculture.

“Soils with less than two percent organic matter, not only suffer from low fertility rates, but also many other problems such as soil structure, its ability to hold water and increased erosion factors.”

However, during this time of scarce wheat and other small grain crops in Europe, the Iroquois nation, making use of no-till agricultural methods were raising good crops of maize (corn) as was documented on several occasions in journals kept by various individuals.

In the 1600s, when Britain and France were fighting over the control of what is now the northeastern part of the U.S., the English made a pact with the Iroquois to supply their troops with food, and the French were constantly sending scouting parties south from present day Canada to destroy those food supplies.

On one such expedition, which was headed by Denonville, a French businessman headquartered in Canada, his patrol reported destroying over 1.5 million bushels of corn in his nine-day sweep through Iroguois ag production area, according to Mt. Pleasant.

“It was an incredible amount of corn,” she noted, “and Denonville spent a good amount of his time destroying as much of it as he could.”

Almost a hundred years later, John Sullivan, a general with George Washington, had the assignment of going into Seneca (the Iroquois ag region) and destroying their agriculture ability, since they were still supplying the British with food. Several soldiers in that campaign wrote in their diaries of the agriculture they encountered while conducting their “slash and burn campaign.” Those diary entries told of fields of over a mile in length and exceeding 200 acres in size, covered with heavy crops of corn, squash and pumpkin, with top corn yields in excess of 75 bushels per acre.

“What explains this level of productivity,” she asked, “particularly when the wheat farmers of Europe were not experiencing good yields?

“First, the Iroquois were farming fertile soils, but they maintained high levels of soil organic matter because they weren’t plowing,” she said. “They were also lucky that they were working with maize, which is uniquely suited to no-till conditions and they were also fortunate that maize is usually more productive than wheat.”

After clearing forested areas, the Iroquois formed mounds of earth about three feet across with hand tools and then planted in those mounds. These areas were kept weed free by pulling the weeds. When they came back the next year, according to Mt. Pleasant, they reshaped those same mounds and planted in them again.

This type of farming is starting to take hold in the farming community today as we see an increase of cover crops and less tillage, which is resulting in healthier soils and improved production. All things our forefathers in agriculture learned several centuries ago under different cultures in different parts of the world.

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