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Soil preparation at the Wendell Berry Farming Program, Kentucky (USA)

Updated: Nov 27, 2022

In Henry County, Kentucky, the Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College offers a farming curriculum focused on ecological management of livestock, pasture, and woodlands using draft animals and other appropriately scaled powered systems. Inspired by the lifework of farmer and writer Wendell Berry, the curriculum is focused on the survival of small and mid-scale farms. The study goal is unique in agricultural education: to couple a hands-on, liberal arts, farming curriculum with a diversified mid-scale livestock farm and small woodland using appropriately scaled mixed power systems (i.e., draft and combustion power).

American Milking Shorthorn oxen from the Wendell Berry Farming Program

The site chosen for the wheat cultivation is a blend of Shelby silt loam and Eden Shale soils (moderate clay) and therefore quite difficult to work if the conditions are too dry or too wet. The soil on this site has seen much farming since it was cleared of forest in the early 1800’s. Tobacco was the staple crop on this farm from late 1890 to the mid 1970’s; a significant cash crop for this region of the United States and a crop that requires yearly plowing and heavy cultivation. Mules would have powered the process until the late 1950’s when the farmer purchased a tractor to take over the land management. From 2014-2017 vegetables were grown on this site--mostly squash--for a local market garden. When the Farming Program purchased the farm in the spring of 2018, the ground was in poor shape with limited organic matter. The Program since then has worked the ground using their draft animals to restore grasses and legumes trying to manage an increase in organic matter and enhanced soil aggregate. The plot is on a ridge where they fed cattle the last winter by rolling out round bales of hay--much broadleaf and deeply tap rooted weeds have emerged. Asked for the power system used within the farming program, Rick Thomas kindly commented: “Our power system includes a draft horse, a team of Belgian mules, and a team of American Milking Shorthorn oxen. We use a New England Dee Ring harness for all of our equids as we feel this harness provides superior comfort to the animals versus a single tug harness. A New England style neck yoke is used for our oxen with a dropped hitch point for the pull chain allowing for adjustment in the line of draft as we move from one implement to the other. Mules are quite handy here in the American Southeast as summer temperatures coupled with high humidity limit the work day for oxen and even horses. There was a significant working cattle culture in Kentucky up to the American Civil War (1861-1865) when mules and then horses took over the farming and logging duties. Some farmers held on to their oxen deep into the 1930’s when they all but disappeared from the working landscape. As part of the only agricultural college in the United States that still maintains a stable of draft animals central to their mission and farming/forestry systems, we feel strongly that a student’s farming experience should at least experience draft animal power before they make up their minds to pursue alternative power systems”.

Coming back to the wheat field: From experience, the team of the Farming Program has learned that when it comes to working this soil, a light discing prior to using a moldboard plow is quite helpful. Oct 12th - Oct 14th, they therefore used a 10-disc cutting harrow with just the teamster’s weight for down pressure for the first stage of soil preparation.

Discing prior to plowing

Once the sod was cut, they flipped the soil starting Oct 21st with an LeRoy 110 walking plow equipped with a 12 inch moldboard and rolling coulter as well as with a Pioneer frameless sulky plow (spread over three days so every student was able to try him- oder herself out). During the process it became clear that the sulky plow did not work well in the existing soil conditions so they dediced to stick with the Le Roy 110 walking plow.

A team of mules in front of the Le Roy 110 walking plow

Once plowing was complete, they used the mules to power a disc harrow and a single ox to work a chain harrow. For the final preparation of the seed bed a spring harrow and roller crumbler was utilized .

Final seed bed preparations


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