Rules of Farming — part 2

Shankar Venkataraman
7 min readAug 15, 2020
Farm Fresh radish harvested at mapletree farm in July 2020

There is always some curiosity generated when someone knows something more. Like a gift or a talent. When you know something and people seek it, there is danger. This talent needs to be put away from getting into our heads because of its danger. “I am important, I have this talent” is really the nemesis of our humility.

In this blog, I wanted to continue on the topic of “rules of farming”. The most important rules of farming are humility, patience, and the destruction of greed.

Nothing demonstrates the Dunning-Kruger Effect better than farming. Farmers who farmed for many decades know that the more you know the less confident you are. The less you know, the more overconfident you are. When working with nature, we are taught the power of nature in painful ways by the weather and insects and diseases that can afflict the crops we grow. This in turn increases curiosity and humility constantly.

Nature and in essence farming teaches patience. You have to wait for 30 days to get a bunch of spinach and wait for 120 days to get a fully ripe pumpkin. There is no change in that for centuries. To get these crops successfully you have to build the soil for years. Its patience all the way.

The best symbols of greed in Industrial-scale farming are,

  1. Large-scale use of inorganic salt fertilizers (chemicals), herbicides, and other pesticides, and growth stimulants and drugs on animals. The use of the same chemicals by mixing with water called hydroponics.
  2. Increased size of farms and fields, with large machinery and monocultures.
  3. Improvement of plant and animal characteristics by hybrids, strain improvement, artificial breeding, and most recently, genetic engineering, the direct manipulation of a plant’s or animal’s genes.

There are established laws by which the natural world operates, which cannot be broken with impunity. The overall ecological food chain operates with the scores of species of plants, animals, and microbes being in a delicate balance, the so-called “balance of nature.” A disturbance of one level or species in the food chain affects other links in the chain. I recently understood that perfect systems built to grow crops providing the perfect conditions for plant growth are actually not good because plants produce phytonutrients and anti-oxidants only under mild stress. This is why nature is needed to grow plants. Moving plants away from nature in systems such as hydroponics etc. is just another industrial way of growing food without soil and with chemical solutions. There can be no life on earth without soil and no soil without microbial life. Soil and life have evolved together.

The result of all this greed is that we have collectively destroyed 8 billion acres plus of good farmland all over the world in just the last 50 years by depleting their fertility with heavy plowing and heavy chemical use. If the plowing of soil and the use of yield boosting chemicals and life killing toxins continue, we are looking at a tremendous and complete loss of soil that sustains all life on earth in a mere few decades. In the USA alone, 2 tons of soil is lost per acre per year on an estimated 125 million acres of farmland. This is calculated as 11% of the GDP of the USA flushed down rivers into oceans, choking the life on the oceans to create oceanic dead zones that can be seen from the satellite images. We are creating a Martian landscape all over the planet by constantly destroying ecosystems and soil. The biggest agricultural export of the USA is topsoil.

Then what are the RULES to farm differently? Let us continue the discussion of rules of farming below in part 2 of the blog on rules of farming.

Have you seen any place in nature where the soil is barren? Either it’s covered in grass in grasslands or covered in leaves or pine needles in forests. The rest is rocky mountains or permafrost snow or vast stretches of sand in the deserts or beaches. You will see soil disturbed only where humans interact with nature to grow food. I need you to question soil disturbance at a very fundamental level to understand the depth of destruction humans have done through agriculture. In my own experience of farming for more than a decade, I have come to understand fully well that organic farming cannot be profitable by plowing soil because plowing soil means loss of soil organic matter and the farmer needs to constantly replace it with purchased manure or compost. This makes it unsustainable. My recommendation for farming is to maintain 3–5% SOM (soil organic matter) minimum in your soils. Never forget that number. This is the foundational rule of farming successfully.

The soil is a living organism. All living organisms have skin. Our skin covers and protects us. Animals have fur. Fish have scales and birds have feathers. The soil must be covered and that is what nature is trying to do constantly. But what we are doing is to disturb it with Agricultural equipment. For thousands of years, we have been disturbing the soil. As intelligent humans, we must be able to see that soil disturbance is the reason for most of the problems in agriculture. We work very hard to fail. When cows were used to disturb the soil, we are talking a maximum of 5 horsepower of force applied to the soil. Today, 50 to 200 horsepowers are applied to the soil with heavy machinery. Miles and miles of fungal mycelium are reduced to a few yards per acre of soil. Soil bacterial life is also reduced to one-tenth of the population or less by constant disturbance. What we have done to the planet is devastating. If you go ask an agricultural university, they will tell you its ok to lose a few tons of soil per acre per year. But soil is not forming at the rate of 2-4 tons per year per acre and it does not form at all if you keep plowing it. Once the soil erodes, it’s gone forever.

Let us look at various farming or gardening activities done by human beings.

In nature, Soil Preparation, Fertilization, Irrigation, weed control, pest issues, crop rotation, and pH control are done in different ways than how humans have chosen to do it in farming.

Soil Preparation is done by nature by constantly mulching the soil with leaves, bark, pine needles, grasses, and dead weeds. Soil is never disturbed and is fertile to feed all the life in forests and natural grasslands.

Fertilization is done by nitrogen-fixing bacteria and various fungal species and bacterial species that constantly extract (in a very gentle way) the nutrients from the soil. Fertilization happens because the soil is not disturbed by nature but soil life is constantly feeding the root systems of plants and trees by gently removing them from the soil.

Irrigation is done in nature by rains. Since the soil is undisturbed and covered with thick layers of mulch for a long time, the soil develops a lot of pore space in which water collects. Nobody is setting up irrigation systems in forests and grasslands. The soil moisture retention is quite high. It's proven by scientific measurements that each one percent addition of SOM (soil organic matter) in the soil will increase rainwater holding capacity of the top six inches of soil by 70,000 liters per acre of soil. So as per my recommendation, a 3% SOM in agricultural soil must hold 200,000 liters of water in top 6 inches of an acre of your soil if you strive to achieve 3% SOM on your soil.

Weed control:- There are no pesky weeds in nature. The weeds and superweeds develop because we keep disturbing the soil and bring deeply buried weeds to meet sunlight and water and thus germinate. In Nature, there is no soil disturbance and so no weeds at all. In forests, you may notice the absence of weeds you find in vegetable gardens. Its because the soil conditions do not encourage weed growth.

Pest issues:- Nature works through ecosystems. All ecosystems have a beautiful balance built-in. No single species can dominate for a long period of time. But Humans who have a pest negative approach instead of a plant positive approach are designing pesticides to kill pests. They do not think much about why plants are not healthy enough to defend themselves?

Crop Rotation:- The plants in nature grow where they should grow naturally and where nature supports them best and does not grow in places where nature does not support them (by means of rainfall and other weather conditions). But humans want to grow in deserts and cold climate as well and do a lot of work to grow some food that does not belong there. Crop rotation was invented by humans.

pH control:- You may know that grasslands in nature are bacteria dominated and woodlands and forests with a thick growth of trees are fungal dominated. You may also know that fungal domination means acidic pH and bacterial domination means alkaline pH. Humans invented methods to use Limestone (calcium carbonate) to increase pH and Sulphur to decrease pH. Why? Nature uses soil organisms to increase or reduce pH. But humans use artificial elements to do the same. Why?

We all think of pH as something we can try to manipulate with Lime (Calcium Carbonate to increase pH) or Sulfur (to reduce pH) in order to grow certain plants. This is a wrong understanding of pH. Soil chemistry textbooks teach you to do this to correct the pH and hence give you the wrong understanding.

Bacteria and fungi in the soil, consume exudates from plants. Bacteria consume these exudates and convert them into nitrates. Fungi consume them and synthesize ammonium. It just so happens that nitrates make soils more alkaline and ammonium makes soils more acidic. So the plant puts out specific foods to attract the microbes it wants to utilize to create these specific nutrients that adjust the pH. I have given a simplified version of what happens in the soil.

While looking at the above rules of farming, your curiosity will increase naturally to learn more rules and also how to apply these rules. In Agriculture, it's very important to question everything we do to grow crops. This really helps you to improve your methods and ultimately the quality of your crops.



Shankar Venkataraman

Farmer, author, farming teacher, public speaker. Areas of Agriculture and technology in Agriculture.