Traditional farmers have tilled the soil for centuries. The word "agriculture" actually comes from the Latin "ager," meaning "a field," and "cultura," meaning "cultivation." In the strictest translation, "agriculture" refers to the "tillage of the soil of the field." The tilling process manipulates the soil by a mechanical means in order to achieve a desired effect for the benefit of planting.
Tilling began over 5,000 years ago with the hooking of a digging stick to an ox, forming a primitive stick plow. In 18th century America, farmers used crude wooden plows pulled by livestock for the tilling of the land. In 1797, Charles Newbold patented the first cast-iron plow, quickly followed by Jethro Wood's 1819 patent for an iron plow with interchangeable parts. Early farming featured intensive labor. Growing a Nation, a website devoted to the story of American agriculture, reports that in 1830, a farmer spent 250 to 300 hours working with a walking plow, brush harrow, sickle and flail to produce 100 bushels of wheat on five acres of land. By the end of the 1800s, manufacturers were producing steel plows, steam tractors and other improved farming implements.
By the mid 1950s, more farms used tractors than horses for farm work. During the 1980s, several farmers began using no-till or low-till methods of farming in order to curb erosion. By 1987, the farmer produced 100 bushels of wheat on three acres of farmland using a tractor, sweep disk, drill, combine and trucks.
Tilling allows for farmers and gardeners to change the structure of the soil in order to prepare a granular seed bed. The farmer integrates cover crops, fertilizers and pre-emergent herbicides into the soil by tilling. The process also allows for the modification of soil structure to effectively take in, store and transmit water. Tilling aids in the elimination of weeds that may compete with crops for resources.
Farmers use plows to till the soil. The plow cuts through the earth, creating a slice of soil that is turned upside down and crumbled. Most farmers use tractors to pull plowing equipment, yet horse-drawn equipment is still utilized. Modern-day plows have the capability of turning up to 20 furrows at a time when pulled behind a tractor, according to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
The till system of planting adequately performs the intended functions of breaking up the soil and incorporating amendments. According to Crop Watch at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the traditional plow is suitable for poorly drained soils, featuring excellent incorporation and providing a well-tilled seedbed. The chisel-type plow allows for less wind erosion. Disk plowing provides even more erosion protection, yet still allows for the incorporation of nutrients into well-drained soils.
One of the major factors in the Dust Storms of the 1930s was poor farming practices, including deep plowing in straight rows. Wind and water both act as erosion forces to blow or wash away topsoil, essential in farming and gardening. Tilling allows for greater erosion, allowing the runoff of soil, fertilizers and herbicides. Traditional plowing results in major soil erosion, according to Crop Watch. Chisel and disk plowing methods feature little erosion control, with disk plowing capable of destroying soil structure and compacting wet soil.
Starting in the 1980s, many farmers began turning to the farming process of less-till or no-till planting in order to conserve soil and resources. Ridge planting, strip-tilling and no-till planting offer alternatives to traditional till planting. However, they do not allow for the incorporation provided by traditional tilling. While no-till planting improves both the structure and health of the soil, it also features an increased dependence on herbicides. In 2004, 41 percent of crops grown in the United States used alternative methods to traditional till planting.