If you see a plow, disk plow, chisel plow, subsoiler, sweep plow, rotary hoe, rodweeder, or a cultivator in a farm field, chances are you’re also seeing tillage. Tillage is the disturbance of the soil in an agricultural seedbed. The term can also refer to land that is tilled. Primary tillage loosens the dirt and incorporates plant residues and fertilizers, creating a rough, textured soil. Secondary tillage disrupts and kills weeds and prepares the ground for seed, producing a finer soil. Primary tillage often occurs right after harvest, while secondary tillage often occurs before planting another crop. In the pioneer days in the United States, stones lying above or below ground were the biggest obstacle for tillage and often broke a homesteader’s plow. For all its beneficial properties, tillage also contributes to erosion. If ground is tilled, left bare and uncovered, it can wash away in rain, melting snow, or floods. Or ground can blow away in the wind, as it did on a large scale in the 1930s Dust Bowl. Modern agriculture has moved toward the use of herbicides and no-till farming methods in answer to these kinds of erosion problems.

Mary Swander