Walking Plows: Types of Plows and Choosing Equipment

Explore the history of the plow, types of walking plows and the process of preparing land for crops.

| May/June 1974

Special Note: This is the second part of a two-part article. Read Walking Plows: Plowing with Horses, Mules and Oxen in the March/April 1974 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for more information. 

History of the Plow

The plow — the basic tool of the farmer and large-scale gardener — breaks and pulverizes the ground and adds humus and fertility by covering the vegetation and manure. Plowing helps the soil to hold its precious moisture and circulates the air. (Did you know the earth has to "breathe" to be productive? Although I didn't realize it until recently, the land is very much alive and teeming with organisms that can't be seen with the naked eye.)

Walking plows were produced B.T. (before tractors) in many styles to meet a wide variety of soil conditions. There are still a few handmade wooden plows around. One of our neighbors has a full set which he said his father built and made many a crop with. I'd like to have met the old gentleman, since I'm dead certain it takes an even-tempered soul with a zeal for finishing what he starts — and a mighty sharp drawknife, too — to make wooden plows from the shares to the handles.

Nevertheless, American farmers back in 1797 frowned on the first cast-iron plows. They believed that the metal would poison the land, reduce fertility and promote the growth of weeds . . . and that the point of the share would soon wear off. How about that? The first plow with a really good interchangeable cast-iron moldboard, landside and standard or frog (see the Glossary for Plowing with Horses) was patented by John Jethro Wood in 1819.

We have three types of plows and a planter on our place, and they're sufficient to raise all the food we need for us and our animals. Most of this plowing equipment belonged to Theo's family and have been around for many years. They've had to have new handles but — old as they are — they're still good enough to make a crop.

Types of Plows

The turning plow: If we could have but one plow, it would be a turning plow. This tool breaks open and mixes the sod and turns the earth up to greet the warm sun.

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