The poor man's plow
by Lewis Baker
The plow is used to prepare the land for planting. The plow does several things, but most importantly it removes from the surface of the soil the vegetation that would interfere with planting, such as weeds and residues of previous crops. The plow requires a lot of energy to turn over the upper layer of soil, and so a powerful tractor is used to pull the plow. But tractors cannot be used on steep slopes; and even if they could, they are very costly to buy and operate. Therefore, farmers with scarce economic resources have to use other means to prepare their land for planting.
In some areas farmers use oxen to pull their plows, or they use heavy hoes powered by human energy to prepare the soil; however, most poor farmers use fire to prepare the land for planting. Fire is the poor man's plow because it, like the tractor or ox-drawn plow, removes from the surface of the soil the vegetation that would interfere with planting. The tractor-drawn plow does this by turning over the upper layer of soil and covering and mixing with the soil, the weeds, and residues of previous crops. But the use of fire converts them all to ashes and smoke.
Although fire clears the surface of the land to facilitate planting, it also does a lot of harm because it destroys the organic materials. (The organic materials of rotted leaves, branches, and stems add nutrients to the soil and help it to hold the moisture that the growing plants need.) Fire also destroys many of the beneficial microbes of the soil, which are very necessary for its fertility. And, then, fire leaves the land bare and defenseless when the heavy rains come. On hilly land the rains wash away the bare earth, and carry much of the good soil to the creeks and rivers where it is lost forever.
Thus it is that the poor farmer, by using fire, is destroying the health and wealth of the land that God has been preparing for thousands of years. But God is very great and very wise. God has given to humankind-to the poor farmer-some plants that fertilize the soil, and these same plants also protect the soil from eroding when the heavy rains come. These plants cover the soil and choke out the weeds, but once they are cut they dry up and rot very quickly. In other words, God has given to the poor farmer another plow that improves the soil and does not harm it as fire does. There are several kinds of these plants, all of them legumes, which can be used as the poor man's plow, and God has arranged things in such a way that beneficial microbes which fertilize the soil can live and multiply in the roots of the leguminous plants.
One of these plants is called Velvet Bean (Mucuna deeringiana), but you may know it by some other name. It is a spreading and climbing vine with many leaves similar to those of ordinary beans, but larger. The pods appear at the beginning of the dry season and they form in bunches. They look something like bean pods, but they are much thicker, and they are covered with fuzz when they are immature. This fuzz does not irritate the skin as does the fuzz on the pods of some similar plants. The mature pods turn black, and the seeds are round. They may be black, white, gray or mottled. The velvet bean is very easy to grow and once established it will cover the ground, and in a very few months it will smother out all the weeds. After the weeds are gone it is relatively easy to chop up the lush growth of the velvet bean. Since it rots very quickly it presents little difficulty to the farmer who plants by hand. Without burning, one can then plant corn, rice, or any other crop in the soil which is protected by the mulch formed from the velvet bean. The plants of velvet bean which sprout up after a different crop is planted can be pulled out quite easily, so they do not present a serious problem.
Another plant not quite so well known is called Tropical Kudzu (Pueraria phaseoloides) (not the same species as found in southern USA). It is also a vigorously growing vine that covers the ground, fertilizes it, protects it against erosion, and chokes out the weeds. The leaves are very similar to those of the velvet bean, but the pods and the seeds are quite different. The pod is long and very thin-almost as thin as the lead of a pencil. Each pod has about 30 small round seeds, brown in color, and very hard. When the pods are mature they turn black, and with the heat of the sun they spring open to scatter the seeds.
Another leguminous plant native to some forested areas is known variously as Ox's Eye or Deer's Eye (We at ECHO are unfamiliar with this species). It has similar properties to the velvet bean and kudzu, in that it fertilizes and protects the soil and smothers out the weeds. The vine is heavier than either of the other two plants mentioned, and the leaves are larger but with the same general shape. The seeds are less numerous, but they are very large. Each pod usually has from two to four of these black seeds shaped something like large checkers. They remind people of the eye of an ox, cow, or deer- hence, the popular name.
It may be necessary to experiment with different ways and times of planting to learn how to obtain the greatest benefits from any of these plants. For example, in one area a person could try planting velvet bean with corn when the corn is knee-high, using three seeds per hill, with the hills two meters apart. In other areas, different times, different densities, and different distances could be tried with a view to comparing the results. The goal would be to have the legume well established when the corn is harvested, without the corn having suffered. After the corn is harvested, the velvet bean should be given enough time to cover the ground and smother out the weeds. Also, enough velvet bean seed should be harvested for replanting before cutting it down to plant another crop of corn.
God has made these leguminous plants-velvet bean, kudzu, cow's eyes, and others-to help maintain and increase the fertility of the soil. But farmers must cooperate with God by gathering the seed and planting it at the appropriate time in the appropriate place. With God's guidance we can learn to use these marvelous plants that He has given us, and farmers rich and poor can have a better life-a life that glorifies Him who has placed us as stewards over the earth and all that is in it.
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