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From plows to broadforks: The battle over gardening innovations

“I’m afraid I have a real challenge ahead for you. A nearby farmer is readying his fields to plant winter crops, mainly onion sets, but also cabbages and beetroots. The fields will need to be ploughed first.”

— Rhys Bowen, “The Victory Garden,” 2019

In Rhys Bowen’s historical novel set in the English countryside at the end of WWI, Emily Bryce and the other volunteers for the Women’s Land Army immediately asked their trainer if the farmer had a tractor they could use to plow his fields. Unfortunately, no, Mr. Anson did not have a tractor, nor one of the lighter steel plows which had been introduced by an American blacksmith named John Deere in 1837.

Instead, the “land girls” would steer Mr. Anson’s team of Clydesdales as they pulled his old cast iron plow through the fields that were cleared for winter vegetables.

The women would not have appreciated this fact, but cast iron plows are credited for spurring a wave of agricultural innovation that continues today. Yet the history of iron plows, at least in the U.S., is filled with lawsuits and lost investments.

The debate about who invented the first cast iron plow is depicted in a bronze plaque that was erected by the New York State Education Department in 1932 in a rural area just east of Monrovia. According to the NYDOE, “The first cast iron plow in the world was made by Jethro Wood at foot of [Montville] Falls, 1819.”

However, more than 80 years before the plaque was installed, that claim had been ardently disputed in an article published in the Feb. 19, 1848 edition of the “Scientific American.” The author, an agricultural warehouse owner named A.R. Allen, asserted that Jethro Wood “was not the original inventor of the Cast Iron Plowshare, nor did he ever improve the Plow in the slightest degree; he was consequently entitled to no merit in this thing, and much less to a patent…”

Allen maintained the cast iron plow was, in fact, invented by Robert Ransom of Ipswich, England, who obtained a patent in 1785. One wonders what stake Allen had in the matter because in 1848 the U.S. government was about to reissue an extension of Wood’s patent, which would grant his heirs 50 cents for every steel plow that was manufactured in the U.S. for seven years after the bill was passed. Allen estimated that “privilege would be worth half a million dollars annually.”

Allen further declared that in 1797, Charles Newbold, a New Jersey blacksmith, was the first person in the U.S. to patent his one-piece iron plow. New Jersey inventor David Peacock received a patent for his three-piece iron plow In 1807, but lost a patent infringement suit filed by Newbold and had to pay him $1,500.

Unfortunately, that was the most money Newbold ever made from his plow. He couldn’t sell the device because farmers believed the iron would poison the soil. According to an April 1848 edition of the “Scientific American,” Newbold “was unfortunate, and alas, died insolvent and in a madhouse — the fate of not a few poor inventors.”

Wood, too, died in poverty in 1834, having spent most of his time and money on patent litigations. His family and friends continued to defend Wood’s patent against detractors such as A.R. Allen. In 1882, “Jethro Wood, Inventor of the Modern Plow” was published, which argues in detail how Wood’s iron plow was uniquely designed and constructed.

On the title page, William Seward, Jr., a banker and youngest son of William H. Seward (U.S. Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson) is quoted: “No citizen of the United States has conferred greater economical benefits on his country than Jethro Wood; none of her benefactors have been more inadequately rewarded."

Of course, the “land girls” in Rhys Bowen’s book didn’t care who had invented the cast iron plow they had to use to till Mr. Anson’s fields. However, they certainly would have been interested in the no-till farming methods that are currently advocated to protect the delicate balance of soil structure and micro-organism activity.

No-dig gardening is based on the same principles as no-till agriculture: turning over the soil is unnecessary work that disrupts the soil ecosystem and promotes soil erosion. Digging disturbs the intricate network of fungal mycelium beneath the soil’s surface that is essential for healthy functioning of plant communities. In addition, digging upsets the activity of billions of living organisms in the soil — earthworms, insects, nematodes, fungi, bacteria and single-cell organisms such as protozoa and archaea.

Heavy digging can damage the soil structure by allowing too much air to enter the soil, thus disrupting the balance of space and particles. More oxygen in the soil speeds up decomposition of organic matter, which can result in nutrient-poor soil that needs to be replenished more often. Digging also encourages the germination of dormant weed seeds by bringing them closer to the soil’s surface.

No-dig gardeners use alternative methods to work with the soil. These include laying compost and mulch on top of the soil and allowing weather and soil organisms to do the work of mixing it in over time. (They make sure not to add too much compost to the soil, though, which can lead to excess nitrogen making its way to nearby waterways.)

Green manures, such as annual legumes, grains and grasses, and plants with deep taproots and extensive root systems are planted to aerate the soil and add organic matter. After harvest, plants are cut at the soil line, rather than pulled out, to allow the roots to decompose in the soil.

Perhaps the most effective tool for no-dig gardeners is the broadfork, invented by a Frenchman named Andre Grelinin in the 1950s. Originally called a grelinette, the tool was renamed after organic farmer Eliot Coleman (author of “The New Organic Gardener,” 1989) brought attention to no-till methods in America.

The broadfork is a double-handled tool with four or five long, slightly curved tines and a crossbar that gardeners stand on to press the tines deep into the soil. By gently rocking the tines back and forth, the broadfork aerates the soil without disturbing the soil biome. Garden forks are lighter, single-handled versions of the broadfork.

Grelinin patented his invention in 1964, but failed to obtain a trademark for the name grelinette because it was already in common use. In 2014, Grelinin’s company lost a lawsuit they filed against another French company that had used the term grelinette in its advertisements. It seems garden innovations change over time, but protecting one’s inventions never gets easier.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. She hosts a monthly podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley” at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.