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today in CORN FACTS we're reading up on yield data with Jane Mt Pleasant, horticulture researcher at Cornell & member of the Tuscarora (one of the 6 Haudenosaunee/Iroquois nations)

buckle up kiddos this is wild
18th century Haudenosaunee farmers were getting crazy high maize yields in upstate New York: 40-70 bushels/acre.

Their contemporaries in Europe were making maybe 20 bushels/A of wheat if they were lucky.
This is usually chalked up to how maize is just inherently a higher-yielding plant than wheat.


Once the Haudenosaunee were evicted from upstate New York and European settlers took over, maize yields in the area collapsed to 25-30 buA within decades.
Settlers' maize yields didn't recover to Haudenosaunee-era levels- consistently over 40 bu/A- until artificial fertilizers became common after WW2.

Settler farming was actually incredibly unproductive compared to what Natives had been doing before.
Haudenosaunee farming's high yields weren't because of "slash & burn" either. There's actually zero evidence that they did slash & burn.

These maize fields, once established, were permanent. They grew maize+squash+beans every single year without fallowing & kept up high yields.
As far as we can tell, it's not because of co-planting beans either. Beans are legumes, but they don't actually add much N to the soil!

That's because most of the N they fix goes into the beans. Not the soil. That's why beans are high in protein.
So what DOES explain this massive difference in yield between Haudenosaunee & Anglo farming?

Euro-style farming uses plowing, because it was born dealing with what we now call "small grains": wheat, rye, oats, & barley: grains with pretty small seeds.

Maize's big seeds mean it has the energy to put out roots and quickly grow above competing weeds. Small grains don't.
This means you can plant maize in soil that's got a lot of clods, weed cover, and/or air pockets, and it'll come up fine. In other words it's no-till friendly.

Small grains need a perfectly textured loose-but-not-too-loose bed. That's why plowing is done.
Small grains also don't have the energy to quickly outgrow & choke out weeds.

So, in Anglo farming you plant in rows so you can cultivate: running lightweight tools like harrows, etc through the field after planting a couple times to knock over weeds.
But here's the 3rd thing tillage (any manipulation of the soil- plowing, cultivating, etc) does.

It fluffs extra air into the soil so the organic matter breaks down.

In the short term this is awesome! It releases nutrients!

In the long run … then you have less organic matter.
If you till a couple times every year, pretty soon you get down to the "recalcitrant" organic matter that doesn't really break down.

In the soils of NW Europe & Iroquoia, that's about 2% organic matter left.
The Haudenosaunee had planted in hills, so they only had to keep those individual mounds weed-free. No tillage. The soil was about 4% organic matter.

Even without tillage, OM breaks down on its own & releases nutrients.
And since soils under no-till Haudenosaunee management had 2x the organic matter, that meant 2x the breakdown & nutrient release of similar soils in NW Europe.

But once Anglo farmers that used tillage took over, maize yields collapsed.
Mt Pleasant notes a few settlers used what were considered advanced techniques at the time for European farming- heavy manuring, legume cover crops, etc- and kept getting really good yields even with plowing. 60 up to sometimes 200 bu/A, which is still above avg US yields today.
But I think it really says a lot that in Anglo settlements, actually taking care of the land & getting good yields was considered a weird hobby for a few rock star farmers. Everyone else was doing so poorly that it dragged averages down to 20-40 bu/A.
Meanwhile 40-70 bu/A had been absolutely routine under Haudenosaunee management. The settlers' good yield was a Haudenosaunee "meh" yield.
Weed control also has a lot to do with this. A lot of the worst weeds for corn are actually European imports- bindweed, chickweed, purslane, quackgrass, crabgrass, etc.

But, even long after they'd arrived from Europe, Haudenosaunee farmers didn't have much trouble w them. Why?
Because 1) livestock & 2) our old frenemy tillage.

Weed seeds' main route into new fields wasn't wind or being tracked in on feet & wagon wheels.

It's livestock manure added to make up for the nutrient loss from tillage. Also, draft animals pooping while doing said tillage.
As far as tillage & weeds: remember tilling to get rid of weeds? About that.

Cultivation cuts down baby weeds that already sprouted. But it also digs up old buried weed seeds. Then THEY sprout as soon as you leave the field. Kind of a vicious cycle.
A rule of thumb in agronomy circles is about half the pesticides used in the US are herbicides for dealing with weeds.

Meanwhile the Netherlands is famous for using lots of chemicals on their farms, but they use nothing close to how much herbicide the US does.
The US has a giant weed problem, is what I'm saying. And we keep talking about the SYMPTOM, which is lots of herbicide use.

But the CAUSE was invading land & abolishing perfectly good farming methods.

This isn't a post-WW2 problem, this is a "since the 1600s" problem.
Modern no-till farming, in a way, is about trying to recapture the benefits of farming without tillage.

but it also uses a looooooot of herbicides which, even in a best case scenario, ultimately ends in resistant weeds & collapse of no-till methods :C…
Newman Turner had a 1940s-era "no-till" farming method that was actually "shallow tilling" if you look at it, but it seemed to work pretty well for yields & weed control for him
on the other hand he also thought he could cure TB in cattle with herbal medicine (you can't, it just masks symptoms and spreads more disease) & died of a heart attack at 50 on his way to a homeopathic apothecary.

mileage may vary on Newman Turner's methods to say the least
Do we have a final answer on how to roll back the damage of European-style farming: no.

Indigenous farming tech was forcibly abolished hundreds of years ago, & ag science has only recently started looking at it as a valid source of information.
But it's incredibly helpful to do that. You can only do good science if you can come up with good questions.

Looking at the full spectrum of farming tech helps you come up with better questions!

Like instead of asking "how can we plow better," we can ask "WHY THOUGH"
Haudenosaunee & other Native corn farming methods involved, among other things, planting corn+squash+beans together in hills instead of rows.

This made it so you only had to remove weeds from the hills- 5-10% of the field- instead of from rows that make up 50-90% of the field.
As long as you kept the hills clear, squash pretty much took care of the rest for you. A few weeds would still grow in the space between hills but not much thanks to the squash, & they didn't do much harm anyway since the crops' roots were all in the mound.
That's a really good example of a crop system that minimizes the problems in the first place, instead of just automating how we deal with the problems. Or as @mariahgladstone said, "Making farming as hard as possible & then inventing all these ways to make it doable again." 😂
anyway that's just a ramble on CORN FACTS, colonialism, & the scientific hypothesis-making process

the main paper this thread drew from is "The Paradox of Plows and Productivity" by Jane Mt Pleasant, 2011 in the Agricultural History Society journal
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