This late Autumn image encompasses the full cycle of crop farming. Seed to silo, silos are intrinsic to modern agriculture. This one sits on the horizon at the centre of acres of crop fields. But not all crops are destined to see the inside of a silo. Including this one.
The plants in this 50-acre field will be left fallow, meaning they will not be harvested. They will be left to die and go back into the soil. The nutrients this process releases will reduce the need for artificial fertilizers, aerate the soil, and balance its chemical makeup. Keeping it healthy and ready for the crop to follow next year.
This cycle is well known to many that grew up in agricultural communities, though less so to city folk. Sometimes called Crop Rotation, this cyclic system goes back several thousand years and is used to this day in various forms by cultures around the world. If you ever wondered why sunflowers were left to die in a field one year, then next year they appeared a couple of fields over, this is the reason.
Different fallow crops return different balances of nutrients. Many crops can be used. Sunflowers, corn, even heather and clover are common. Flower-based fallow crops like heather give back in other ways.
Insects flourish with the increase of their natural food supplies, which boosts the local wildlife food chain and aids certain other carefully planned and planted nearby crops with their pollination needs. Some farmers graze livestock in fallow fields. All this is part of the overall plan.
Upon the approach of Winter, fallow crops die back, changing soil composition in ways sufficiently different to markedly improve the following year’s harvests (and profits). The choice of fallow crop has a huge impact. Farmers usually plan their rotations several years in advance. It’s quite a science.
Predicted soil quality is regularly tested, and based on the results, crop rotations are varied with an aim to optimize nutritional yield. As well as science, there is art here. Experience counts. Farmers really do know their land. When you see sunflowers and corn and heather in the same field, that is not by accident. The farmer chose that specific mix of plants, in that specific ratio.
That’s where experience can count the most. That field may look abandoned or overgrown. Rarely is this the case. Most likely, it’s a deliberate planting to address a specific nutrient need for the upcoming crop for next year. Planning.
With farming profits being extremely tight, and nature being famously unpredictable, it’s important that the right choices are made. And even then it can be a coin toss. Too much rain, not enough sun, a cold snap. A hundred other variables. Get it right, reap the rewards. Get it wrong, reap the whirlwind. Getting lucky is often the deciding factor. And that’s hard to plan for. Sleepless nights are many.
Just as well, then, that farmers rise so early. Farming can be hard.