By Jennifer Young
The most integral tool to the development of agriculture, the humble plow has its roots, like civilization itself, in Mesopotamia. Descendent of the digging stick, the earliest plows were used to prepare lands near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers for planting as long as 10,000 years ago . Early farmers near the Indus and Nile Rivers also used primitive plows ready fields for planting the crops that would feed the earliest civilizations, supporting their growth.
The plow was such an efficient agricultural implement that it didn’t change much, barring the addition of the moldboard, from the ancient period through medieval times. The soils of the American Midwest, however, would challenge old designs and inspire the creation of the modern steel plow.
In its basic form, the plow is remarkably simplistic and, yet, it performs three functions that are essential for farming on a large scale, relatively speaking. These functions include: breaking and turning over the upper portions of soil (which brings nutrients to the surface), burying previous crop residue (so it can more quickly decay and add to the nutrient content of the soil), and combatting weed growth.
While the earliest plows were operated by humans, ancient farmers designed a hitch so that beasts of burden could pull the plows through the fields. Although the farmers guided the animals, they were able to till larger tracts of land to produce greater crop yields.
One of the most important additions to the plow’s design didn’t come until the 18th century with the development of the turnplow. This plow features the addition of a moldboard , a device that turns the furrow slice cut by the mainshare. As the plow operates, the coulter cuts vertically into the soil. Then the share makes a horizontal cut from the previous furrow. This action releases a rectangular strip of topsoil or sod that’s lifted by the share and then carried up and over by the moldboard where it drops into the furrow upside down.
You don’t have to be a farmer to appreciate the exquisite beauty in this seemingly simple bit of functionality. The process creates rows for planting but also allows the farmer plant earlier in the spring just as the winter snows are melting as the nature of the furrow allows for good drainage. Of course, the materials used to in a plow’s creation also affected how it could function. Early plows were made of wood with the addition of some iron parts. Later, heavy plows made entirely of iron appeared and were integral for farming lands in northern Europe as well as northern China.
Even the strongest European plows, however, were not quite fit for the rich, but sticky black soils of the Midwest. As pioneers moved westward and settled in the Midwest, they found the current plow models to be inefficient. The farmer would have to clean the plows implements every few feet as the stick soil would render them useless. This dilemma prompted an American mechanic in Grand Detour, Illinois, named John Deere to invent the all-steel plow with a one-part share and moldboard in 1837, a creation that would transform the agricultural world–a plow fit for the modern world.
Deere’s innovative plow makeover would transform life on the prairie and just as the plow’s development encouraged ancient civilization to grow, it led to the Midwest’s development into the agricultural heartland of the country. By 1849, Deere was churning out 2,000 of his steel plows each year, paving the way for the Deere Company to become virtually synonymous with modern farming equipment. It continues to enjoy worldwide success to the tune of $37 billion in revenue—a fortune born of the digging stick, a couple chisels, and a hunk of steel.
Today, there are many different types of plows as well as other related implements designed to make the work of the farmer more efficient. Yet, in many parts of the world, the humblest versions of the plow continue to be relied upon and are essential for getting dinner to the table.