“Plant a garden and you work hand in hand with God”.
What Is It? “Biblical Agronomy” is a philosophy of agriculture, a system of farming based on the Christian bible and practices of the early Catholic Church. Over time these precepts have evolved into a new way of thinking, a unique form of Biological Agriculture.
How To Do It: Following are Bible passages with agricultural commentaries to help farmers apply biblical principles in a modern world:
“Thou shalt not kill”. Exodus 20 : 1 – 17. Editor’s Note: This injunction from the “Ten Commandments” is the first principle of Biblical Agronomy and the hardest concept for most farmers to practice. Modern industrial agriculture is largely negative. It proceeds from the assumption that nature must be subdued. Soils must be plowed. Weeds must be eradicated. Insects must be exterminated. Farmers spend much of their time spraying deadly chemicals: Herbicides, insecticides, fungicides — a laundry list of toxins. Conventional agriculture is all about killing things. Biblical agronomy takes the opposite approach: Agriculture is about life, not death. Farmers concentrate on genesis = creating life. Biology replaces chemicals. Earthworms replace plows. Plants replace petroleum. “Let nature do the heavy lifting”. The principle distinction between Biblical Agronomy and conventional agriculture is that when problems arise farmers ask: “How do I solve this without killing anything?”
“Speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee”. Job 12 : 8. Editor’s Note: Successful farmers copy nature in their fields. Two thousand years ago Roman farmers practiced “Cultura Promiscua” = companion planting: Olives, pomegranates, figs, grapes, cereals, legumes, and vegetables were grown together on small, 5-acre farms worked by hand. Today, we call this “agroforestry”. Back then, it was practical husbandry. Planting mixtures of crops without plowing was the easiest way to maintain soil fertility and prevent erosion. Native fields and forests have no bare ground. The earth is constantly covered with mixtures of plants. Observe nature closely then copy what you see.
“If you enter your neighbor’s grain field, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain”. Deuteronomy 23 : 25. Editor’s Note: The poor have the right to eat from your fields but not the right to harvest for profit. Over the centuries this rule has evolved into the practice of leaving some part of a field unharvested so beneficial insects and wildlife have something to eat. Modern custom is to reserve 5% to 10% of crops for “Nature’s Pantry”. The alternative is buying costly insecticides.
“If you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket”. Deuteronomy 23 : 24. Editor’s Note: Eat your fill but do not carry any away. Hospitality to all in need was official Church doctrine during the Middle Ages. The right of the hungry to eat from the fields was part of the social safety net for the poor. This practice was later codified in various “laws of hospitality”. Modern farmers plant hedgerows and “insectary crops” to feed beneficial wildlife. Biologically managed vineyards are sown with legumes and wildflowers. Flowers replace insecticides.
“Do not plant two kinds of seed in your vineyard; if you do, not only the crops you plant but also the fruit of the vineyard will be defiled”. Deuteronomy 22 : 9. Editor’s Note: Modern agronomists interpret this rule as a general injunction against mixing varieties of the same open pollinated species. Isolation distances must be preserved to prevent cross-pollination so varieties remain pure. (This rule does not apply to self-pollinated species because out-crossing rarely occurs).
“Isaac planted crops in that land and the same year reaped a hundredfold, because the Lord blessed him.” Genesis 26 : 12. Editor’s Note: Historical seed to harvest ratios of 1 : 100 are not inconceivable. Roman farmers routinely harvested 40 bushels of wheat per acre. 80-bushel yields were common when irrigated grain followed nitrogen-fixing cover crops of lentils, lupines, clover, or vetch. Modern wheat varieties regularly produce 100-bushel yields. The keys to bumper grain crops are no tillage, live soils, wide spacing of individual plants, living mulches to control weeds, companion plants to increase biodiversity, and irrigation to prevent water competition between grain and cover crops. Farmers in the Middle Ages planted the “Holy Trinity” = 1 grain + 1 legume + 1 root crop. For example: Wheat, clover, and turnips. Seeded at 50 pounds of wheat per acre, this polycrop easily yields 3,000 pounds (50 bushels) per acre = 1 : 60 seed to harvest ratio.
“But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.” Matthew 13 : 33. Editor’s Note: Plant most any heritage variety of winter wheat in your garden, for example, Red Fife. Space plants 1 foot apart equidistantly. Mulch the ground and water as needed. Each plant will yield 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 ounces of grain on average = approximately 1,305 to 2,175 seeds per plant = 68 to 113 bushels per acre. You do not need “improved” or “hybrid” varieties to obtain high yields. Good growing conditions are the most important factors.
“When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands”. Deuteronomy 24 : 19. Editor’s Note: Modern farmers plant wildlife food plots or leave border rows unharvested. Biological agriculture practice requires that farms be managed as ecosystems rather than individual fields. The idea is to encourage large populations of many beneficial species. More biodiversity = healthy ecology = better plant growth = higher yields.
“Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner”. Leviticus 19 : 10. Editor’s Note: Today, “good farming practice” means leaving as much plant residue as possible to prevent erosion and feed soil critters. Grain fields are harvested with “header reels” to leave standing straw to slow wind and trap snow. Farmers plant mixed species cover crops to feed earthworms over winter. Fallen fruits are grazed, composted, or burned to break insect and disease cycles. Vineyards and orchards are sown with weeds, legumes, wildflowers, and insectary crops to support large populations of beneficial insects. More flowers = fewer pests.
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest”. Leviticus 19 : 9. Editor’s Note: The right of the poor to glean fields is common to many cultures. Modern farmers leave border rows unharvested. Head rows are planted with “bee pasture”. Strips of weeds, wildflowers, and insectary crops are sown within fields to feed beneficial insects. Wildlife food plots and “insect refuges” are seeded in odd corners of land. The idea is to encourage maximum populations of useful species.
Social Commentary: In this modern world farmers comprise less than 2% of the United States population. Most farms are located far from cities. Fields are harvested by machines. Thus, there are few rural poor and hardly any crops to glean. This is in stark contrast to biblical times when 98% of the people were farmers, many of them hungry. Today, feeding the urban poor is not easy. Rural labor shortages mean there are few hands to pick fruits and vegetables. Surplus crops often rot in the fields while Food Banks go empty. The Bible is easy to read but difficult to practice.
“You shall not breed together two kinds of your cattle; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together”. Leviticus 19 : 19. Editor’s Note: Ancient Jews had a passion for keeping everything separate. This extended to cooking (do not mix meat and milk) and marriage (do not marry “gentiles” = non-Jews). Modern agronomy has turned the old rules upside down. Farmers now plant hybrid seeds and graze hybrid cattle on multiple species forage crops. Science and practical experience have taught us that mixtures grow better than individual species grown separately. Polycrops are the new “best practice”. Grains and legumes are sown together. Fields are planted with strips of unrelated crops. The goal is maximum biodiversity. Biology, not chemistry, keeps soils fertile and pests under control.
“But during the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard”. Leviticus 25 : 4. Editor’s Note: Long rotations break insect and disease cycles. For example: Farmers in Argentina rotate 7 years of field crops with 7 years of pasture. (Alternating pasture and row crops is called “ley farming”). 7-year rotations are ideal for restoring soil structure and fertility. Rule-of-Thumb: Never plant the same crop on a field more than once every 7 years. Reserving 1/7th = 14% of cropland for annual fallow is a great way to support large populations of wildlife and beneficial insects.
“A king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land”. Ecclesiastes 5 : 9. Political Commentary: Humility precedes learning. There is much advantage in keeping leaders humble. From a practical standpoint, a king busy growing his crops has little time for mischief. Most people care not who runs the government as long as it leaves them alone. “God bless us with a king who rules and does nothing”. (Farmers around the world have inherent distrust of government. This reticence comes from long experience: When officials arrive, bad things happen). Farmers who practice Biblical Agronomy tend to be independent spirits. Many live off-grid. The majority are socially conservative. Most have root cellars or can their own vegetables. Large numbers store a 2-year food supply. “Biblical” farmers are much like the Amish: They are part of our modern culture yet live apart from it.
“But on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and olive grove”. Exodus 23 : 11. Editor’s Note: Planting monocrops year after year depletes soil fertility and promotes outbreaks of pests and diseases. Farmers practicing Biblical Agronomy avoid these problems by keeping 7-year rotations and planting polycrops. For example: “The Twelve Apostles” is a multi-species forage mix including 4 grains + 4 legumes + 4 root or forb crops. Mixed species produce more nutritious forage and higher yields. “Tithing” 1/7th = 14% of cropland for annual fallow (weeds or mixed species cover crops) promotes large numbers of beneficial insects. The good bugs eat the bad bugs.
“I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land”. Ezekiel 34 : 15. Editor’s Note: “Mixed Farming” = growing plants and animals has been the foundation of agriculture since historic times. The reason is simple: Plants and animals have evolved to grow well together. While it is possible to raise plants and animals separately, monocultures are much more susceptible to insects, diseases, and environmental stress. Biological balance is a key principle of Biblical Agronomy. Pastures grow better when grazed. Crops yield more when dunged. Animals stimulate plants to grow better. Healthy plants keep animals in good condition.
“What the cows eschew the goats relish. That which the goats ignore the sheep enjoy. Upon what the sheep leave the birds feast. Whatever the fowl demurs the worms delight. In this way the land feeds all”.
“Thirty milking camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys”. Genesis 32 : 15. Editor’s Note: Smart farmers use rotation and polycrops to control pests and diseases. The same principles apply to raising animals. Herds should be rotated to improve pastures. Mixed species control weeds and parasites. For example: Range chickens 3 or 4 days behind cattle. Chickens eat fly maggots and keep pastures sanitary. Every mouth eats something different and so the whole farm produces more food.
“The best medicine is the watchful eye of the herdsman”.
“Know well the state of your flocks, and pay attention to your herds”. Proverbs 27 : 23. Editor’s Note: Anciently, herds grazed randomly and were moved irregularly. Plants were overgrazed and pastures declined. Modern farmers practice “Intensive Rotational Grazing”: Animals are crowded into small paddocks then moved to fresh pasture every 12 to 24 hours. Each meadow is rotated on a 30-day or longer calendar so plants have time to regrow. Pasture rotation produces more forage and breaks parasite reproduction cycles.
“The sea coast will be pastures, with cottages for shepherds and folds for flocks”. Zephaniah 2 : 6. Editor’s Note: Piling, carting and spreading manure is hard work. “Sheep Folding” is easier: Flocks are crowded into small fields at dusk where they urinate and defecate all night long. At dawn, animals are turned into fresh pasture. Fertilized ground can then be plowed and sown. Alternatively, broadcast seed into standing vegetation then fold animals overnight. Hooves trod seed into ground. Trampled plants cover and protect germinating crops. This is called “Stomp Seeding”. Roman farmers averaged 40 to 50 bushels of wheat per acre using these methods. Biblical Agronomy is all about balance. Plants and animals grow well together.
“I shall become enlightened for the sake of all living things”.
Ten Agricultural Commandments: Following is a list of biological principles for Biblical Agronomy. Use these guidelines to make farm management decisions.
I. Do Not Kill. Find another way. Use the least intrusive methods. “Walk lightly upon the land”.
“Farmers are keepers of the earth”.
II. Keep the Agricultural Sabbath. Follow 7-year rotations. Long rotations control most insects and diseases without need for human intervention. Crop rotations improve soil tilth and fertility.
“At Nature’s table all are welcome”.
III. Tithe for Nature. Provide hospitality to all in need. Leave border rows unharvested. Plant wildlife food plots. Reserve 5% to 10% of farmland for hedgerows, windbreaks, and wood lots. Wildlife are an essential part of the agricultural ecosystem.
“God loves all his creatures, even bugs”.
IV. Feed the Insects. Reserve 5% to 10% of cropland for native weeds, insect refuges, bee pasture, and insectary crops. Conventional monocrop farms are “green deserts” without nectar or pollen for beneficial insects. Feed the good bugs and they will protect your crops.
V. Sow Polycultures Whenever Practical. Plant the “Holy Trinity” and “The Twelve Apostles”. Mixed species are the key to soil fertility and high yields.
VI. Do Not Plow. Practice zero-tillage whenever possible. Symbiotic fungi are essential to plant health and nutrition. Beneficial fungal networks must be protected at all times or soil ecology will collapse.
VII. Keep Soil Covered at All Times. Soil is a living organism that requires air, water, food, and shelter. Keep it warm during winter and cool over summer. Do not let topsoil dry out. Prevent crusting and compaction so soil can breathe and rain can enter. Protect fields with mulch or live plants 365 days yearly. “Keep fields green”.
“Good farmers grow fungi. The fungi grow the crops”.
VIII. Feed the Fungi. Plants feed sugar to fungi. Fungi provide water and minerals to plants. Trading requires live roots or fungi die or go dormant. Plant productivity is directly related to the number and extent of fungal networks. More fungi = higher yields. Good farmers keep their fields covered with growing plants year-round.
“Roots in the ground all year round”.
IX. Encourage Maximum Biodiversity. Genesis is the heart of Biblical Agronomy. Agriculture is all about creating life. Ecosystem productivity and stability are directly related to number of species. More species = healthy ecology = higher yields. Good farmers plant many varieties to provide food and shelter for all God’s creatures.
X. Grow Crops and Animals Together. Plants and animals are like two sides of an arch: Remove one and the other falls. Mixed farms have more biological stability and greater resilience to environmental stress and economic change. Wide diversity protects farmers from crop failures and uncertain markets.
“The Lord gave the word and great was the company of the creatures”.
The Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt inherit the holy earth as a faithful steward conserving its resources and productivity from generation to generation. Thou shalt safeguard thy fields from soil erosion, thy living waters from drying up, thy forests from desolation, and protect thy hills from overgrazing by the herds, that thy descendants may have abundance forever. If any shall fail in this stewardship of the land, thy fruitful fields shall become sterile stony ground or wasting gullies, and thy descendants shall decrease and live in poverty or perish from off the face of the earth”. [Walter Clay Lowdermilk, soil conservationist, radio broadcast from Jerusalem, June 1939].
Wrapping It Up: Biblical Agronomy is not so much a rigid set of rules but rather a way of thinking about biology. Adapt basic principles to fit local conditions. The key is to be practical rather than zealous. God will not smite you if you spray the locusts.
Bee Pasture = Plants selected for long flowering seasons and large amounts of nectar and pollen. Wild bees and other native insects provide most of the pollination for agricultural crops. Good farmers sow 5% to 10% of farmland with bee forage. (If you cannot afford seed plant native weeds).
Border Rows = Crops growing along field edges. Farmers often leave 2 to 4 rows unharvested to feed wild animals. Border row dimensions are determined by the width of planting and harvesting machinery.
Head Rows = Empty space at field ends used for turning tractors and farm equipment. On conventional farms head rows are covered with sod or left bare. On biologically managed fields head rows are planted with clover, wildflowers, native weeds, or other “bee forage”. The idea is to provide food and shelter to encourage large numbers of beneficial insects.
Hedgerows = Narrow lines of small trees or shrubs planted to contain animals, slow wind, trap snow, moderate micro-climate, and provide food and shelter for beneficial wildlife. Ideal hedgerows are composed entirely of economic species that can be harvested for nuts, berries, fruits or other cash crops. Plant 40 or more species per linear mile for high biodiversity. Hedgerows support large populations of insect eating birds.
Insectary Crops = Plants with many small flowers ideal for feeding beneficial insects. For example: Anise, buckwheat, caraway, clover, coriander, dill, and fennel. These can be combine harvested and the seed sold for profit.
Insect Refuges = Standing crops left unharvested so insects have undisturbed habitat for feeding and breeding. For example: If you mow a hay field all at once the insects have nowhere to go and nothing to eat. The solution is to leave a strip of meadow unharvested so insect populations are preserved. (If land is scarce sow native weeds in odd corners or other spaces unsuitable for farm machinery).
“Rotational Grazing Rule-Of-Thumb: Eat 1/3, Stomp 1/3, Leave 1/3”.
Intensive Rotational Grazing = Crowding animals into small paddocks then moving herd to fresh pasture every 12 to 24 hours. Pastures are rotated on 30-day or longer cycles so plants have time to regrow. Rotational grazing produces large amounts of highly nutritious forage. 400% yield increases are possible with mixed species forage crops. Long rotations break insect, disease and parasite reproduction cycles. (Mob grazing is a similar practice).
Ley Farming = Rotating pasture and field crops to control weeds and fertilize soil. Combining animals in farm rotations boosts crop yields. Manure stimulates plant growth more than equal weights of fresh or composted grass. (Strange things happen in a cow’s stomach. Grass goes in and super-charged fertilizer comes out. How this happens is scientific mystery).
Living Mulches = Short plants sown to cover the soil and prevent weed growth. Cash crops are seeded or transplanted into the living mulch using no-till equipment. For example: Peppers can be transplanted into an established sward of Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens). The clover smothers weeds and feeds nitrogen to the cash crop.
Mixed Farming = Growing a wide variety of plants and animals on the same farm. Including pasture and hay in crop rotations. Grazing herds on harvested fields. Using animals to control weeds. Spreading manure to fertilize cash crops. Mixed farms are more biologically stable and much less susceptible to economic and environmental changes.
Mob Grazing = Concentrating very large herds on small pastures is called “Mob Grazing”. Density is about 800 to 1,000 cows per acre and animals are shifted every 1 or 2 hours. Meadows are rotated on long 6 to 12 month cycles so plants regrow. High density and long rotations mimic natural migration of buffalo and other vast herds on prairie ecosystems. (Intensive Rotational Grazing is a closely related practice).
Mulch-In-Place = Sow a fast-growing cover crop that produces large amounts of biomass (stems and leaves). Kill the mature cover crop with a roller-crimper or sickle-bar mower. Seed or transplant through the mulch using no-till equipment. Mulch-In-Place provides 90% to 95% weed control, as good or better than glyphosate (Roundup) or other conventional herbicides.
Multiple Species Cover Crops = Mixtures of plants grown to control weeds, feed livestock, and fertilize fields. For best results sow many species to enhance biological synergy. Mixed plants feed soil bacteria and support vast networks of beneficial fungi. The fungi provide water and nutrients to the plants. Basic cover crop mixes include: 2 cool season grasses + 2 cool season legumes + 2 cool season broad leaf plants + 2 warm season grasses + 2 warm season legumes + 2 warm season broad leaf plants + 2 or more root crops = 14 or more species. Use no-till equipment to drill 20 pounds of seed per acre in 2-inch deep furrows spaced 7.5 inches apart.
Polyculture = Growing 2 or more species together. Polycrops greatly reduce insect pests and produce large amounts of sugar to feed soil bacteria and fungi. Most soil humus is made by bacteria that eat sugar exuded by plant roots. Agricultural productivity is directly related to the number of polyculture species. More species = more leaves and stems = more photosynthesis = more sugar exuded by roots = larger populations of soil microbes = faster nutrient cycling = higher yields. Some farmers plant cover crops with 60 species! “There is strength in numbers”.
Strip Cropping = Polyculture system adapted to farm machinery. Divide farms or fields into narrow strips following land contours. Plant adjacent strips with unrelated crops to maximize edge effects and increase biodiversity. Adjust strip widths to match planting and harvesting equipment. For best results strips should not be wider than 200 feet on flat land or 50 feet on hillsides. Planting a variety of crops spreads economic and biological risk. Strip cropping supports large populations of beneficial insects that keep pests under control.
Weed Farming = Manage weeds just like any other cover crop. (A) Fertilize and irrigate weeds to promote maximum growth, then flatten with a roller-crimper or sickle-bar mower. Immediately seed or transplant through the weed mulch using no-till equipment. (B) Overseed native weeds with clover or other legumes to make a cheap multi-species cover crop. (C) Harvest weeds like silage using a forage chopper. Use chopped weeds to mulch cash crops. (D) For biological pest control, plant weeds next to crops needing protection. Alternatively, mow strips through tall weeds then plant cash crops down the rows. Crops grown in weeds rarely have pest problems. (E) Native weeds support enormous populations of beneficial insects. Good farmers reserve 5% to 10% of cropland for weeds. For best results grow weeds in narrow strips within fields and around field borders. (F) Sow weeds to heal bare or worn-out soils. Wildflower hay can be baled and spread for this purpose or haul weed seeds from the nearest grain elevator. (G) Grind weed seeds in a roller mill to make free fertilizer. Use weed seed meal just like cotton seed meal or other organic plant food. (H) When insects threaten to overwhelm, soak chopped weeds in water, strain, then spray “weed tea” on plants. Weed juice chases away most bugs.
Wildlife Food Plots = Small fields planted with grains, legumes, forbs, and root crops to feed deer, pheasants, turkeys, rabbits, and other game animals. Wildlife plots are typically seeded on poor, wet or rocky land unsuitable for hay or cash crops.
Windbreaks = Rows of trees, shrubs, perennial Pampas grass, or other vegetation planted to slow wind, stop erosion, trap snow, and moderate micro-climate. For best results plant windbreaks no closer than 50 feet nor farther than 150 feet apart. Effective wind protection extends downwind 10 times average tree height. Plant 40 species per linear mile for high biodiversity. Windbreaks increase average yields 15% by reducing water loss from crop leaves. (Common synonyms include: Greenbelts, Hedgerows, and Shelterbelts).
Wood Lots = Small areas of forest grown to provide firewood. For highest yield manage trees by coppicing: Cut down 7-year old trees then harvest on 7-year cycles when stump or root sprouts reach 2 to 3 inches diameter. Divide forest into 7 sections then harvest each part sequentially. Coppiced trees live hundreds of years because the are constantly renewed.
Related Publications: Cover Crop Primer; The Twelve Apostles; Biological Agriculture in Temperate Climates; Polyculture Primer; Strip Cropping Primer; Worm Farming; Managing Weeds as Cover Crops; Earthworm Primer; Planting Maize with Living Mulches; Living Mulches for Weed Control; Crops Among the Weeds; The Edge Effect; Organic Herbicides; Forage Maize for Soil Improvement; Coppicing Primer; Forage Radish Primer; Weed Seed Meal Fertilizer; Intensive Rice Culture Primer; Trash Farming; Pelleted Seed Primer; Upside Down Potatoes; Maize Polyculture Trial 2007 – 2016; No-Till Hungarian Stock Squash; and the Rototiller Primer.
Would You Like To Know More? For more information on biological agriculture and practical polyculture please visit: http://www.worldagriculturesolutions.com — or — send your questions to: Eric Koperek, Editor, World Agriculture Solutions, 413 Cedar Drive, Moon Township, Pennsylvania, 15108 USA.
About The Author: Mr. Koperek is a plant breeder who farms in Pennsylvania during summer and Florida over winter. (Growing 2 generations yearly speeds development of new crop varieties).