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The History of Dibbling

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By Sam Moore | Apr 5, 2018

Prior to the acceptance of low, minimum and no-till practices, plowing was considered the major task of the farmer. Tillage however is only the series of steps needed to prepare the soil for the real job – planting the seed. Without seed there can be no crop, and the proper placement of the seed is the most critical part of the operation.

For centuries seeding was haphazard; the seed was scattered by hand and then covered with a rake, harrow, or even by dragging a bundle of brush across it. This time-consuming and laborious method resulted in a lot of lost seed and low yields.

I’m a fan of a National Public Radio show called “Says You” on which, among other word games, a panel of “experts” tries to guess the meaning of obscure words. A while back, one of the mystery words was “dibble,” and no one knew what a dibble was (I knew this one, although I usually don’t).

One of the first feeble attempts to improve hand seeding was by a process known as “dibbling.” A hole was poked into the soil with a pointed stick or “dibble,” the seed was dropped into the hole and then covered by scraping a little dirt over the hole with the foot.

Dibbling persisted for hundreds of years; in 1600 an Englishman recommended “setting” seed over sowing broadcast and said the holes should be 3 inches apart and 3 inches deep. He and several others described dibbling frames that consisted of a series of properly spaced wooden pegs set into boards. These frames were lowered onto and forced into the soil, then lifted and carried forward where the process was repeated over and over again. The seeds were dropped into the holes thus made and then covered.

Although there had been hundreds of attempts through the centuries to come up with a mechanical way of sowing seed, the intricacies of a successful grain drill were beyond the capabilities of early inventors and none of the machines they dreamed up really answered the purpose. Seeding broadcast was still the most popular way of sowing well into the 18th century.

Dibbling had been known in the British Isles and practiced to some extent there for a long time, but the method seems to have really caught in the late-1700s. An agriculturist wrote in 1796 that dibbling was “one of the most valuable improvements that, perhaps, ever appeared in agriculture.” Another reported that in Lincolnshire, “Upon the whole, it (dibbling) has succeeded greatly.”

A clue to one reason dibbling became so popular in England during the first part of the 19th century may be found in the works of Charles Dickens. Anyone who has read Oliver Twist knows that children who were orphans or paupers became wards of the local parishes and were expected to work for their bread and gruel. A writer in Norfolk wrote that “dibbling resulted in the employment of thousands of the parochial poor children who would otherwise be without employment (and thus a financial burden) at that season.”

An English dibbling crew of the era consisted of one man and two or three children. The man carried two dibbling irons connected by a cross handle. One account tells us that he walked backwards (no doubt to keep an eye on his juvenile helpers) while he made two rows of holes 3 or 4 inches apart and maybe 2 inches deep. The kids, who were kept separated to keep them from chattering among themselves, followed and dropped three or four seeds into each hole. An old English ditty from around this time that may have been sung by the children to keep track of the number of seeds dispensed into each hole went, “One for the rook, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow.”

The children, or more probably their warders, were paid according to their ability. A very small child who could drop into only one row of holes was worth 3 pence per day, while one who could handle three rows brought 10-1/2 pence.

After the seeds were dropped they were covered by dragging a harrow across the field. Around 1800 the cost of dibbling was reported to be 8 shillings, 6 pence, to 10 shillings per acre, although that had dropped to about 7 shillings, 6 pence by 1840. This method of planting wheat was popular in eastern England until the middle of the 19th century.

About 1801, Jethro Tull, a progressive English farmer, made a successful drill. A wheeled, 2-row machine, Tull’s contraption opened channels in the soil, dropped the seeds into the channels and then covered them. Essentially, those functions are identical to the ones performed by today’s planters. Although drills were slow to catch on, in part due to often violent opposition from British farm laborers who believed the machines would put them out of work, their use gradually spread.

In this country drills were virtually unheard of before 1840, but in 1841 Samuel and Moses Pennock of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, patented a 7-row machine. Other American inventors got into the act and before the Civil War a force feed drill was developed.

Progress was steady throughout the rest of the 19th century with improved seed metering in both fluted feed and double-run styles. Furrow openers were greatly improved, as was the adoption of roller bearings, easier lubrication, and corrosion resistant seed and fertilizer boxes. Mechanical and then hydraulic lifts eased the physical effort required to raise and lower the planting units.

It’s a far cry from today’s farmer zipping across a huge field in a comfortable cab with a 40-foot grain drill behind him to a man with a two-row dibble followed by a pack of ragged urchins.

– Sam Moore

A primitive multiple dibble in use. (From The Growth of Industrial Art published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1892.)

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