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Good Farming Was More Advanced A Hundred Years Ago

From Gene Logsdon

Garden Farm Skills

Working from the premise that we will eventually run out of plentiful supplies of manufactured fertilizers, I have been reading old farming books written before artificial fertilizers became easily available. I am amazed at the sophistication with which science approached the subject of soil fertility once it become evident in the mid-1800s that farmers were rapidly depleting the native richness of their soils and had to find ways to restore it using livestock manure and green manure crops. In some ways, what science advocated then was more advanced than farming practices are today.

If we have to produce food for growing populations without large supplies of manufactured fertilizers, the science of a hundred years ago is going to be back in vogue. Even if we don’t run out of fertilizers, advanced manure science will be very useful for anyone wanting to avoid the high costs of commercial fertilizer. (Don’t laugh at the term, “manure science”— agricultural colleges are now conducting what they called Manure Science Review days.)

“Backward” farmers like myself may not look so backward after all in the future. Ralph Rice, who farms in northeastern Ohio, just emailed me a photo of his unbelievably lush corn, unbelievable because it is an open-pollinated variety and has no chemical fertilizers on it at all. The reason I believe Ralph’s photo is because I have similar corn and it is just beautiful. I hate to tempt fate by bragging— we could get a wind storm tomorrow and blow it all over. But the case just must be made. Granted that this is, so far, a very good year for corn, no one with an open mind can look at Ralph’s or mine and not wonder if maybe we backward guys are really going forward.

All the literature from about 1870 to 1910 states that four-fifths of the plant nutrients in animal feed is still in the manure when it hits the ground. With careful handling and application of the manure, most of those nutrients can go back to the soil. Careful handling means using bedding and manure packs in the barn, not flushing the manure out with water as if the confinement building were one giant toilet bowl, which is what it really is. The other one fifth of the nutrients needed— and more— can come from green manuring with clovers, say the old books, and as both Ralph and I are convinced is true from actual experience.

So what’s the big deal about chemical fertilizers and juiced up hybrid corns? I wonder how many people know that commercial corn growers are spending on average of over $150 an acre for fertilizer. (Over $200 an acre sometimes, depending on the price of nitrogen.) And they are spending $100 an acre for hybrid GMO seed corn. That is just ridiculous when even the agribusiness suppliers admit that so far GMO varieties have not meant any general increases in yield. The corn farmer who puts out 4000 acres of corn, and quite a few of them do now, could have a fertilizer and seed bill of one million, two hundred thousand dollars before he gets his planter to the field. I am sorry but I think that is insane. And at least two big farmers I know agree but of course don’t want to be quoted. One of them told me he is thinking about starting a beef feedlot. He doesn’t care if the cattle make any money, he says. It’s the manure he’s after. I know this man well. Never in a million years did I think he would ever say that.

To be continued after my corn and Ralph’s throw ears and develop, to see if I have to eat crow or can brag some more.

~~

Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.

Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land), The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and just released: Small-Scale Grain Raising, Second Edition: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains, for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers.

Gene’s Posts

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