Gene Logsdon and Friends

Soil Science Spelled It Out A Whole Century Ago

In Gene's Weekly Posts on May 20, 2015 at 9:47 am



An organic farm marketer brought me a strange book to read and I can’t get it out of my mind. It was written by Cyril Hopkins, an agronomist at the University of Illinois in 1911. Already a century ago, science had committed the wisdom of the ages about maintaining soil fertility (Hopkins quotes Cato, Varro and Virgil from ancient Rome) to the finely wrought analysis and statistics of science. Soil scientists knew very well how to practice sustainable farming a century ago but then as now many people, including some fellow scientists, paid little attention. The strangeness of the book comes from the author’s efforts to write “The Story of The Soil” in the form of a novel, embedding his treatise on soil science in a more or less fictional love story.  He had already written a factual book on how to restore and maintain fertility in America’s declining soils but, surprise, surprise, hardly anyone read it. I suppose he figured that maybe people would pay attention if a little sexual intrigue were woven into his pages of dry facts and figures about manure, lime, rock phosphate and clover rotations and what happens when you don’t do it correctly. I doubt his ploy worked except with those of us who think sustainable farming is a pretty sexy subject all by itself.

At the beginning of the twentieth century there was plenty of evidence that yields of farm crops were in decline, despite all the blazing glory shouted from the rooftops about the limitless fertility of our soils. All that was staving off a clear realization of that fact was that for two centuries and more, we always had new land to move to and repeat the process of mining the virgin nutrients out of it. Hopkins addressed that reality directly, piling up enough statistics and case histories to choke a dinosaur. More…

Speed Farming

In Gene's Weekly Posts on May 13, 2015 at 6:41 am



The farm news (DTN/Progressive Farmer) reports that Finland is boasting a farm tractor that can go 80 mph on snow. How’s that for technological progress? As far as I can tell, the speed is not meant for farming— crops won’t grow on snow.  However, farm machinery companies in both Europe and the United States are touting their latest models that can hit 50 mph on the open road. This is not mere technological fantasy trying to find an outlet: many farmers today spend about as much time moving their rigs from one farm to another as they do in the fields, so having a souped-up road gear makes cents if not sense. Field speeds are increasing too, and that makes even more cents. Farm machinery engineers say that increasing field speed from 10 mph to 12 mph increases productivity by 20%. How about that? With my kind of arithmetic that means that when you bury a monster tractor in the mud and need three more monsters plus three snapped cables plus ten hours to get it unburied, as happened in my neck of the woods one spring,  your productivity decreases (four tractors times zero) to a minus 80%.

The farmer friend who told me about that four tractor debacle has two hobbies, bird watching and monster farm watching. He recently observed an operation in his neighborhood that has contrived a drawbar hitch-up that enables one tractor to pull four anhydrous ammonia tanks at once. Awesome. That rig must need half a township to turn around in. My friend jokes that he tried to get all of this outfit’s machinery, parked in a field one evening, into a single photo but couldn’t because one frame on his camera couldn’t encompass it all. More…

“Stop Mowing and Start Growing”

In Gene's Weekly Posts on May 6, 2015 at 6:58 am



[Today is the 7th Anniversary of The Contrary Farmer Blog!]

That’s the motto and battle cry of a fairly new (2011) organization called Urban Shepherds. Its purpose is to encourage grazing sheep on  urban and suburban vacant lots, larger lawns, and other grassy areas like school campuses and the acreages surrounding historic sites and factories. You can find out all about this new idea at The people involved are having a day of training on May 16  at Spicy Lamb Farm near Peninsula, Ohio. Their website tells you how to get there. Spicy Lamb already uses a power line right of way close by to graze its sheep, benefitting the power company and itself, controlling weeds without mowing or nearly so much herbicidal spraying. Cleveland, Detroit and Akron all have Urban Shepherd projects underway and I suspect other parts of the country are getting into this idea. One of the selling points is that if you have a business open to the public, grazing sheep have proven to be a big attraction.

All right. Why should chickens have all the rights to the backyard barnyards of America? I like to think I had something to do with this laudable project at least indirectly. When our daughter and her family moved to the Cleveland area years ago, for the first time I had a chance to observe suburban lawns closely. I was amazed how they stayed green most of the winter. Many times, trying to be funny, I wrote that suburbanites were the best pasture farmers in America and didn’t know it.

How many lawns will actually turn into sheep pastures is doubtful because there are people who will have conniptions at the idea of having sheep next door fertilizing the grass with that awful, vile stuff called manure. More…