Good Farming Was More Advanced A Hundred Years Ago

From Gene Logsdon

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.


Oh, Andy, I used to, regularly. I try not to, these days. Tours are very disruptive… for a person like me. I must stay focused on my writing and it is very difficult to do so with so many distractions. I love solitude. Does that make sense? Sometimes, like right now, I wish I could show people how good things look here. And if we would have had more rain, oh my. But that is all pride. If you look through all my blogs, and all my books, and all the magazine articles I have written, believe me you know more about our place than I do. But thank you for you interest. I wish I could explain myself. I love one on one conversation. But I am not like so many other writers who do extensive traveling, speechifying, etc. I’d have actually made some money if I enjoyed getting in the limelight. But it just gives me high blood pressure and spastic bowel syndrome. I guess I was meant to be a hermit. Gene

Do you ever give tours of your farm?

Robin: Yes, I’ve read about Sykes and I read Acres. Chuck Walters was a friend. And I love Sir Albert’s philosophy. But I don’t know about Sykes’ claims. I love to read these far out ag writers, but I’m the Great Disbeliever in just about everything. Thanks for commenting.

Hi Gene I stumbled on to your site and really like your attitude. :))

I have a small (150 acre) farm in Ontario and I have been raising cows, sheep and horses.

I wonder have you ever heard of Freind Sykes? He was a British organic farmer back in the 40’s (Sir Albert Howard made reference to him in his ‘Agricultural Testement) who had mastered a rotational grazing system with a large diversity of livestock. He had dairy and beef cows and sheep plus goats and horses. In the winter he raised earthworms. Anyway he boasted that he could bring cows that were infected with food and mouth onto his farm and not only would his cows not contract it but they would get better. This is quite the claim but listening to Jerry Brunetti (Acres) speaking about immunity and connection to soils he is observing that the greater biodiversity confers better immunity.


He said the effect of the diversity was a pulsing of the land. He wrote several books one was ‘Humus and the Farmer’ which

David Ross, have you seen John Deere’s new 48 row, 240 ft planter yet?

Hi Gene
I’ve got 2 of your books and am inspired. I live amongst modern farmers so I’m pleased to learn there is a better way. I was recently talking to a 1000 acre farmer from Sussex, his diesel bill last year was £75,000, and at one time he was paying £380 a tonne for fertiliser, he reckoned about 4 acres to the ton! Plus sprays. That’s a bill of about £250,000!
I went in to a local tractor dealership and there was a picture on the wall of a Case tractor and the caption was “381 hectares ploughed in 24 hours”. It’s the sheer scale of ‘modern’ agriculture which amazes and horrifies me.
Keep up the good work

Gene, I’m reading this book, you may already heard about this book, Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness

“A century of industrialization has left our food system riddled with problems, yet for solutions we look to nutritionists and government agencies, scientists and chefs. Lisa M. Hamilton asks: why not look to the people who grow our food?”

Better to let the animals go to the feed instead of wasting all the energy harvesting and moving the feed to them and then moving the poop back to the fields!

I keep reading about more and more livestock farmers here in Maryland that are moving over to pasture based systems instead of feed lots. It seems to work! Just like the old days. The dairy farmers that did it say they produce less, but it cost much less.

I can’t let Michael Apley’s comment above pass unanswered. The amount of meat, milk and eggs we produce depends on the amount of foodstuffs we can grow on a finite number of acres on earth, not on how many animals we can cram into a building. I will try to say that another way: Whether we cram ten million hens into one confinement complex or spread those hens out over a million garden farms or backyards, it still takes the same amount of feed to keep them growing.

Also,in light of depleted topsoil, remineralisation with the most complete range of the 92 elements in glacial rock dust should be paramount. It is one subject to emphasize organic material but casting this dust should be on top of the list. Great gardens have been grown eventually with remineralisation.

A New York congresswoman is trying to rally support for a federal bill that would restrict antibiotic use in food animals just months after a similar measure tanked in California.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that as much as 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are given to healthy animals. Conventional farmers and ranchers routinely feed antibiotics to their herd to help the animals use their food more efficiently and bulk up faster. They say the medication also helps ward off pathogens that could sicken or kill their livestock.

Michael Apley, a clinical pharmacologist, veterinarian and professor at Kansas State University, said there is no doubt that keeping animals in close quarters “can allow some diseases to spread more rapidly.”

“But we couldn’t produce half of what we produce if we let them graze on pasture.”


Do they really grow that much faster on antibiotic feeds?

Teresa Sue Hoke-House August 1, 2009 at 11:04 am

I enjoy reading how people solved their different farming and “just living” dilemas from earlier times
also. Refridgeration techniques were another aspect of that old time technology that went by the wayside when other energies came to be. There is just a lot of common sense applied to the problems of their day that we all could benefit from. I also agree that when our farms become smaller is when we will see more farmers employing “old technologies”. Also, thanks Joanna, the old USDA layouts were interesting. I like looking at different farms and their layouts. It is always curious to me that some are so pleasing to the eye, while others, well, look like a disorganized mess. Thanks Gene for bringing manure around for another look-see, lol. We can always count on you to give us the poop on farming, lol. Always looking forward to your next bit of advice.

To all of you: Man, am I ever enjoying this sprightly conversation, especially Kyle.
Aaron, yes I screwed up a bit. I neglected to remember that the figure of $150 per acre included herbicide and insecticide costs. But as soon as I say fertilizer costs are less than that, sure as heck the prices will jump back up… the perils of writing. But thanks for correcting me. Don’t your farmers use anhydrous ammonia. Or any triple 13? Or superpolyphosphate? I asked my favorite big farmer what it costs to fertilize corn these days. His answer with a smile: “I don’t know this year because I planted all beans. This much I can promise you: Whatever the cost of fertlizer, it will be $25 an acre more than the corn will be worth.” I thought that was the best answer yet.

Wow Mike, so I owe my existence (I’m quite lean, thank you) to a guy who destroyed thousands of years of plant breeding in Mexico and India to turn their countries into feudal export colonies for the IMF? Why don’t you ask an Indian wheat farmer how much he likes biotechnology before he cancels his debt with a gallon of RoundUp. If it weren’t for the likes of Borlaug I might be living in a world where one could afford to be a farmer.
– You must have burned a lot of unsustainable fossil fuel while typing your angry rant. You better go confess with your right hand on “The Population Bomb”, pick up a spear and go round up some grubs for dinner.
– BTW, animals have a futuristic manure delivery system called “legs”.

Given the “normal” price of oil is now probably in 3 digits (the price is down now because of the global recession), when we come out of the recession the cost per acre for industrial farmers will skyrocket [see Jeff Rubin, Why Your World is about to get a Whole Lot Smaller]. The past 60-70 years have been a brief interlude of cheap energy and a period in which we have been gulled by “better living thru chemistry”. But we are finding all kinds of unforeseen consequences of this well-intended chemistry. For example, all of us are walking around with more or less toxic combinations of chemicals like BPA, etc. in our bodies. Fertilizers and pesticides we now know damage the biochemistry of the soil and help turn it into inert mineral dirt.

Working “with” nature rather than “against” it must be the way of the future. And that’s what the old-timers were arguing, correctly.

Kyle, if it weren’t for the likes of Norman Borlaug your fat ass wouldn’t be here today to dis him as being in the same class as atomic bombs.

Norm Borlaug is responsible for survival of billions of people. What about you Kyle?

“Organic” farmers, with that perpetual odour of superiority emanating from them, need to heed Jared Diamond: farming is the worst mistake in human history, and NO farming practice is “sustainable,” especially at 6.7 billion people and counting.

BTW: all that wonderful manure has to get into the field somehow, and unless you have a supply of slaves with dump carts, I suspect you’ll be using lots of diesel and gasoline to haul and spread it.

I work for a university library that is part of the Federal Depository Library Program. Meaning that we get a good percentage of all documents printed by various branches of the government. I make a habit of rummaging through the pre-WW2 USDA Farmer’s Bulletins since they are chock full of info. All kinds of low tech advice for non-chemical, low-input farming/gardening. I read one on Soil Conservation from 1918 that specifically mentioned that it’s nearly impossible to have good soil long term, without animal input and rotation with crops.

Here’s a link to an index, so you can see what kind of titles are available –

I used one publication on farmstead layout in my blog –

Check with your local librarian for more info on requesting these, or poke around online. A few ag universities have large collections they are digitizing and making available to the public.



Most corn growers in my area for fertilizer put on around 200 pounds per acre of urea(46-0-0) and 100 pounds of phosphate fertilizer (11-52-0). Current prices are $320 for the urea and $360 for the phos. A year ago this application might have cost $150 but now of course it only costs $50. If there are potassium or other deficiencies in the soil the grower would have to spend more but I think will still be well below the $150 figure. Our county average corn yield the last few years has been around 150 bushels. I realize this approach has its pitfalls and yours is a philasophical approach but I think we should try to be more up to date with our numbers. I sympathize with your farmer friend who wants to build a feedlot to avoid fertilizer costs but I’d guess when he sees the capital outlay for a feedlot to consume all of his corn he will buy the fertilizer, try renegotiate his land rents and let someone else loose money on the feed lot. Not sure how long that can go on but I wouldn’t have thought this long so who knows.
While my rant may not sound like it, I do wish more people shared your approach and I appreciate your writings.

Anyone have good statistics on the average size of the American farm over a long period of time (i.e., 100 years). I’m not a farmer nor do I have the data, but I think I know what the function looks like — a generally upward line.
When this changes and starts its downward slope, I will believe that the age of manure is at hand.

Ashamed to admit it, I once wrote a product brochure for a tractor manufacturer who shall go unnamed. They have a satellite-guided system that controls tractor steering, application and harvesting from a outer space – accurate down to the millimeter.
This is the kind of left-brained thinking that brought us atomic bombs, credit default swaps and salad spinners, gave Norman Borlaug a Nobel Prize and sent Newman Turner into obscurity.
– As your unnamed friends indicate, it seems like we’re heading for a tipping point where big farmers will start abandoning their feudal masters and taking a more integrated approach…

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