Can Garden Farming Be Too Successful?


This is just mischievous philosophical musing. Don’t take me too seriously.  On the other hand…

One of my favorite  books is the classic “Farmers of Forty Centuries” by F.H. King, written in 1911. It details the way food was produced in much of Asia for something like four thousand years and still is in many places there. It was, according to King who traveled the area at that time, an amazing kind of small scale agriculture that, without chemical fertilizer or power machinery of any kind was producing more food per acre at the beginning of the 20th century than farming in America then or now. The way the Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese returned all organic wastes, including human manure, to the soil was an absolutely triumphant model of sustainable farming. Some of the production figures from that time, over a century ago, seem almost unbelievable even today, and it all happened without Monsanto Claus if you can imagine that. Author King writes of farms in Japan which were producing food enough for 240 people, 24 donkeys, and 24 pigs per 40 acres, a size of farm that in the United States at that time would be regarded, he says, as too small to support a single family. Some 500,000,000 people (the present population of the U.S. of course is around 300,000,000) were being fed in the Far East upon the products of an area smaller than all the improved farm land of the United States in 1911. These garden farms hardly averaged one to two acres each. With a climate similar to our mid-south to lower corn belt area, these tiny farms sometimes grew three and even four crops per year on the same land. So precious were organic fertilizers that a private contractor paid the city of Shanghai $31,000, gold, for 78,000 tons of human waste which the contractor removed from residences and public places at his own cost— and felt privileged to be able to do so, says King because he was going to resell it to farmers.

To maintain ultra- high production, hundreds of miles of canals were dug to carry water to outlying fields and the water was rationed carefully to the crops. Not only that, but soil that eroded into the canals was regularly removed and put back on the fields. Obviously this all required vast amounts of human and animal labor. There was no unemployment in this kind of society.

And that brings me to the thorny point of my musings. Humans being humans, and the food chain being the food chain, high production meant that the number of people grew apace. Dense populations resulted, leading to social conflict as this situation almost always does. What happened in China was especially catastrophic. Mass depopulation by war and natural disasters occurred at regular intervals. I list here only the worst examples. In the Taiping Rebellion in southern China, some 20 million people were killed, mostly civilians, between 1851 and 1864.  In the Sino-Japanese war of the 1930s, China again lost between 17 million and 22 million civilians plus over three million soldiers killed or wounded. Some of the worst natural disasters in history occurred along the Yellow River where people settled densely to take advantage of the rich alluvial soils. Although “rural” in occupation, these settlements were urban in population density.  In 1887 between 900,000 and 2,000,000 people drowned in a single flood there. Learning nothing evidently, in 193l, a million to 3.5 million more drowned in another flood, deemed by some historians the most tragic event in history. In 1937, 500,000 to 900,000 more drowned when Chiang Kai Shek blew up the dikes on the Yellow River to stop the Japanese army.

But population increases continued because of such a resilient food production system. Finally the eaters outpaced the food supply. When my aunt went to China in the late 1930s as a missionary, she found people pounding rocks to powder for food. The excellent garden farm productivity and the tragic loss of life were not enough to offset the irrepressible population growth.   Eventually China enacted what seems like an extremely drastic law, limiting families to only one child. Are humans that helpless when faced with the urge to procreate?

Maybe a better way would be to encourage expensive, high tech, Monsanto- type farming to Asia. Its inability to match the productive capacity of China’s traditional organic farming might at least discourage irresponsible population growth. Imagine an ad for international agribusiness:  Our goal is to bring down population in line with farm production.


After stumbling on this site after following a link from Southern Seed Exchange, I have to say I’m not sure what I like best. The clear-eyed, reasonable posts from Mr. L. or the group that congregates here. Proves that intelligent, observant individuals can disagree without being disagreeable. I learn something every time I come in here. I have been using poo for over 40 years. And, well, to put it not so gently, peeing in the water I’m packing to the garden repels invaders as well as providing nutrients. Good old fish fert is like a cattle call to raccoons! Human waste has a ‘tang’ to it at first, I’ll give you that. But it doesn’t have the weed seeds that barn waste does, that, if not composted really well, will give you an unwanted crop!
Unless I’m mistaken, I think I heard (good old NPR), that, in China in those days, if you came to a meal as a guest, and didn’t leave a ‘deposit’ before you went home, it was considered poor form.
Well, gotta scoot. Big food gardens call me outside to my little dab of Paradise here in SE Ohio, Appalachia. (Where fewer people grow food than you’d think). I wonder why they bothered to live out here, since they sure don’t embrace the concept of self sustenance.


You lost me at “human manure” 🙂

But in all seriousness, I don’t think one can just say “overpopulation” doomed China — their system of governance has limited the ability of people to adapt. The best population control mechanism is free market capitalism with at least a basic safety net, since it reduces the number of children that people need or want to have (indeed, perhaps too much so).

How is Chinese overpopulation responsible for Imperial Japan’s brutal aggression, or Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution?

I was driving along the other day listening to NPR and they announced that the next segment would be something about increasing food prices and the resultant increase in interest in farming. I immediately and quite naively jumped to the conclusion that I might be hearing something regarding an increase in small farms or of marginal land being returned to production in places like Appalachia.

It was quite the opposite. It was a segment on investment firms buying up stock in large scale farming operations. The example was a Portuguese firm leasing large tracts of land to grow cash crops in Africa and as a result displacing subsistence farmers.

So it seems that our 401k’s could be invested in firms displacing farmers in Africa in order to feed displaced farmers in Asia that are working or hoping to work in factories producing stuff for export to barely employed grandchildren of displaced farmers in the West.

Signed, Grandson of a hard working Appalachian subsistence farmer

The main point Gene mentions :”Humans being humans” in my opinion, has little to do with population numbers, but a lot to do with how humans interact with rivers .

The dikes along the Yellow River were built (as I understand the hydrology), because of denuded hillsides resulting from the harvest management of the plant material that covered the mountainous watersheds of the Yellow River. (Lowdermilk described this in his famous NRCS Pamphlet of ancient and surviving cultures , I think the title is something to do with 7,000 years of agriculture; pardon my poor memory and I don’t have the Pamphlet in front of me) Poorly managed grazing and excessive harvest of even the smallest brush for firewood denuded the hillsides to the point that precipitation didn’t really infiltrate the soil, but instead contributed to rapid and excessive runoff with tremendously excessive erosion. In essence, the, what I refer to as : “coppice principle” , was exceeded, meaning there was insufficient time allowed for regrowth of woody material and grazeable plants before another harvest occurred.

A few months ago, a USDA employee who was describing conditions he observed in Afghanistan during his service tour there on behalf of USDA described similar conditions to me. (Vegetation grazed off or harvested for firewood , massive floods, with massive erosion, followed by dry channelized streams.) It seems history is repeating itself.

Thusly, just as is currently occurring in Afghanistan, sediment loads far in excess of the “normal ” bed load would be discharged down the Yellow River and be deposited once the river entered the former alluvial flood plain where normally, in the absence of dikes, normal sediment loads suspended in the flood waters , would spread out and deposit in meanders. The meanders eventually were cut off by the sediment deposition, thereby creating oxbows,which provided rich habitat for a variety of plants, fish and wildlife.

In consequence of diking, all that excessive sediment load including the normal load and anthropogenic erosion was confined to the diked river, Therefore, when flow velocity was reduced, sediments dropped out to the river bottom. Instead of dredging sediment, the solution was to build higher dikes. So instead of a bit of high water in the floodplain that could be dealt with by boat travel, or houses built above the flood levels, whenever the dikes were breached the sudden onslaught of water and sediment emulated Noah’s Ark conditions with attendant massive losses of life..

Now please note; I have never been to China to verify these conditions, but I can observe the same phenomenon I just described in my home valley where the Yakima River flood plain was diked to “Control Flooding” and convert the flood plain with its attendant riparian vegetation and a variety of lotic “flowing” wetlands into irrigated farmlands. Not surprisingly, farmers bemoan the spring runoff of flood waters downstream as a loss of water that could be used for irrigation during dry summers (We can’t grow much of anything here without irrigation) so they advocate for more dam storage, evidently they’re not recognizing that the floodplains provide storage at no cost.

In fact the floodplains and their attendant storage of water that could be released to open channels or plant roots during warmer periods of the year provided for abundant wildlife and amazing runs of salmon before widespread development of the floodplains occurred. These salmon runs are now either extinct or supported by anthropogenic means such as hatcheries.

Hence, if you wish to sustainably obtain agricultural products from the floodplains then simply diking the rivers and irrigating the floodplains is not really the most sustainable or viable long-term method whether in America or China.

In contrast, within the book I recently read entitled “1491” (sorry I don’t recall the author’s name) societies of humans in the Americas living along rivers were described. ( most societies, both ancient and modern do or did in fact live along rivers or are otherwise strongly connected to rivers) . These societies in the Americas learned to live more in harmony with rivers than did the Chinese live with the Yellow River.

Some remnants of these American societies, both archaeological artifacts and surviving remnant cultures descending from these ancient societies, still are visible. Much of the ancient cultural practices these societies lived by were lost to common knowledge as a result of pandemic diseases brought in by invading Europeans. Only recently are they being rediscovered.

A common cultural thread of these societies seems to have been to use the flood plains to advantage by planting useful food bearing trees that were, if not actually native, at least well adapted to local conditions, including seasonable inundation.

During flood times, poling canoes carved from logs actually provided an easier means of travel and transportation of goods than beating through thick dense jungle on foot. Also, fish and other aquatic life spread out to feed on the floodplains and provided good protein to the humans there. Evidently the human populations thusly supported were quite large, prior to disease decimation, but the lifestyles were different in many respects from the lifestyles described in “Forty Centuries”.

If I was given a preference, I would prefer fishing, poling canoes and harvesting fruit for fresh eating or drying rather than spending day after day bent over all day to grow rice and vegetables, Of course lets not forget the joy of taking breaks by hauling loads of human feces to your fields and the necessity of cooking all of your vegetable foods just to avoid illness or parasites from eating the fecally fertilized crops. (I’m referring herein to an essay Robert Rodale wrote in an ancient issue of “Organic Gardening and Farming” , wherein he described a trip to China with evidently untreated human feces used as fertilizer. As Gene so aptly describes composted humanure is another matter altogether).

Emulating the ancient flood plain cultures of the Americas described in “1491” and even improving them seems to me a better model to emulate than the “Forty Centuries model; just watch out for the disease epidemics brought in by foreigners.

Of course advocating living with rivers by tearing down dikes and planting adapted food bearing trees and perennial forage and food plants instead of corn, wheat and soybeans might not be a way to win a popularity contest in the Americas of today.

Just think of the democratizing effect that anyone with a bit of skill could or can build canoes from abundant raw materials and use them for transportation of themselves and goods such as dried fruits and fish; where would that leave the tractor and vehicle manufacturers? Would their services be so necessary as they currently are?

In summary, disregarding the means wherein the Chinese people fed themselves (or not), the problems described in Gene’s essay are essentially symptoms, not necessarily of population numbers, per se, but how the human populations adapted (or not) to their chosen river influenced landscape. from headwaters to river mouth. An ancient teacher stated it best, “(roughly quoting from memory): ” If you would take care of your rivers, look first to the mountains”. (For those of you who live in flatlands, he was meaning to take care of your entire watershed.)

I enjoyed your essay as always, but never liked the book Farmers of 40 Centuries very much. In addition to the natural disasters and wars you mentioned, China had 1,828 officially recorded famines between 108 BC and 1911. Not exactly the model of national self sufficiency I would want for any country or people.

At the same time in China there was tremendous output of silk and tea from the historic equivalent of big corporate farms. Maybe the cottage agriculture was so intense because of a simple lack of agrarian justice/land reform?

John Seymour traveled a lot of the world. He noted that wherever there was true hunger and want, there were always landlords in the picture.

tokyobling: absolutely fascinating. I had not heard of restaurants built over ponds like this. Stephen Johnson: thanks for mentioning Holy Shit in connection with Farmers of Forty Centuries. I wanted to make that connection myself but it would have sounded like bragging. Gene Logsdon

I don’t disagree, and yet creating more humans may have creating more food as its motivation, as a farming family might think.

As energy declines, we may see a return of the large farm family in order to work the farm. While this may seem short-sighted from the top of the energy spike, it may seem necessary in the future.

These kind of roadside toilets were still in place in 1996 when I traveled through southern China. One roadside bus stop in a small village without electricity had no toilets but an open field where dogs would come in and feed on the protein rich leavings of bus travellers. Later these relatively well fed semi-wild dogs would be caught and butchered in the local markets. In Vietnam around the same time, I often visited restaurant built on sticks in the middle of ponds growing the fish consumed in the restaurants. The toilets of the restaurant was of course located right on top of the very same fish pond, the perfect recycling of protein. In Okinawa up until 1945 the farmer’s toilets had an open back that led straight down to the family pig’s feeding trough, but this was stopped by the US occupation administration as it was deemed unhygienic.

Today even in a high tech industrialized country like Japan this kind of intensive, nutrient rich farming on very small plots still feed millions of people, even though the US lead TPP initiative is trying to hijack the natural agriculture of millions of Asia to replace it with American style fossil fuel rich unsustainable agriculture.

I am not optimistic about the future of Asian agriculture, but I am fighting against the TPP and other forms of unsustainable commerce-based food production being pushed by powerful western nations.

Gene, thanks for reminding me of that classic book,”Farmers of 40 Centuries”.I read it more than 20 years ago, it being recommended in one of Eliot Coleman’s books,and am now inclined to re-read it,it is that good.I can recall reading passages aloud to my wife – the same way I recently read aloud from your “Holy Shit”. They are both amazing books, covering some of the same ground,and bring to the fore some questions we’ve yet to answer satisfactorily.

“When it comes to population and food, it’s difficult to identify which is cause and which is effect.”

What do you mean, Jan? It seems plain that food comes first… after all, that’s what the humans are made of. Less food, less humans. (And more food, more humans, ceteris paribus.)

I read this and I can’t help but wonder in awe at the ignorance and outright stupidity of the so called “leaders” and “highly educated” folks of the world when it comes to agriculture and food production methods. If good common folks of today, and our not so distant past, can figure out how to farm and garden in a responsible, sustainable manner, why is it so hard for the higher ups to understand that these are the people that are going to feed the world? When the Earth finally runs out of patience and spews forth the evfluvia of chemicals that we have been wantonly, and irresponsibly pumping into her for the last 60-70 years, my family and I for one will continue to nuture our small patch of land, and attempt to pass on to others the same reverence for what we do. And hopefully keep the small, modern day family farm alive for future generations to enjoy, and benefit from.

And I will try real hard not to be snickering behind my hand, saying we told you so!

“Our goal is to bring down population in line with farm production.”

Love it! Gene, you never cease to provoke thought.

And yet, in a low-energy world, procreation is both a way of supplying labour and old-age pension. When it comes to population and food, it’s difficult to identify which is cause and which is effect.

Today, we supply labour and old-age care based on fossil food we dig from beneath the soil rather than current sunlight we take from the soil up. In the not-so-distant future, the birthrate may have to increase to make up for diminishing fossil food.

It’s often said that empowering women reduces the birth rate. I agree with the “power” part of “empowering,” at least in the sense of physical power. But I’m willing to bet that when women’s access to energy declines, they will return to breeding their labour force and old-age pension. And what will the poor Earth do then?

As the Chinese curse says, interesting times ahead, for sure!

When I see the blurry photos in King’s book, I wonder where the pheasants would live? The denudation of hills because of harvesting for firewood and compost materials does not impress me either. I am wary of romanticizing cultures.

I have some similar thoughts about landscapes that feature intesively-grazed pastures. No headges, no pheasants, no brush. Ray Ford has written in SMALL FARM (Canada) that he will consider leaving old-growth grass for boblinks if he continues intensive grazing.

When wealth rises the rate of population growth declines, and in time total population declines due to lack of breeding stock. This is true no matter how much food is produced since food is pretty much irrelevant so long as there is enough for minimal nutritional needs.

The problem with subsistence farming is that it does not produce wealth, it produces work and the need for more labor. It’s a death spiral relieved only by external forces, as you note, that reduce population. The 7 horsemen serve.

When I was a child and saw the extensive terrracing in pictures of pre-1940 China I was amazed that they could farm all the way to the top of steep hills. As I look around modern US I see wasted space, underutilized land all in the name of ever larger machines, even computer operated, producing single crops year after year. King corn is not good for sustainable farming and the constant pouring of petrochemicals on the soil is destroying the microbes, bacteria and other life forms that made the US midwest the finest soil in the world. We are attempting to return to sustainable farming on our little acreage, rotating crops, recycling animal waste and plant waste back into the soil striving to reach a balance of animal/vegetable production. Corn takes to much energy to be cost effective on our small acreage but our animals for milk and meat are thriving. Sometimes we can learn from history and understand that all old ways were not bad.

I think it was in the book “My Ishmael” where the conclusion was the population will increase as long as there is enough food.

In my opinion, Monsanto products are not food, but they do sustain life long enough to reproduce.

Maybe the various sexual preferences are a genetic awakening which will limit population growth.

Wars, famine and natural disasters have always been part of the human experience and have long served as a crude form of population control. Nevertheless, ever since I read King’s book a few years ago, I’ve felt much more hopeful about the oncoming post-petroleum world. If we could apply to the ancient Chinese model the most resilient and helpful technologies that we’ve developed over the past one hundred years, the farmers of the next forty centuries could carry us through.

One cannot help but wonder whether the Chinese would have been able to balance their population and food supply if they had only had access to contraception earlier in the game. their ability to produce food on small farms should be an inspiration for all of us. On the other hand, I wouldn’t wish Monsanto on anyone!

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