Soil Science Spelled It Out A Whole Century Ago


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From GENE LOGSDON

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. Farming for profit, farming to feed a growing population, required returning to the soil the fertility lost when crops were taken off the farm.  Intelligent cultivation, legumes in the rotations, green manure, animal manure, and replacing minerals for those lost by cropping were all essential. Hopkins was “organic” not because he was against chemical fertilizers but because he thought they would always be too expensive. Rock phosphate, natural calcium and raw potash were cheaper and got the job done with intelligent cultivation and proper rotations. But his overall take on soil fertility was chilling. No matter how clever the rotations, or how scrupulously the farmer tried to use all the manure he had available, the soil could not maintain itself without outside additions of nutrients if crops were going to be removed to feed, clothe and shelter increasing populations. It is fun to try to figure out ways to make a farm totally self-subsistent but it just ain’t so, said Hopkins.

It is hard to keep in mind that already in 1911, farming in America was already two and a half centuries old. My home farm here in Ohio had been cultivated for fifty years longer than the land I worked in Minnesota in the 1950s and you could tell the difference. The first fields on the east coast were cultivated around 1634 and those farms were for a century quite profitable. But by 1910, many thousands of those acres lay idle. No hue and cry was being raised, except for a few like Hopkins, because new land to the west had always been available. Against the evidence which Hopkins kept giving, cornbelt farmers and even some agronomists without the perspective of history, thought their land was timelessly fertile just because they hadn’t had time to use up the native nutrients yet. Hopkins predicted inevitable famine as had occurred throughout history when land “wore out.” He was famously wrong because he did not see the enormous role that mined and manufactured fertilizers would play in making his worries unfounded. But a century later, we surely must start thinking about how to keep our fields fertile without what still seems to some as an unlimited supply of these off-farm fertilizers. Or perhaps in the long run, these fertilizers will become, as Hopkins believed, too costly and the poorer people will starve again.

The most insightful passage in the book, it seems to me, goes like this: “I keep in mind always that we are feeding much grain to domestic animals, an extremely wasteful practice so far as economy of human food is concerned; because as an average, animals return in meat and milk not more than one fifth as much food value as they destroy in the responding grain consumed; and as we gradually reduce the amounts of grain that are fed to cattle, sheep and swine, we shall also gradually increase our human food supply. Ultimately our milk-producing and meat-producing animals will be fed only the grass grown upon the non-arable lands and possibly some refused forage not suitable for human food or more valuable for green manure, unless we modify our present practices…”

What courage it took to say something like that right when agriculture’s idolatry of grain was soaring. Could Hopkins have been the first prophet announcing the kind of grass farming that would rise in popularity a century later? Or will he still be wrong, not seeing that the amount of mineral fertilizers available is so great that we can not only feed humans and livestock with grain but our cars too?
~~

17 Comments

Thanks for finally writing about >Soil Science Spelled It Out A Whole Century Ago | The Contrary Farmer <Loved it!

Gene,
As you generously mentioned in an earlier comment thread that I could use content from this blog in our magazine, I will take you up on that and would like to publish this blog entry so others can become aware of the work of Mr. Hopkins.

God bless,
Dan Grubbs, editor
Stewardculture Magazine

Lorenzo Levi Brown June 1, 2015 at 6:45 am

book is on google books as pdf

People might be interested in the Soil Atlas that has come out. Here is a link to the pdf

https://www.boell.de/sites/default/files/soil_atlas_2015.pdf

Ken,

I completely agree with you regarding Gene’s blog and books as required reading in any agriculture curriculum. I know I would have benefited from reading Gene when I was in the College of Agriculture. HOWEVER ironically I think Gene would be/is viewed as a “bad boy” by any of the Land Grant Universities. Universities today are in bed with Big Ag (just look at all of the endowed Chairs financed by the Big Ag companies). I do see more programs in sustainable agriculture at the universities. However I have not had any experience with anyone that has graduated from one of these programs and am circumspect of how these programs are funded and the true content. I have told the story before about going to a lecture about wetlands with the Ohio Drainage Hall of Fame right outside the lecture hall! Conflict of interest?

Thanks for introducing the work of an important, albeit lesser known, author. Soil health, while not an area of interest for most, is in fact vital to our survival as a species.

Right now, we’re working on bringing back 6 acres that’s been used and abused by Big Ag for as long as anyone remembers. Lacking in the necessary organic matter, this densely compacted soil, even after a pass with the disc and a couple of runs with a harrow, leaves behind countless “moon rocks” that defy crumbling. Contrast that with this weekend’s project. Just a few feet off the tillable land that’s been worked hard for over a century, I set about installing a new hitching post for my team in some fresh ground. As I dug each post hole I unearthed 21″ of rich black, crumbly soil before I came close to hitting clay. A sad reminder for what the farm land was, and hopefully will be again.

I had never heard of Cyril Hopkins before now. I must say I learn something almost every time I read this post. Keep it up Gene!

I do believe the Land Grant Colleges need to have as part of the Ag coursework all the students subscribing to your blog. That would surely open a few eyes and maybe spark some needed discussion in our Ag schools. You might even suggest a must read list.

I would not mind having that myself!

    Unfortunately, most of the ag schools of land grant colleges are too dependent on funding and subsidy from agribiz and will not likely violate the desires of agribiz, though the evidence is palpably clear that the Green Revolution is a failure.

“I had sinned against the wisdom of our Creator, and received just punishment for it. I wanted to improve His handiwork, and in my blindness, I believed that in this wonderful chain of laws, which ties life to the surface of the earth and always keeps it rejuvenated, there might be a link missing that had to be replaced by me- this weak, powerless nothing. What might justify my actions is the circumstance, that a man is the product of his time, and he is only able to escape the commonly accepted views if a violent pressure urges him to muster all his strength to struggle free of these chains of error… After I learned the reason why my fertilizers weren’t effective in the proper way, I was like a person that received a new life. For along with that, all processes of tillage were now explained as to their natural laws. Now that this principle is known and clear to all eyes, the only thing that remains is the astonishment of why it hadn’t been discovered a long time ago. The human spirit is a strange thing. Whatever doesn’t fit into the given circle of thinking, doesn’t exist.”
-Justus von Liebig

Liebig realized in his own lifetime that chemical fertilizers didn’t work as people had hoped, or as they were portrayed, but it was too late by then – an industry had already appeared. It’s amazing what incredible knowledge was lost, or largely left behind, with the appearance and adoptance of chemical agriculture. “The Apple Grower” gave me a lot of insight into how much had been figured out over a hundred years ago in the management of agricultural systems that was promptly throw by the wayside once one suddenly had Lead Arsenate, and soluble fertilizers at their disposal…

Very interesting post, enjoyed it.
Interesting that he tried to dress up his scientific study in a novel form, it may work for some people, e.g. I was recently reading David Haskell’s book The Forest Unseen, in which he describes much of the science of biology in a poetic and sensual manner and it sticks better with unscientific folks like me.🙂

On chemicals being too expensive, back in the old country, in Lithuania through 1970-80s chemical way of treating soils and plants was still much too expensive for most, and natural/home/organic remedies were used. Who would have guessed chemicals would be cheaper than manure and Coca Cola cheaper than water. .

If you go to http://www.archive.org and search for Cyril G. Hopkins you will find many articles and a few books by Mr. Hopkins.

It is impressive to think he knew that so long ago and decidedly unimpressive to see he was totally ignored. I wonder what state our soils would be in these days if he had been listened to? I am guessing the dust bowl of the 1930s may have been averted.

In a BBC production called the War Time Farm there was a comment then that struck me, that many farmers wondered if too many animals had been culled at the start of the war, because there wasn’t enough manure to put into the land to feed the soil and it was suffering as a result. It makes me more determined to try and live gently on the land

Well it seems that both biosolids (the fancy politically correct name for treated sewage sludge) and organic waste in cities must be returned to the soil. Which fact was recognized by the author scientist in 1911 and is still true today.

Sadly too many of our people who are well-removed from the land do not recognize this. Just last week I received a call from a friend complaining about a municipality dumping sewage sludge or biosolids in what was, in his opinion, a poor place to dispose of it, which was near his home (The acronym NIMBY as in “not in my backyard”, came to mind.) I pointed out that if the biosolids material was windrowed and regularly turned to maintain aeration it becomes essentially pathogen-free compost, or carbon for the soil with biologically available plant nutrients.

Note that I learned all of this good information through the writings of a nice gentleman named Gene Logsdon. Then I put the information to use in my own life wherein it was verified that recycling organic nutrients does indeed work very well .

I predict that only when well-to-do people are actually becoming hungry will maintaining true soil fertility become a true national concern. By that time it may be too late unless those of us who are contrarians actually influence society toward a different, more sustainable path.

However I do see television programs which actually advocate for recycling of organic materials and using them locally, even on top of big city buildings to produce food and other desired plants and even animalls including fish so there may be hope for our society yet. /jmt.

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