Unsponsored ... Unconventional
IN strict honesty, the heading of this chapter must be enclosed in quotation marks, for I am not a research worker in the conventional sense of that phrase. The work that originated the theories of this book is called research only for lack of a better name. It did, however, give the necessary direction to my thinking, and that is a chief function of any research.
It all began as an attempt to grow vegetables in soil which, as I discovered too late, was better suited to brickmaking. Thousands of people have made equally futile attempts, but they have had sense enough to quit when their corn stalks refused to exceed the diameter of a lead pencil or the height of a man's knee. I couldn't quit, for to quit would have left us with two thousand square feet of our back yard without grass and full of weeds, with no easy means of getting it back into lawn again.
It had been our custom always to have a vegetable garden. When we bought our home, it soon became apparent that the grass in the back yard was largely yellow dock. That fact gave excuse for digging up this section of the lawn, growing vegetables in it for a few years while we got rid of the weeds, and then either continuing the vegetable garden or putting the area back to grass. What actually happened was something far different.
A man was hired to do the necessary digging, while I went about my commercial business. When I returned later and paid him off, I discovered that what had been exposed in the digging was nothing but the toughest of white clay. The clods when dry were as sharp and firm to the touch as so much broken stone. I had had experience with several widely different kinds of soil, but this was an extreme condition which I had never before seen. Eventually the story came out, but not before we had tried for a year or two to grow something edible from that pure clay.
Our house, it appeared, had been the last one constructed on our street. The site had been low -- some three or four feet lower in places than the general level to which the surrounding lots had been graded. The owner had invited the contractors to dump on this lot. So, above the original soil that had been there lay three to four feet of plain clay of the heavy character that prevails in this former lake bed. It was just "cellar dirt," with no discernible sand, silt, or organic matter to relieve its harshness. It was so hard when dry that I could put my full weight on a sharp spade without making any perceptible impression on it. Ordinary highway traffic could have traversed it without leaving a track; though when wet it would cling to my shoes in clods as big as I could carry.
Mellowness in such a soil is unknown. It is either too wet or too dry for stirring, with only half an hour or so between the two conditions when it may be cultivated with impunity. Ordinary soils never get into such a condition, because usually there are some fragments of organic matter in them, and these greatly alleviate what would otherwise develop into a tight structure. This mass of clay had been excavated from levels far beneath the usual depth to which roots penetrate, so it had no supply of organic matter. In the language of experiment station men, it was "an organic matter check plot." Its use for growing crops would show what might be expected of land in which there was no organic matter.
In the beginning I was not concerned about soil theories, but wished only to produce vegetables for home use. However, it soon became evident that I must concern myself somewhat with fundamentals of soil management or I wouldn't get anything for my work. About this time I recalled that a quarter of a century earlier, as county agent of Whitley County, Kentucky, I had tried unsuccessfully to show farmers how to improve their very poor, sandy soils by ploughing down tall rye. All the early county agents probably tried this; and all of them learned, as I did, that it would not work. At that time I had decided that, if the opportunity presented itself, I would try to solve the problem.
The problem really was simple -- apparently. Its essence was to find a way to put large quantities of organic matter into a very unproductive soil without ruining temporarily its ability to grow crops. It seemed that so simple a problem might be solved easily. The opportunity I was looking for (in an experiment station) never came. Instead, after having been out of professional agriculture for several years, I now had the identical problem dumped rudely into my lap -- without the appropriate surroundings usually considered essential.
Such was the beginning of what proved later to be the solution of that original tantalizing problem. I tackled it without definite plan, not realizing fully for several years that I was at work on the problem first presented to me in Kentucky. It is clear, therefore, that to call this research without proper explanation and qualification would be to debase the high meaning of real research work. Such work is always preceded by carefully organized plans and pursued by accepted methods.
The elements of accident and coincidence are important in this project. It was purely accidental that of the half a dozen properties we had inspected before buying, we should have selected this one. In fact, only the night before we concluded its purchase, we had decided to buy another on the next street; but, upon notifying the owner, we found that it had been sold the previous evening to friends of ours who had suddenly made up their minds to buy. It was coincident that ours should have been the newest house on a street where none was very old. It was the merest coincidence that the site had been depressed.
More than this, the combination of circumstances in my own earlier life had favoured and prepared me for just this thing. The farm on which I grew up was bottom land, almost entirely surrounded by hills. The hills were then in process of being cleared for agriculture after having been lumbered off. I had seen the same fields pass through several alternate periods of cultivation and neglect, and had noted that the mere growth of weeds and briars had renewed productivity on such land. The bottom land we owned was farthest from the stream, the highest of the entire bottom-land area; consequently the flood water that covered it once a year did not remain long, and, therefore, did not settle out very much debris to improve the soil. This fact had resulted in the abandonment of this higher ground in favour of land nearer the stream; and, since our portion had been considered worn out by the standards of 1883, my father paid little for it. This land had declined in productivity to such an extent that its production would not exceed twenty-five bushels of corn per acre, a yield considered no longer worth the effort when there was near-by land that would grow one hundred bushels without manure, fertilizers, or any other amendment.
We owned, therefore, the poorest land in the bottoms; and my father was pitied by the neighbours when he bought it. I have since seen one-hundred-bushel crops of corn on this same land, and from its productiveness three of my brothers and sisters and I were educated through college, and two others were educated as far as they wanted to go. For many years the strip of land we owned stood out as the greenest part of all the bottoms, even though, as time passed, it no longer had the benefit of the decomposable material which the river water at one time brought. The neighbours meantime viewed with critical eyes the strange things my father was doing on that land. He hauled in manure from a near-by town, also ashes from a tannery when he could get them, and he bought a carload of fertilizers each spring, part of which he resold to any neighbours who were willing to take a chance on such stuff. And, while he was doing this, the neighbours continued to depend upon the decreasing increment of flood debris from upriver.
The sons of those neighbours now manage the land. They decided that my father's methods were worth trying. And now, after several years of the younger generation's management, that old contrast has almost disappeared, for all the bottom land has come under better management. And, incidentally, it may be said that farmers the country over now are being paid to do for their land what my father did for his throughout his lifetime. He read farm papers regularly. He tried the methods that seemed reasonable to him. He adopted what proved to be profitable. And he had the luck to be engaged in a business which, in that location, paid the highest return for liberal treatment of the land. He received good prices for staple truck crops marketed in the near-by town in the heart of what was then a coal mining area. General farming, of course, would not have repaid the costs of such treatment, either then or now; but that does not invalidate the fact that my father, starting with poor land, had made it productive. He did so at high cost. I believed it could be done at lower cost. And, the important point -- by far the most important point -- was my absolute confidence that the poorest of land anywhere could be made highly productive, since the undisturbed natural landscape is always highly productive in virtue of its continued year-after-year production.
With this background of home training, my general knowledge of scientific agriculture, and a decade of experience in professional agriculture in two states, it seemed to be a strange chance that I should buy the particular spot where the stage already had been set to force me into solving the old organic-matter problem.
Starting with the original digging in 1930, some organic matter was put in each season. In general, the quantity was increased as time went on. Eventually, a system of introducing leaves was developed which was very like ploughing, but in quite exaggerated form. A trench was made to the full depth of the spade blade. This trench was filled with leaves, sometimes dry and bulky, sometimes wet, compact, and heavy. These were tramped in. Then the soil from the adjacent strip was thrown onto these leaves as the next trench was spaded. Repetition of this process resulted in creating virtually an organic matter subsoil beneath the surface soil. By 1937 I decided that the organic matter profile (OMP) thus created was in effect simply a magnification of the sandwich OMP produced by ploughing; also that the layer of organic matter that varied in thickness from nothing to as much as four inches became an irresistible magnet for any water in the soil, as truly as if that organic matter had been blotting paper. Once that decision was reached, it became obvious that the way to determine whether such was the situation would be to remove the leaf layer at the next diigging and not establish such a layer gain. So, in the autumn of 1937, the area was dug without putting in additional leaves. Care was taken to remove the entire mass of leaves from spade depth, mixing these in with the upper layers of soil.
In 1938 the soil surface was as different as possible from its condition in any previous year. Each spring before 1938 it had been necessary, in order to enable small seeds to germinate in the stiff clay, to cover them with fine sand instead of the clay. By such tactics I had been able to grow parsnips in this heavy soil. In 1938 it was so plainly evident that nothing of the kind would be necessary that parsnip seeds, carrots, lettuce, and all the small seeds were planted without any covering other than the granulated clay that was everywhere. The whole soil surface in 1938 was as granular as sugar, and it could be raked about just as easily as if it had been sand. So changed was this condition that I planted garden peas on March 11, a week earlier than the local gardeners on sandy land were able to plant them. Every crop planted in 1938 thrived, whereas, prior to 1938 no crop could be depended upon except under special conditions.
One especially fine bit of evidence was the behaviour of head lettuce on this soil in 1938. A gardener friend of mine, with whom I was discussing the fine condition of the soil, challenged the possibility of growing head lettuce on it. He was so sure of it that he agreed to furnish the plants. Since the area was small I took only six plants. These were set into the soil, and once they had started nothing whatever was done for them except to keep the weeds down. No fertilizer was used, and no other treatment -- not even water. Late in June this gardener came at my invitation to see how his lettuce plants were doing. They had reached almost the same size as his own, and were well headed -- something he knew would not have happened in his sandy soil unless plenty of fertilizer and manure had been used. Any gardener will recognize this behaviour of lettuce as unusual; indeed, most gardeners will refuse to believe it could have been true under the conditions I have described.
On July 14, 1938, by special arrangement with the Soil Conservation Service, representatives of that agency visited this project to check the soil conditions I had claimed existed. For purposes of this test, during the soil preparation in the autumn a strip about six feet wide had been prepared as a check plot, as experiment station men would call it. This strip had been dug without removing the leaves that already underlay it, and had received an additional supply, just as the entire area had been receiving for five or six years. The purpose of this strip was to illustrate the marked difference in soil texture as between the check strip and the rest of the garden.
Using a soil auger, these men followed instructions I had previously prepared, to insure that the point would be properly demonstrated. They bored into the soil in many places outside the check strip, finding that the soil was mellow to about one foot in depth, and with moisture uniformly distributed from top to bottom. There was no concentration of water at any level, and no dry, hard layer of soil anywhere. Moreover, there was no layer of leaves to be found.
In the check strip conditions were different. The initial turn of the auger flaked up the flinty hard soil from just under the surface mulch of cultivated soil. The upper eight or ten inches of soil were quite similar to this subsurface crust. It was excessively dry, whereas elsewhere in the garden there was no excessive dryness. Beneath this thick layer was the organic matter, moist, but not noticeably wet. Just under the organic matter was the moisture which should have been well distributed throughout the entire depth of soil. This check strip showed plainly one reason why crops cannot grow immediately in a soil where a great deal of organic matter has recently been ploughed in. There was no moisture whatever in the subsurface layer, and without moisture to dissolve plant food and carry it into the roots no growth can occur. The reason for the absence of moisture was that it had been absorbed by the underlying layer of leaves -- even though the leaves did not seem moist. Their apparent innocence of moisture resulted from the fact that organic matter, as before stated, holds water within itself -- just as a sponge does.
The reasoning that accounts for the flinty zone above the organic matter is so elementary that I should be embarrassed to admit that years were required for me to reach that simple conclusion. It is based upon facts so well established as to be known even to uneducated people. Yet one more illustration may help to make clearer the way this happens.
The water had been pulled downward in obedience to two forces: the blotting ability of the organic matter, and the force of gravity. Everybody knows that a bushel basket of corn cobs, if dry, could be carried by a small child, but when wet would be a load for a man. And, if they are exposed to contact with water, the wetting of cobs is automatic. To a degree, that is exactly what had happened to the water supply of the soil above the leaves. Within three or four days after the very heaviest rainfall, the excess water from the upper layers of soil would have been pulled away from the plant roots and into the underlying leaves. This produced noticeable effects. Immediately after rain, all crops were stimulated, and made rapid growth. By the end of three or four days, this stopped short, and no further growth could be observed until after the next rain.
It was with pleasure that I had set about planning the demonstration which had been inspected by Soil Conservation Service representatives. These men, not knowing the background of experience upon which I based my conclusions, could not agree with me that my check plot illustrated the normal effects of ploughing -- in exaggerated form. The soil dryness, recognized as common following the ploughing in of great quantities of organic matter, was not caused by that ploughing, they were sure. They did not agree with my conclusions. Neither did their superiors in Washington. We had correspondence following their report, as a result of which I was eventually informed that my project had "so exaggerated the effects of a bad practice" that it could scarcely be considered of value. The letter that carried this bit of unintended self-contradiction, dated November 10, 1938, was written by a man who had spent some forty years in the service of the United States Department of Agriculture and was to retire the following week. When I replied to his letter, the answer received from Washington informed me of his retirement, and gave the obvious information that he could not reply officially.
The refusal of authorities to accept and profit by the perfect demonstration I had made of the harm wrought by ploughing was deeply disappointing. It had been clearly shown that the cause of the drying out of land, where considerable organic matter has been ploughed in, is that organic matter. There could be no doubt of it. Stung by this flouting of an obvious point which should have been accepted gracefully, I decided that a further demonstration on field scale must be made. The story of this work appears in the following chapter. However, had I known it, this second demonstration was not needed; for, without indicating that he was interested in the matter at all, one leading agronomist of the United States Department of Agriculture had taken me seriously enough to set up a demonstration. Perhaps the intent was to disprove my theories; on the contrary, the outcome of the tests completely confirmed them. (I have been informed by this agronomist that he had nothing to do with initiating this test work. However, the fact remains that no surface-incorporation work of any kind had ever been done by any government agency prior to 1937 when I began nudging the department to do so.)
The results of this official experiment proved that, by working organic matter into the surface instead of ploughing it in, the resulting grain yield could be as much as 50 per cent greater. The very first year of this trial showed such a result. So unexpected was this outcome that a report of it was published in the November, 1939, issue of Country Gentleman, under the title, "Right Side Up Farming." (George S. Pound, "Right Side Up Farming," Country Gentleman, Vol. CIX, No. 11, November, 1939, 78.) Such publication was a radical departure from traditional practice. Usually a result must have been confirmed by several years of follow-up work before the public is permitted to know of it, especially in a popular magazine. This unusual advance publication of first-year results seems to indicate a conviction among officials regarding the significance of what had happened that first year.
No special acumen was required for this "research." The only "facts" uncovered were so old they had been previously overlooked as of no possible application. The direction of the pull of gravity, and the affinity of blotting paper for liquids, could scarcely be pointed out as research discoveries; and those were the only discoveries involved. Their effects were amplified by the large quantities of organic matter employed, which accounted for their discovery. Thus, the combined effects of downward capillarity and gravity are seen to be much more powerful forces than the wishful thinking, which previously has been depended upon to keep the soil moist above a heavy green manure crop that has been ploughed in.
To have demonstrated the fact that such fundamental forces could be involved -- which had remained undetected through a century of active scientific effort to improve soils -- may be of consequence.
6. Proof on a Field Scale
THE research that revealed the absurdity of our system of tillage was done as a hobby, at scarcely any expense other than time and the failure of the effort to produce the vegetables our family needed. The later work of demonstrating the workability of the idea on a field scale could not be done so simply or with little expense. There must be implements and power. They cost money. Time must be devoted to the project; whether it should be part-time or full-time had to be decided. If full-time was to be given to this project, it had to be planned on a self-supporting basis. To justify full-time, the area must be larger than could be found at reasonable rent near town. For such an area I had to go into the country beyond the reach of suburban cost influences.
Months were consumed in the development of a general plan. Some time was spent trying to find suitable property near the city that I could buy or trade for, develop, and later move to. None was found that could be bought on terms that would leave funds for operation. Failing in that, I decided to lease land and operate it while still living in town. The land selected was eight miles distant, but was otherwise very well suited for the work I expected to do. It was sandy loam soil, which would be more workable than the clay had been in the early stages. The owner's husband reserved for his own use the entire front of the farm along the highway. This provided a screen against too great curiosity concerning the strange methods about to be used. The portion of this land that was most promising for cropping had been used all along by a neighbour farmer-gardener to grow corn and hay. Other areas had on occasion been put to garden crops. A good deal of the area had been virtually abandoned because the owner and her husband could not manage it themselves, and none of the neighbours would rent it.
After leasing the land on February 20, 1939, I waited in vain for weather suitable for seeding rye or oats, later to be disced in as green manure. Rain fell almost incessantly. Until April 15 there was not more than half a day in any week when the land was dry enough to work. Oats bought for seeding had to be sold again. For green manure, I had to depend upon weeds the land would grow before it had to be prepared for a crop. This quirk of weather was to prove a serious handicap before the season was over. It prevented the creation of the single condition upon which success with crops is assured -- an abundant supply of organic matter which may be worked into the land. (I did not realize then as I do now that it would have been possible simply to throw the seed on the land, even when it was too wet to work, and grow a green manure crop without stirring the land at all.)
Failure to establish green manure crops contributed heavily toward the financial failure of that first season's work. Had I sensed this in advance, much fruitless effort would have been saved; but, though the work was not rewarded financially, the gains in knowledge fully compensated for the monetary loss. Lessons learned through those experiences in the field made it possible thereafter to take advantage of weather rather than to be always its victim. For farmers such knowledge will be of inestimable value.
During those first rainy weeks I designed and built a crude device for locating the rows and establishing the places where seeds or plant roots were to be placed in those rows. I knew that in some circumstances green manure crops might grow so tall before the land could be worked that they could not then be completely incorporated. In such a case none of the customary planting or transplanting equipment could be used; for all machines for purposes of this kind are designed to operate by sliding through a fairly smooth soil surface. Any considerable amount of rubbish on the surface would make such implements useless. It was imperative, therefore, that I be prepared in advance to deal with plant debris on the surface, if green manure crops were so heavy they could not be put into the ground completely. The outcome of that necessity was a marker which would roll over the land, smooth or otherwise, and, without furrows, indicate the rows and the hill spaces in them. Rolling rather than sliding motion was the obvious answer. The marker was made from two discarded wagon wheels. These were fitted on their rims with lugs that would "track" the land at one foot intervals; the axle upon which they turned was designed for row widths of three, three and a half, four, and five feet. With this implement I felt confident that any surface, however encumbered with rubbish, could be planted.
I was to find later that its ability to negotiate a weedy surface was no the most notable virtue of this marker. Even more important was the fact that, every time a marker lug touched the ground, it compressed with some 150 pounds of weight a vertical column of soil directly beneath the bottom of the track it made. This compression served to reconnect the soil particles which had necessarily been separated by the stirring of the surface. Pressing these particles together again restored what we may call the "wicking action" of the soil, enabling capillary water to rise without interruption to the bottom of the marker track. Anyone who has used an oil lamp will perceive the significance of this.
Compression was the principle upon which the marker worked. Where the idea originated, I do not know. Perhaps it was the result of an illustration we used to see in one of our soil texts. The illustration was intended to show the student how a well-prepared seedbed should look. The light colour of the surface soil indicated that this loose, "well-prepared" surface soil had been dried out by wind and sunshine -- as is always true even though the area presented was supposedly ideal for seed growth. Included in the picture was a heel print. The moist condition of this compressed spot, darker in colour, proved that capillary water climbed the vertical column of soil immediately under it. The comparatively dry condition of the rest of the soil surface showed that, in the loose soil, the capillary connection with the deep underground water supply had been broken. Thirty years ago, the picture meant nothing more than a clean-cut photo of an exceptionally well prepared soil in good tilth (according to established standards). Fitted into the new scheme of soil management, it becomes a significant guide to better methods of planting seeds and transplanting plants.
It is impossible now to trace the effects of the old picture on my thinking about soil conditions during a thirty-year period. But that scarcely matters. The important thing is that after thirty years the idea actually incubated. At this writing, the incubation of the idea is about as far as the process has gone. No one, either among practical farmers or among professional agriculturists, seems willing to accept an idea so different from conventional methods of planting and transplanting.
Every crop we planted in 1939 and 1940 was established by use of this compression marker. More than eighty-five thousand plants were involved, without any artificial watering whatever. Seventy-five thousand of the plants were shipped from southern Georgia in hot weather, yet no water was used in transplanting them. In some cases this may have been unwise, but this was not the chief cause of the considerable loss of plants in 1939. In 1940 there were no losses worth mentioning.
Our method involved encasing the plant roots in soil which already was being supplied with capillary water from below. Roots laid in the marker track and covered with firmed earth were considered properly set. They stood erect by next morning, always. Exceptions to this rule were sweet potatoes set in soil where the quantity of organic matter disced into the soil had been greatest. In 1939 only one field had enough organic matter, and this was the accumulation of several years of dead weed stalks. The field was on a high ridge, and was of sand so light that summer crops had died out for lack of water. The only plants that could survive the hot summers were uncultivated ones like weeds. It was impossible, therefore, for the owner to rent this land to the neighbouring gardeners or to manage it successfully himself. That is how it happened to have grown up in weeds for several years. When I leased it, this field became the first area on which I tried to develop workable methods of discing organic matter into the soil. The weed debris was so heavy in places that it could not all be worked in, and some spots tracked by the marker failed to become moist with capillary water afterward, because a layer of underlying weed fragments would absorb the water and keep it from rising to the surface.
Such details had to be learned. Before we learned them in 1939, we lost a good percentage of the sweet potato plants that were set in this field, because the particular site they occupied was underlaid by absorbent organic matter that kept their roots from getting water. From this experience we learned to scan the marker tracks in transplanting; if the bottoms were not moist, even on a hot day, we searched for the underlying organic matter that prevented moisture from rising to the surface. A year later, after four-foot rye had been put into the surface of this field, sweet potatoes planted exactly the same way were 90 per cent perfect stand. This is good for sweet potatoes in any situation. Success depended upon the actual presence of capillary moisture in the marker track.
One highly amusing incident occurred in this connection. While the tomato field was being transplanted in 1939, one of the neighbours, having observed that something unusual was being done in our field, came over to inspect the technique we were following in transplanting. When he saw that we were using such "careless" methods, he shook his head sadly and cautioned us that plants handled so recklessly could not grow satisfactorily. His displeasure was evident when he left the field a little while later. He considered us a stiff-necked lot, unwilling to learn from a farmer of more experience. Later in the season, when we were picking the crop, he got as much pleasure from complimenting us on our superior stand of plants as we did from noting his changed point of view. He even enjoyed laughing at himself; but the whole situation was still mysterious to him.
The conventional method of transplanting large areas such as commercial gardens, tobacco fields, and so on, usually involves heavy machinery, made heavier by the load of water it must carry to provide a little for each plant. Our method, involving only two people, a hoe, and a basketful of plants, seems ridiculously inadequate by comparison. The results of this simple method, though, were far better both in 1939 and in 1940 than the customary method achieved locally. With the exception of sweet potatoes, we had better stands of plants than our neighbours had in 1939; and in 1940, because of the extremely wet condition of the land, we could go ahead while our neighbours had to wait for the land to dry out enough for their horses or tractors and transplanting machines to operate. (Incidentally, about five weeks elapsed before the land was dry enough.) The dry weather of 1939 and the excessively wet weather of 1940 seemed not to affect our results. The catch of tomato plants was virtually perfect each season.
It may seem that an unwarranted amount of space has been used in this discussion of the preparation of the land for transplanting and in describing the methods used. Justification for such extended elabouration of this matter is found in its illustrative value; for, if any doubt remains in the reader's mind as to the folly of ploughing, comparison of the water relationships that follow ploughing and discing ought quickly to dispel any such misgivings.
If rye three feet tall had been ploughed in on this land, no capillary water would have been available to plant roots next day, or even next week. Scientists agree on the drying effect of great quantities of organic matter ploughed in, though their reasoning on the subject is somewhat different from mine. The behaviour of these plants, set in compacted, disced soil, should forever dispose of any faith in ploughing. It proves perfectly the superiority of discing when great quantities of organic matter are involved.
If the purpose of breaking the land is the removal of rubbish so it will not interfere, then the mouldboard plough is the only implement to use in starting preparation of the land for crops. It happens, however, that the crying need is for a soil surface similar to that which we find in nature -- with all of the organic matter near enough to the surface that plant roots can appropriate the products of its decay. This being the object, the way to attain it is to use an implement that is incapable of burying the rubbish it encounters; in other words, any implement except the plough.
If space permitted, much could be said about the behaviour of crops on land prepared in the unorthodox fashion that has been described. The first season's crops did not produce a satisfactory yield, because little organic matter was available to supply the needed nutriment materials. Sweet potatoes on the disced weed field were the lone exception, and, had their stand been good, they would have returned a profit that season.
The selection of sweet potatoes as a commercial crop for this latitude (only ten miles from Lake Erie) will puzzle many readers. I had observed that they grew successfully in home gardens; that they had earlier been a commercial crop locally; and that yields locally averaged much higher than the average for the United States. A successful exotic crop would enable me to succeed in a market dominated by some of the country's most capable gardeners. No novice could compete with these skilled men in the production of cauliflower, cabbage, sweet corn, or lettuce; but I hoped that, with a high yielding, non-competing crop, I might survive and make some money.
My confidence in the sweet potato arose from the fact that I had produced on very thin soil, many years earlier, a small amount of this crop, the yield of which had figured about twelve hundred bushels per acre. The fact that this amazing yield was produced by soil treatment practically identical with the new methods I intended using encouraged me to hope that I could duplicate that small-scale result on a field basis. While I failed to do this, careful appraisal of the behaviour of the crop justified some important constructive conclusions.
For one thing, the sweet potato crop theoretically requires 120 days of frost-free weather to mature. Weather records show that in Ohio, where I was planting, about four months intervene between the last spring frost and the first frost of the autumn. However, in 1939 these plants produced a mature crop in just sixty days, proving that the time element is not as important as the ready availability of the wanted plant foods. Owing to the poor stand of plants, as well as to the slow start most of them got, the yield for the field was but little above the average for the country; but the speedy showing of those which did get a fair start made it impossible to overlook the implication that better mixing in of organic matter with the soil would have resulted in a tremendous crop. This one and a half acre field alone could easily have paid the entire expense of machinery and operating costs of the whole farm and produced a profit besides.
Of equal importance was the discovery that sweet potatoes produced in this relatively dry climate may not require artificial curing as do the roots produced in the much more humid climate of the Southeastern states. My crop of 1939 could have been stored successfully just as the roots came out of the ground. It is by no means certain that the crops of other seasons would be as free from moisture as those of 1939; indeed, it is known that sweet potatoes produced in my area of Ohio do rot easily, however, it may be true that sweet potatoes produced largely from organic decay are less moist than those produced in a highly mineral soil. This possibility deserves investigation.
My faith in the sweet potato as the potential mortgage lifter was high, and I had acted accordingly, by transplanting five acres of the farm to this crop. None of the land except this first field had any considerable amount of organic matter -- only the self-grown weeds. The catch of plants from the other fields was excellent, but because the substance was not in the land, these fields did not produce marketable roots. In 1940 the only sweet potatoes set out were put on the field that had done best in 1939. The catch of plants was very good, at least 90 per cent; but during the entire growing season there was not enough heat and moisture (at the same time) to permit the plants to produce a satisfactory crop.
Considering all of the evidence, it seems that, for all but the occasional, exceptionally cool seasons, the sweet potato is a dependable crop for this section, provided the land is well filled with organic matter at the surface, and provided the transplanting is properly done. It should be remembered that all of these plants were from southern Georgia, and were transplanted without watering after having been two or three days on the road in hot weather. Even with these handicaps, the catch, wherever capillary water was available when the plants were set out, was exceptional. I expect, therefore, to continue to try to produce sweet potatoes on a limited scale. Whether the product could be stored without artificial drying is really unimportant in this section, for the Cleveland market would at any time absorb the production of a few hundred local acres. The first-grade potatoes I grew in 1939 brought a premium price throughout the season.
When the outcome of the 1939 season had been analyzed, it seemed fair to assume that, had the supply of organic matter been sufficient in all fields, the sweet potato crop alone would have made it a profitable season. With this view of the matter, I was not discouraged, even though considerable money had been lost in 1939. I could not foresee, of course, that the 1940 season would be so extremely wet in the months when crops usually are getting started that the plants could not even be put in. This was true throughout this entire section. None of the gardeners succeeded in planting any considerable part of their usual acreage of vegetables. Some prepared the land repeatedly, even to distribution of the fertilizers, then did not have an opportunity to plant. I was lucky enough to get tomatoes into the ground on the only day between May 25 and July 4 that the work could have been done. Many fields were set to tomatoes in mid-July with plants that were ready for setting in mid-May. It was a very unusual season in every way. Therefore, since I received income from only about two acres in 1940, quite naturally I did not make any money. The season's effort just about paid for itself.
Like 1939, 1940 taught me some important lessons, even though it disappointed me financially. There was ample organic matter, in the form of tall rye, on every field. Seasonal conditions made it impossible to get the rye disced in at a suitable time for planting the planned crops. With the exception of a few minor crops, the entire farm income was from tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers. Each of these crops was handicapped by weather conditions, but the results in each instance were encouraging and profitable.
The tomato crop around Cleveland in 1940 was disappointing. Many growers said it was the poorest season of their experience. Extremes of wet followed by drought, and again by wet weather, produced many cracked fruits. Though there were many such in my crop, there never was a time when it was impossible to get marketable tomatoes. Most growers had to abandon their early plantings even before their later acreage began to bear. I had but a single acre in cultivation. It increased in vigour as the season advanced, and the product was in good demand at premium prices all the time. Sometimes I got as much as 25 cents a peck above the top price in the Cleveland market. One reason for this was the exceptional weight of my packed pecks. Fifteen pounds is the standard weight of a peck of tomatoes. In 1940 my crop averaged more than that. It was not unusual for a peck to weigh sixteen pounds, and many weighed seventeen. Most local tomatoes in 1940 weighed from ten to fourteen pounds to the peck. The exceptional weight of mine, and the quality it indicates, justified the premium prices I received.
The bean crop was extraordinary, too, for several reasons. At the outset, six feet of rye had to be disced down before the field could be planted to beans. And when I say down, the expression is accurate. In many places so thick a layer of rye covered the surface that the discs did not actually touch the ground. There was no help for it. If beans were to be planted in this land, they had to be planted in spite of this condition, and so they were. The marker was run over the field, spacing rows three feet apart. Wherever the marker had "walked" over the straw without even parting it, the straw was parted by hand and the beans were planted on the solid ground, covered with a hoeful of earth from near by, and left to their fate. The stand of beans was so perfect that it was commented upon by trained agricultural men who saw the plot during the succeeding weeks. This indicated to me, at least, that a finely worked seedbed may not be essential to success. Compare this method of planting with the one described by Ben Ames Williams, as I have quoted him in Chapter 2 from Come Spring.
Since it was impossible, with the marker I had, to plant rows closer together than three feet, it seemed a waste of good space to plant this area to beans only; therefore alternate rows were planted to cucumbers. This spaced the cucumbers properly; moreover, it gave me an additional crop to grow and observe. Limitations imposed by distance made it difficult for me to get the bean crop to market, as well as to get labour out from town to pick it, so it was well that no more beans than I harvested had to be handled.
Cucumbers proved more significant as objects of observation than as a source of income. Yet, considering that this was ordinary farm land, converted to experimental garden use by the discing in of a single crop of rye, it is not surprising that beans produced better than cucumbers. Beans are better suited to hard soil conditions than are cucumbers. Indeed, cucumbers are quite insistent upon an abundance of readily available plant food -- preferably decay products. In this raw soil, only partly prepared for a good cucumber crop, the quality of the fruit that actually matured was extremely high. Every cucumber was as dark green as if it had been grown under perfect growing conditions. Several grocers who took quantities said they expected to sell them as hothouse grown. There would have been no fraud, for the quality was there. From the excellent quality of this fruit, it may be determined that any land that had been prepared by a succession of disced-in crops should produce cucumbers of unsurpassed quality and in great quantity.
Beans, however, were more remarkable in their response to this supposedly crude environment. Aside from the perfect germination already described, they continued mass blooming as long as there was available water in the soil to permit it. The plants held buds for blossoms, blossoms, immature beans, and beans ready for picking all at the same time through a long period -- several weeks. Naturally, the yield had to be harvested over a correspondingly long period. Five pickings -- all full but the last -- were required. And, even after we had quit harvesting beans for market, enough late-set beans matured to provide plenty of seed for a good-sized bean field again.
Such persistence of cropping is unusual in beans. Most bean plantings are abandoned after one picking, or at most two. One local gardener who was equipped for irrigation told me that he had used nitrogen in order to stimulate bean cropping. He seemed proud to announce that he had had to pick his plants twice after using nitrogen and irrigation. My crop was produced without either, and under conditions that assuredly would have made irrigation profitable at certain stages. Considering the severity of the prevailing weather conditions, the fact that these beans produced two hundred bushels of marketable beans per acre seems to me quite important. It seems to indicate that, if the land were so thoroughly filled with organic matter at the surface that it would again begin to look black, it should then grow bean plants that would commence yielding in spring and not cease until frost in the autumn.
In all of this, no mention has been made of the fact that in 1940 no nitrogen fertilizer was used anywhere on the farm. That fact is one of outstanding importance in summing up the significance of the project. It will be obvious to any experienced reader that such crops as I have described could not have been produced without a plentiful supply of nitrogen. It will be equally clear that land of ordinary quality could not have supplied the necessary nitrogen for good quality garden products. Only black land -- black with decaying organic matter -- is ever expected to produce good crops without the addition of some nitrogen in the form of fertilizers. Indeed, without applied nitrogen, such land usually produces no marketable crop at all; and the plants exhibit a yellowish, rather than a healthy, dark green, colour. Usually, too, no crop at all results from such nitrogen-starved plants.
As far as I was concerned, these plants were nitrogen-starved for I had intentionally omitted the use of nitrogen. The reasons for its omission would be difficult to state, but in my home experience we often had too much, rather than too little, nitrogen, and for that reason we often suffered serious crop setbacks. Because of these unfavourable experiences with nitrogen, I have never believed very strongly in its application.
Full explanation of how my recent crops managed to get a sufficient nitrogen supply is given in a later chapter, the strangest, perhaps, of the whole book. It partakes of the mystery of Aladdin, along with the romance of smuggling, but it is a very true story withal. Reserved for another chapter, too, is the story of how these crops defeated insects and diseases. The success of the crops was in no way owing to the use of insecticides, fungicides, or other means of battling pests, for none of these aids was used.
The net result of these two years of field work was the conviction on my part that the human animal assumes in error that he can really improve on nature's well-designed arrangements for nourishing plants. Faced with the necessity of thwarting competitive growth in order to promote the plants he favours, man has rashly overstepped the bounds of biological propriety by performing operations on the soil which waste the very plant foods his own plants require. The troubles he has, then, are the consequences of this original error. My tests have proved that, to avoid trouble, man needs only to return to methods imitative of nature's own. Quite a cheerful discovery, that.
Next: 7. Soil by Machine
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