The Agricultural Effort and its Reward
Man's existence depends on the use he makes of the earth's green carpet; his food is derived therefrom and from no other source. Primitive man lived first by hunting and fishing, this mode of living apparently preceding all others. But inasmuch as what is hunted or caught by hook and net itself feeds directly or indirectly on the green carpet, this constitutes no exception to our statement. There are surviving examples of this way of life, which, when practiced, is estimated to support one human family to every forty square miles.
The first step forward was an improvement on hunting. Animal flocks and herds were not pursued but assembled and allowed to breed; their human guardians followed them and lived from them, showing in this a wisdom which we may still admire. Sometimes the milk, sometimes the meat, often both, occasionally the blood of the animal, constitute the food which is derived from this pastoral way of life, which is always communal, because only a whole community can look after so many beasts; and indeed this sort of existence has given rise to some beautiful forms of communal civilization. Nevertheless, in essence this mode of living is only a harvesting or gathering up process; the flocks and herds continue their lives in a natural way; they may be driven from place to place in search of the vegetable substance which is required for their upkeep, but nothing is done to maintain these vegetable crops themselves -- all is left to the bounty of Nature, which provides the alternate summer and winter pastures needed. So rich is this bounty, so wonderful is the earth's green carpet, that human communities may exist in this manner for centuries. The never failing renewal of Nature sustains and supports them.
Parallel to this method of maintaining existence by pursuit or nurture of animals came the gathering of vegetable crops off the ground. At first these were wild, as the first animals eaten had been wild; berries or fruits were found and consumed. But primitive communities soon begin to be dissatisfied with what they may find in the course of their strayings; they strive to invent means by which they can see to it that such supplies shall exist in certainty. It is one of the greatest steps forward in all human history when crops are not collected but cultivated; then agriculture begins.
Perhaps because an actual interference with the soil, the base of all living processes, is a more violent intrusion into the natural cycle than the simple driving and milking and care of animals it seems to have been initially more difficult to carry out in a proper way than the pastoral life. Animals so largely look after themselves, they are so capable of finding their own food, even their own medicinal herbs, that only a minimum of direction by man is needed, whereas very considerable efforts have to be undertaken if vegetable crops are to be sown and reaped. Certainly such vegetable cultivation begins incorrectly and imperfectly with what is known as shifting cultivation. This phrase more or less explains itself. A patch of forest or bush is first cut or more usually burnt, the seed sown, reaped, the land soon becomes exhausted, is abandoned, and the community passes on, while the bush or forest is allowed gradually to resume possession of the deserted patch. Observe that in this system only half the job is done; the sowing and reaping are mastered, but the restoration of fertility to the area whose food-producing wealth has been seized by men is left to Nature alone.
Theoretically, if enough time were given, the fertility of the reaped patch would be fully restored; there can be no doubt on that point. In practice this does not always happen; we have to reckon with that deliberation or slowness of tempo which Nature chooses to impose on most of her processes of restoration. The human shift round is swift and destructive; patch after patch is burned and never fully restored; large areas become half derelict. The search for fuel to produce a more comfortable existence is often an added deleterious practice; the trees and bushes which should spring up on the abandoned patches are themselves taken for this purpose and become increasingly scarce. This situation may end very acutely, as may be seen to-day in countries like Kenya and Tanganyika, where administrative authorities have to regulate the scanty fuel supply with the utmost strictness. But shifting cultivation with its attendant evils is not confined to Eastern Africa or even to Africa; it is worldwide and still by no means uncommon. It is a most extravagant system.
The art of cultivation is not really mastered until the art of sowing and reaping in the same spot is mastered; this implies an ability to keep that spot in such a condition that it will respond year after year; in fact, it has to be refertilized, in other words, manured; the art of manuring is seen to govern the science and craft of agriculture. When this art has been acquired by man, he may be said at last to have started his age-long career as user of the green carpet.
We are now in a position to answer the question: what is agriculture? Agriculture is an interference with Nature; it is an interference carried on for man's advantage; it should be a restricted interference; in other words, the degree to which interference may be pushed can only be within limits which must be clearly apprehended and never overstepped if disaster is not to follow.
The very simple process of harvesting seeds, any seeds, even wild seeds, is an original interference, an intrusion into the natural cycle. For these seeds were formed by the plant for the purpose of its own procreation, and if intercepted and annexed by man all this stored energy and substance is withdrawn from its place in Nature. It does not, of course, happen that every seed of a species is taken by human agency; in wild life it could not happen, for not all seeds could ever be found, and in cultivation, enough is always reserved for the next sowing. Nevertheless, the amount of what is taken from a cultivated field greatly surpasses the amount of what is left.
On what principle does this apparently risky practice rest? It rests on the presumption that Nature can sufficiently renew herself from a very small moiety of the seed she creates. In wild life only a fraction of the seeds formed germinate, but these prove amply sufficient to carry on the species; on the same principle quite the bulk of the seeds reaped by cultivation need never be resown -- they are legitimately what we eat. We profit by that amazing system of reserves which Nature has instituted; she has far more than she needs, she has this background, this vast insurance system, from which we live. The arrangement has worked since the beginning of man's settled existence, but what is not always kept in mind is that ultimately the withdrawal of harvests must be made good by the return of wastes. Eventually, in some form, at some time, loss has to be made good by restoration; the Law of Return must be observed. Unless it is there is no true agriculture, only soil exploitation.
The temporary withdrawal of natural substances for his own consumption is thus the first of man's intrusions into Nature's round.
The second intrusion, adaptation, or modification -- whatever we call it -- is the use of fixed areas and selection of crops. Cultivation of crops connotes settlement; that is, as has already been remarked, an advance on the pastoral life. In these settled areas crops are not sown indiscriminately; a selection is made. In Western agriculture this selection is absolute -- only one kind of seed is actually sown, wheat, barley, oats, roots, or whatever it may be. (The term Western agriculture in this book must be taken to include European agriculture and also the agricultures historically derived from the European system in North and South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and other parts of the world.) The Eastern races, closer to Nature in their observation, constantly mix their grains and other crops in the same fields; even so there is a high degree of selection; there is no real approach to the confusion of vegetation which is Nature's rule, not even in Chinese horticultural practice where usually several kinds of vegetables are grown in conjunction.
This is a most important point. It is inevitable; agriculture could not be carried on otherwise. But it is and must remain a wide departure from natural law. It is so important that from the outset measures have been adopted to make good. The fallow and above all the rotation of crops are nothing but devices to restore to the soil that alternation of vegetable existences which is its birthright. But the intense degree of the demand made on the earth's fertility by this inevitable human practice of the selection and concentration of crops is not to be lost sight of; it is at the very root of our final argument to recognize it and see that it inflicts no lasting injury on us all.
In its immediate effects this departure from Nature's arrangements must be conceded as uncommonly useful. It adds enormously to the amount of harvests. Without selection and concentration of crops agriculture in the true sense could not be said to exist; the human race in its present numbers could not possibly be fed. It is the basis of the agricultural effort, and no other system can be imagined which could replace it. The only necessity is to keep it within the right limits.
Above all else it allows of the carrying out of cultivation operations. These operations are arranged to manipulate the top layers of soil and are thus designed to augment plant growth. We have already remarked on the fact that any interference with the soil itself is a somewhat violent intrusion into Nature's cycle. Undoubtedly this is so, but such operations have the support of an immense antiquity; digging, ploughing, hoeing, harrowing and so forth. All the operations which prepare the soil or cultivate it, are very ancient. Their purpose is quite simple. They aim at guiding and directing the flow both of air and of water -- those two great agencies which contribute to the life of plants -- in a way most effective and stimulating to the plant. At the same time weeds, i.e. plants other than those of the selected crop (this is the only real definition of a weed), can be eliminated. This is a subsidiary purpose; the main thing is to conduct the flow of air, which is even more cardinal than the flow of water.
Why has this peculiar, we would almost say this unnatural, method of conducting air and water to the plant to be adopted? Is it so unnatural as it seems? It is not a fair imitation of the action of certain creatures, who, in the turning of the Wheel, perform most important functions? The lowly earthworm, the ant, the termite, constitute a vast silent, million-footed, myriad-handed labour force whose aggregate effort deals with every square inch of the earth's surface in every corner of the world. Their runs and burrows aerate the soil in all directions and in the most perfect way. There will be more to say about our friend the earthworm in the course of our discussion. At the moment it suffices to point out that our soil operations, though they have the same ultimate effect as the action of these and similar creatures, are much more coarsely carried out. This can scarcely be avoided; it is not possible to conceive an agricultural implement as delicate as an earthworm's gizzard; we are bound to use stronger and therefore cruder tools. But one outstanding difference in technique must be noted at the outset; our ploughs and other instruments turn the earth up; the earthworm's action is from the surface downwards. It follows that the degree of soil disturbance effected by them is just enough to induce the circulation of the air, just enough to allow the roots of the plant to thrust themselves downwards without difficulty, and not more than this; the growing plant is not shocked or injured; whereas a number of our operations, because they turn the earth up, almost amount to excavating processes. At any rate they so seriously dislocate the surface that they are necessarily carried out at intervals between the growing of crops; only a limited number of operations can be done while a crop is in the ground.
This brings us back to our question. Why do we disturb the soil at all? Why do we not leave the whole work to the earthworm? As it is, he supplements our efforts, or, to put it more correctly, he carries out an uninterrupted continuous flow of delicate adjustments, whereas we fling in with violent and disruptive action at comparatively long intervals. The explanation is in that concentration of crops which imposes this on us. A field which is sown together is also reaped together, but the act of reaping a cultivated crop denudes a given area for. the time being of active plant life; all living growth is removed; there is a stoppage, a positive pause in the natural cycle. It is to terminate this pause, to restart the revolution of the Wheel, that we are compelled to take action, and it is quite correct to take this action by dealing with the soil first, inducing it to recommence its activity. In fact, the ancient arts of digging and ploughing are instinctive and wise recognitions of the interlocking of the life of plant and soil, of their gearing together, as we called it; in order to help the plant we deal with the soil, and that is the proper way to do it. They therefore have every justification, and, if an interference with Nature, they are so strictly in the sense in which we accepted the principle of interference -- they are the best imitation man has been able to evolve of the natural processes contributing to the growth of plants; clumsy, no doubt, by comparison with the work of natural agencies, but sensible and successful and proved by age-long experience to be so.
The first stage in the agricultural effort then is to prepare the soil and keep it in the right state, i.e. cultivate it, keep it open, as the phrase is, for the circulation of air and water. The act of reaping follows, and something will be said presently about the nature of agricultural harvests and the rewards they bring. Even then the round is not completed. After the crop is reaped, the soil has again to be made ready for the next sowing-we noted that a settled agriculture, which is the only worthwhile agriculture, implied repeated sowings and reapings in the same spot. That spot has to be prepared once more for receiving the seed. It must be put into such a state as to be able to supply those raw food materials which will start germination and foster plant growth.
For this purpose it must itself be fed. Once again we find the oldest practices of mankind to be an instinctive adaptation of natural processes. Nature feeds the soil by returning to it all her wastes; we have called this the Law of Return. It is universal among all races of mankind to imitate Nature by feeding the soil with waste products. The principal waste product so used is the dung and urine of animals; the addition of human nightsoil is usual, in one form or another, and has ceased only in certain parts of the world with the introduction of modern sewage systems discharging into the sea.
There is only one variation in human methods of manuring, but it is an important one. The majority of populations of the world simply accumulate the manure in a crude state; allow it to mature a little, then spread it or dig it in; the addition of seaweed or other substances is done separately. In a later chapter we shall comment on these practices. But a few nations, and among them the Chinese, who number over three hundred millions and whose civilization has lasted over four thousand years, have adopted another method. They do not normally dig in the manure crude but first mix it with some earth and abundant vegetable matter, allowing the whole mass to decay together until those processes of breaking down are fully accomplished which we defined as the hidden half of the Wheel of Life; then only is it lightly dug in or strewn over the ground. This method is called composting, because the end product has been composed of different and varied materials. Composting is known to other races, e.g. to our own, as is evidenced by the fact that compost is an old English word. There are allusions to composting and sometimes careful descriptions in English seventeenth and eighteenth century literature and it's clear that composting was practiced in this island; but the regular use of compost to the exclusion of crude manure is peculiar to the Chinese and possibly to a few other races .
In proportion as the nations master the art of maintaining fertility are they destined to survive; it is truly a question of conquest and survival. For in effect we are trying very hard to do something very difficult; we are trying greatly to increase, augment and intensify that part of Nature's work which seems of immediate use to ourselves. Agriculture as a true art and science goes far beyond that primitive conception of snatching at the scattered bounty which wild Nature presents to us; the reaping processes are nowadays but a small climax to long and skilful preparation. Possibly if agriculture were less skilled, less difficult, less onerous, it would not have won such a lasting place in human imagination. But even the driest economist must acknowledge it a kingly occupation; it is the first and last of professions, the one without which nothing else avails.
The ultimate aim of the agriculturist is not intrusion, interception, or intervention; it is conformity to natural law giving rise to intensification. Natural processes are to be controlled not that they may be deflected or changed but in order that they may be stimulated. Results are aimed at which shall be both richer and perhaps a little quicker than what wild life would give us. The question of the speed at which we can get natural production is not so important-there is not really much action to be taken in this direction; the annual course of the seasons is too fundamental a factor of any but the most minor manipulations and animal lives for the most part have to follow their set course with only slight acceleration at our hands. But that the reward we reap is much richer than what Nature would provide without our efforts is undoubted; the cultivated plant yields far more grain, the pruned tree larger, sweeter and more abundant fruit, the domesticated animal more milk and meat. These are the rewards of agriculture and they are of the most essential worth to man. The history of nations depends on their regularity and their continuance.
Nevertheless, as though to prove that she is mistress, Nature imposes a very marked character on what we get from her. Agricultural harvests -- under which term we include all that results from man's agricultural effort, whether directed towards tillage or towards the breeding of animals -- are quite peculiar in that while they are fixed as to the times of their accumulation, they are unfixed to their amounts. Put in a simpler language this only means -- what we all know -- that the farmer cannot alter the time of the year when he must sow or the time of the year when the crop is likely to ripen; Nature fixes these for him, and nothing but disaster follows if he attempts to defy her; for he is powerless about this, and he is equally powerless, when he does reach the moment of harvesting, about the positive amount, great or small, which he can hope to get in; for this also is settled for him by Nature.
Let us take the first point. The limits within which specified tasks have to be carried out are sometimes a little wider, sometimes narrow indeed. They tend to be most elastic in temperate climates, but these climates vary so much that not a great deal is gained that way, for very early or too late sowings are often lost and weather affects most harvests in a marked degree; indeed, the very vagaries of the weather impose a great sense of urgency about securing in time what is ready and an almost equal sense of urgency about sowing in time when the soil is warm. In tropical climates the limit of a particular sowing may be just three days and no more. In all climates the farmer may be said to be most straitly held in all he plans.
At least he knows within what laws he works; if he has the energy to do what is needed, he can conform. But when he comes to the second difficulty, the amount which he shall get, he can do nothing but wait and pray; he may reap much or little. Only one thing is certain, he cannot alter that much or little, and frequently he cannot tell until the last moment or even until after his harvesting is done, how much or how little.
The farmer is thus confronted with very peculiar working conditions. It would be unreasonable to say that he has no control over his production, but it is an uncertain control, lacking in the accurate forecasting which governs an industrial concern. By some turn in the weather or other natural circumstance his well-founded conclusions may be discounted and his reasonable calculations reversed.
If sowing and harvesting are apt to be anxious processes, marketing is even more harassing; and this again is due to natural law. Since every crop of one kind ripens at much the same moment in one locality there is bound to be set up that type of selling competition which puts the seller at the mercy of the buyer; every housewife knows how a passing glut of fruit will bring down the price within a few hours. But the problem greatly surpasses the marketing of a few plums; it is fundamental in all agricultural selling, for the reason that the production of agricultural crops is so lengthy a process that the cultivator is more or less compelled to realize some kind of profit as soon as he can; he is in urgent need of his reward. Not even the so-called mixed farm off which there is a steady flow of produce of different kinds throughout a great part of the year is really exempt from this difficulty, for in regard to each separate crop there is the usual prolonged wait and the massing of the product, and each product, it is clear, sets its own price; there is not a great deal of interchange, and if there is, it more usually has the effect of lowering a previous price than anything else, the first broad-beans lowering the price of early peas and so on.
The difficulties are increased by the fact that most agricultural produce is perishable, sometimes within a few days, and that a great deal of it is bulky and heavy to transport. Its perishable nature prevents the holding of accumulations to even out the market, though grains, even roots, tea, sugar, can be held some time, while fruits and vegetables can be pulped and canned. Conservation, storage, transport are alike expensive and the alleviations secured in these ways, if considerable, usually fall to the benefit of the wholesale buyers and not to the first producer, who has to bear the full brunt of Nature's uncertainty. It is surprising that the farmer is sometimes pushed into the position of hoping for a scarcity rather than a glut? Scarcity and glut alternate in a disastrous way in fixing agricultural prices; the first is the bugbear of the consumer, the last of the produced. A kind of unholy war develops between those who grow the food and those who eat it, and that is the root of much that is evil in our modern economy.
The nature of the agricultural reward is therefore a matter for profound reflection on the part of all who aspire to make the modern world a healthy, sane, happy world. The facts very briefly indicated are apt to give rise to pessimism; it is argued that the farmer will never be able to compete on anything like equal terms with the industrialist, for the sufficient reason that what his fields produce is so entirely different from that the factory so easily turns out; his reward is and must remain inferior. He must therefore be bolstered up, as best can be arranged, by quotas, subsidies, and other reliefs, of which it may be noted that the quota and other favourite devices rest ultimately on the scarcity principle; otherwise he must console himself with the thought of the variety, interest, and pleasure to be derived from an occupation which, on the face of it, is of a superior nature.
(An estimation of the agricultural reward in such terms of money as enables a comparison to be made with industrial rewards is very difficult; the reward of the small farmer, who makes up a bulk of almost all agricultural populations, defies analysis in money terms. An indication may, however, be sought in comparisons of agricultural wages. Adversely affected by tradition, by absence of protective legislation, it is roughly true that agricultural wage rates seldom attain much more than one half, are often only one half, and occasionally even only one third, of an average industrial wage. The statement is based on a collection of detailed facts from a number of countries made by the present author; see Howard, L. E., Labour in Agriculture: an International Survey, O. U. P. and Royal institute of International Affairs, 1935, pp. 204 et sqq. )
This view has gained some credence. It is in startling contrast to the initial thought, which springs unbidden to the mind, that agriculture is after all the first of occupations. To feed ourselves is our primary necessity and it is astounding that those who undertake the production of food should not be among the most highly rewarded members of the community. For natural plenty does exist; Nature's creation has those qualities of variety, stability and reserve which we noted in our opening chapter. There is therefore no real reason why scarcity or insecurity or unevenness of supply should worry us; nor is there any ultimate justification for an uncertainty in the reward, which should follow amply on an ample contribution to the common good.
Next: 4. The Retreat of the Forest
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