Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture

by J. Russell Smith, Sc.D.

Chapter III -- The Plan -- An Institute of Mountain Agriculture

Fig. 3. The author, a six-foot man, stands in the corn beneath the arrow lower right. The worthless stalks by the hat measure the ruin of the hill -- typical of forty-five American states.

Fig. 4. South Central Ohio. Nobody loves this land. Therefore it goes swiftly to economic Hades. It was a good field, and is now typical of hundreds of thousands of hillsides. (U. S. Forest Service.)

Fig. 5. No gully, but plucking raindrops have carried away many feet of top soil in this Algerian wheat land. (Photo J. Russell Smith.)

Those who have read this far in this book will at once appreciate that a vast work is proposed. It is nothing less than the deliberate creation of a whole new set of crop trees and then to make a new agriculture based upon the use of these new crop trees.

This is a work in which some results may be had in a few years. It is also a work which, once started, might enrich each of many succeeding generations.

It could employ the full time of a man, of ten men, of a hundred men, of five hundred men. After it really got under way, it might employ as many men as it takes to man and operate a battleship. Oh, for a battleship! That is to say the money required to build, maintain, and operate one. What millions of acres of land it might save! What billions of wealth it might make! What tens of thousands of homes it might teach us how to support in places where now the chief crop is gullies, waste, and struggling briars!

The Kinds of Work to be Done

Such an institute would have a variety of work to do:

  1. Finding parent trees from which to start crops.
  2. Hybridizing to produce better parent trees.
  3. Maintaining testing grounds to try out the new trees as trees -- testing them by ten thousands to find the good trees.
  4. Operating experimental farms to try out the new trees as crops.
  5. Making studies in farm management. Farm management is a great art. I have seen well-educated persons take Soil Conservation Service devices and use them in a wrong way, so that the good thing could not succeed. There is a great gulf between knowledge and judgment (gumption). Judgment telleth how to use knowledge. There are thousands of college and school courses in knowledge, but I do not recall hearing of one on judgment.
  6. Carrying on publicity work to get the new idea into the conservative mind.

1. Finding Parent Trees

The one original parent Baldwin apple was born by chance in a fence corner. It was propagated by grafting until there were millions of Baldwin apple trees. If this same process were applied to the best wild crop trees now growing in the world, I am sure that the hill fields from Massachusetts to California could become more valuable than much of the best nearby farm land, and be covered with orchards of bearing trees like the best wild

These crops would be for humans. For animals the much wider expanses of hill land should be covered with

Professor C. C. Colby, of the University of Chicago, says the Highland Rim County of East Tennessee is "alive with food in the fall -- butternuts, walnuts, hickorynuts, chestnuts, persimmons, and pawpaws, all in great abundance and lying on the ground."

It is easy to speak of an orchard of best shagbarks or acorn-yielding oak, but where are the best wild parent trees for these orchards? No one knows where they are. The task of finding the parent trees may be long and difficult. We see how great it is when Sargent mentions fifty species of oak trees as being native to the United States. There are also natural hybrid oaks scattered about the United States, many of them, but no one has any idea how many or where most of them are. Sudworth, United States Forest Service, said there were one hundred and seventy species of oaks. There are many varieties of hickory. The honey locust tree and the persimmon, species of great promise for crop production, are each growing on a million square miles of land. How would you find the best tree? When it comes to persimmons we need a half dozen best trees; one ripening in August, one in September, one in October, one in November, one that drops its fruit in December, and yet another which drops it in January. There are such wild persimmon trees, fruitful trees too, already growing in the United States. This is a tree of astonishing fruitfulness, growing wild on inuch of the poorest land in the United States.

Yet more! Foreign countries need to be carefully searched in the quest for parent trees. Something has already been done by the U. S. Department of Agriculture in a more active period of the past, but the task is only begun. It may be that the best crop trees are growing in some little valley in Spain, Portugal, Jugoslavia, Asia Minor, Persia, the Himalayas, or the remote interior lands of southwestern China, which seems to be such a wonderland of trees. Nor should we forget South America, Africa, and Australia.

2. Hybridizing to Produce Better Trees

There is little doubt that we could start a good tree agriculture by merely propagating the best wild trees, but we must remember that a new force came into the world with the turn of the century. That force, known as Mendel's Law, reduced plant breeding to a science -- genetics. Plants became as clay in the hands of man. If agricultural science has worked out any result it is this: The purposeful hybridization by man of existing trees can produce trees that are much better for agricultural purposes than those nature has produced. This work should use both native and introduced trees. A dozen men could at once go to work on the various oak species, a half dozen on the chestnuts, and another half dozen on the hickories. The magnitude of such an undertaking may be grasped when we realize that one species of apple has given rise in America to over seven thousand named varieties, and new ones and better ones are being made every year.

The hybridization work of an institute of mountain agriculture should amount to hundreds and thousands of cross pollinations every year. Each hybrid seed would have to be planted and grown to fruiting age unless it demonstrated worthlessness at an earlier stage. A man in Louisiana hybridizes sweet potatoes. Then he sprays the hybrids with the germs of all diseases. if they die, he knows it early.

3. Testing Grounds

The best hybrids should be tested to determine their possibilities as crop producers. This would cover many acres of ground and need a considerable staff of men.

4. Experimental Farms

It is one thing to tell the farmer that here are good black walnuts or chestnuts or acorn-yielding oaks or honey locust trees, and it is quite another matter to organize these into an effective farm. That is a matter of agricultural economics and farm management; so the institute should have a number of farms in which tree crops were worked out into a system to make a well-balanced and profitable use of land, well-balanced use of a man's time, and good, safe living for the family who depended upon it. Before the farmer plants a new thing he wants to know what an acre of it will yield over a term of years.

5. Publicity

An institute of mountain agriculture, as outlined above, needs an expert in publicity on its staff. In the beginning years he could be chiefly employed in the very difficult task of getting the attention of almost every landowner in the United States, of every tree lover, and of every hunter, vacationist, botanist, and Boy Scout, so that we might find those rare parent trees that are standing in fence corners, back fields, distant pastures, and remote mountainsides.

Another task for the publicity expert would be to attract the attention of the American farming public to the fact that there could be such a thing as tree-crop agriculture, and that some crops are now ready to use. This is just as much a task for a publicity expert as is a press campaign for a candidate for the Senate or a corporation that wishes to raise fares or put the public to sleep. The sedate government bulletins already published are helpful, but experience shows that they do not fill a very big place. These bulletins are so safe, so sound, so dead, so unhuman, so many times edited by the man higher up, that they are usually only raw material for a person who can write. And if a bureaucrat could write and did, -- ? The task of spreading a new idea in agriculture is most difficult.

The history of agriculture shows a conservatism probably unequaled in any other phase of human activity.

Many Institutes of Mountain Agriculture Needed

Suppose a man who started an institute of mountain agriculture lived in North Carolina and worked out a North Carolina agriculture; the interested farmer from Massachusetts discovers that few of the North Carolina varieties and practices fit his conditions. This shows at once that we need several institutes of agriculture in locations where their findings are adaptable for considerable areas. (See Chapter 26 and World Map, Fig. 138.)

6. Erosion Survey

The objects of an institute of mountain agriculture might be classed as twofold -- to create a new wealth through new crops and to save our soil resources from destruction by erosion. For the latter purpose we need to know what the danger really is. The thoughtful part of the American public might be shocked into doing something about it if they could be made to understand what soil erosion has done to China, Syria, Greece, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Ohio. A few well-planned and well-manned expeditions making an erosion survey of foreign lands and our own country would bring back material which might be one of the scientific sensations of the day. In the hands of good publicity experts it might make this reckless American people see that we are today destroying the most vital of our resources (soil) faster and in greater quantity than has ever been done by any group of people at any time in the history of the world. If our people could be made to feel this, they would try to stop it. Here are several highly suggestive facts: (1) The sight of the ruin of central and western China by erosion burnt the soul of Walter C. Lowdermilk; it set him on fire. He wound up in the U. S. Soil Conservation Service. (2) Lowdermilk spent several months studying the ruin of the Mediterranean world by erosion. (3) The war stopped him in mid-career. (4) The Federal economy wave clipped the Soil Conservation Service; its staff was nonpolitical. Lowdermilk, more valuable for the ultimate national defense than a regiment, went out -- but look, look up the results of his foreign survey.

From the Forest Service, Department of Agriculture
This map shows fifteen different types of forests having areas of considerable commercial importance. Each type of forest represents a type of tree growth and might require a special experiment station to work out tree crop possibilities for that type of area. This same map shows that our Federal Government has 11 forest experiment stations covering the 15 types of forest. Be not confused. Tree crops experiment and forestry experiment have the same relation that white has to black.

A Pleasant Recreation

As outlined above, this work can employ heavy endowments and large staffs. On the other hand, experiments with trees can be on almost any scale. Two trees, for example, might produce great (hybrid) results. There are thousands of individuals who can experiment and perhaps do something of great value to the human race and at the same time have recreation and pleasure.

I have altogether something like a hundred varieties of walnuts, hickories, pecans, persimmons, pawpaws, and honey locust on test on my rocky hillside, and I find that I am having an amount of fun out of it that is as perfectly unreasonable and genuine as is the joy that remains for a month or two after making a good drive at golf, catching a big fish, or shooting a deer -- not that I do all of these things.

Experimentation with nut trees is especially to be recommended for people in middle age and upward. One of the pains of advancing years is the declining circle of one's friends. One by one they leave the earth, and the desolating loneliness of old age is felt by the survivors. But the man who loves trees finds that this group of friends (trees) stays with him, getting better, bigger, and more lovable as his years and their years increase. This perhaps explains the delightful enthusiasm of some of the septuagenarian and octogenarian tree lovers whom I know and have known, such as the late E. A. Riehl and Benjamin Buckman, both of Illinois, who were plunging ahead in their eighties as though they were in their forties.

Mr. Riehl began nut-tree pioneering on some Mississippi bluffs near Alton, Ill., at the age of sixty-three and actually made money out of nuts. He was really just getting started when he died at the age of eighty-seven. I knew him for eleven years.

It was a great pleasure to associate with such a youthful and enthusiastic spirit. He was one of the youngest old men I ever knew, still living in the future, not in retrospect as is so common with old age.

Next: 24. Plan or Perish -- Tree Crops -- The Nation and the Race -- A New Patriotism is Needed

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