An Agricultural Testament

by Sir Albert Howard

Part V
Conclusions and Suggestions

Chapter 15
A Final Survey

THE capital of the nations which is real, permanent, and independent of everything except a market for the products of farming, is the soil. To utilize and also to safeguard this important possession the maintenance of fertility is essential.

In the consideration of soil fertility many things besides agriculture proper are involved -- finance, industry, public health, the efficiency of the population, and the future of civilization. In this book an attempt has been made to deal with the soil in its wider aspects, while devoting due attention to the technical side of the subject.

The Industrial Revolution, by creating a new hunger -- that of the machine -- and a vast increase in the urban population, has encroached seriously on the world's store of fertility. A rapid transfer of the soil's capital is taking place. This expansion in manufacture and in population would have made little or no difference had the waste products of the factory and the town been faithfully returned to the land. But this has not been done. Instead, the first principle of agriculture has been disregarded: growth has been speeded up, but nothing has been done to accelerate decay. Farming has become unbalanced. The gap between the two halves of the wheel of life has been left unbridged, or it has been filled by a substitute in the shape of artificial manures. The soils of the world are either being worn out and left in ruins, or are being slowly poisoned. All over the world our capital is being squandered. The restoration and maintenance of soil fertility has become a universal problem.

The outward and visible sign of the destruction of soil is the speed at which the menace of soil erosion is growing. The transfer of capital, in the shape of soil fertility, to the profit and loss account of agriculture is being followed by the bankruptcy of the land. The only way this destructive process can be arrested is by restoring the fertility of each field of the catchment area of the rivers which are afflicted by this disease of civilization. This formidable task is going to put some of our oversea administrations to a very severe test.

The slow poisoning of the life of the soil by artificial manures is one of the greatest calamities which has befallen agriculture and mankind. The responsibility for this disaster must be shared equally by the disciples of Liebig and by the economic system under which we are living. The experiments of the Broadbalk field showed that increased crops could be obtained by the skilful use of chemicals. Industry at once manufactured these manures and organized their sale.

The flooding of the English market with cheap food, grown anywhere and anyhow, forced the farmers of this country to throw to the winds the old and well-tried principles of mixed farming, and to save themselves from bankruptcy by reducing the cost of production. But this temporary salvation was paid for by loss of fertility. Mother earth has recorded her disapproval by the steady growth of disease in crops, animals, and mankind. The spraying machine was called in to protect the plant; vaccines and serums the animal; in the last resort the afflicted live stock are slaughtered and burnt. This policy is failing before our eyes. The population, fed on improperly grown food, has to be bolstered up by an expensive system of patent medicines, panel doctors, dispensaries, hospitals, and convalescent homes. A C3 population is being created.

The situation can only be saved by the community as a whole. The first step is to convince it of the danger and to show the road out of this impasse. The connexion which exists between a fertile soil and healthy crops, healthy animals and, last but not least, healthy human beings must be made known far and wide. As many resident communities as possible, with sufficient land of their own to produce their vegetables, fruit, milk and milk products, cereals, and meat, must be persuaded to feed themselves and to demonstrate the results of fresh food raised on fertile soil. An important item in education, both in the home and in the school, must be the knowledge of the superiority in taste, quality, and keeping power of food, like vegetables and fruit, grown with humus, over produce raised on artificials. The women of England -- the mothers of the generations of the future -- will then exert their influence in food reform. Foodstuffs will have to be graded, marketed, and retailed according to the way the soil is manured. The urban communities (which in the past have prospered at the expense of the soil) will have to join forces with rural England (which has suffered from exploitation) in making possible the restitution to the country-side of its manurial rights. All connected with the soil -- owners, farmers, and labourers -- must be assisted financially to restore the lost fertility. Steps must then be taken to safeguard the land of the Empire from the operations of finance. This is essential because our greatest possession is ourselves and because a prosperous and contented country-side is the strongest possible support for the safeguarding of the country's future. Failure to work out a compromise between the needs of the people and of finance can only end in the ruin of both. The mistakes of ancient Rome must be avoided.

One of the agencies which can assist the land to come into its own is agricultural research. A new type of investigator is needed. The research work of the future must be placed in the hands of a few men and women, who have been brought up on the land, who have received a first-class scientific education, and who have inherited a special aptitude for practical farming. They must combine in each one of them practice and science. Travel must be included in their training because a country like Great Britain, for instance, for reasons of climate and geology, cannot provide examples of the dramatic way in which the growth factors operate.

The approach to the problems of farming must be made from the field, not from the laboratory. The discovery of the things that matter is three-quarters of the battle. In this the observant farmer and labourer, who have spent their lives in close contact with Nature, can be of the greatest help to the investigator. The views of the peasantry in all countries are worthy of respect; there is always good reason for their practices; in matters like the cultivation of mixed crops they themselves are still the pioneers. Association with the farmer and the labourer will help research to abandon all false notions of prestige; all ideas of bolstering up their position by methods far too reminiscent of the esoteric priesthoods of the past. All engaged on the land must be brother cultivators together; the investigator of the future will only differ from the farmer in the possession of an extra implement -- science -- and in the wider experience which travel confers. The future standing of the research worker will depend on success: on ability to show how good farming can be made still better. The illusion that the agricultural community will not adopt improvements will disappear, once the improver can write his message on the land itself instead of in the transactions of the learned societies. The natural leaders of the country-side, as has been abundantly proved in rural India, are only too ready to assist in this work as soon as they are provided with real results. No special organization, for bringing the results of the experiment stations to the farmer, is necessary.

The administration of agricultural research must be reformed. The vast, top-heavy, complicated, and expensive structure, which has grown up by accretion in the British Empire, must be swept away. The time-consuming and ineffective committee must be abolished. The vast volume of print must be curtailed. The expenditure must be reduced. The dictum of Carrel that 'the best way to increase the intelligence of scientists would be to reduce their number' must be implemented. The research applied to agriculture must be of the very best. The men and women who are capable of conducting it need no assistance from the administration beyond the means for their work and protection from interference. One of the chief duties of the Government will be to prevent the research workers themselves from creating an organization which will act as a bar to progress.

The base line of the investigations of the future must be a fertile soil. The land must be got into good heart to begin with. The response of the crop and the animal to improved soil conditions must be carefully observed. These are our greatest and most profound experts. We must watch them at work; we must pose to them simple questions; we must build up a case on their replies in ways similar to those Charles Darwin used in his study of the earthworm. Other equally important agencies in research are the insects, fungi, and other micro-organisms which attack the plant and the animal. These are Nature's censors for indicating bad farming. To-day the policy is to destroy these priceless agencies and to perpetuate the inefficient crops and animals they are doing their best to remove. To-morrow we shall regard them as Nature's professors of agriculture and as an essential factor in any rational system of farming. Another valuable method of testing our practice is to observe the effect of time on the variety. If it shows a tendency to run out, something is wrong. If it seems to be permanent, our methods are correct. The efficiency of the agriculture of the future will therefore be measured by the reduction in the number of plant breeders. A few only will be needed when soils become fertile and remain so.

Nature has provided in the forest an example which can be safely copied in transforming wastes into humus -- the key to prosperity. This is the basis of the Indore Process. Mixed vegetable and animal wastes can be converted into humus by fungi and bacteria in ninety days, provided they are supplied with water, sufficient air, and a base for neutralizing excessive acidity. As the compost heap is alive, it needs just as much care and attention as the live stock on the farm; otherwise humus of the best quality will not be obtained.

The first step in the manufacture of humus, in countries like Great Britain, is to reform the manure heap -- the weakest link in Western agriculture. It is biologically unbalanced because the micro-organisms are deprived of two things needed to make humus -- cellulose and sufficient air. It is chemically unstable because it cannot hold itself together -- valuable nitrogen and ammonia are being lost to the atmosphere. The urban centres can help agriculture, and incidentally themselves, by providing the farmers with pulverized town wastes for diluting their manure heaps and, by releasing, for agriculture and horticulture, the vast volumes of humus lying idle in the controlled tips.

The utilization of humus by the crop depends partly on the mycorrhizal association -- the living fungous bridge which connects soil and sap. Nature has gone to great pains to perfect the work of the green leaf by the previous digestion of carbohydrates and proteins. We must make the fullest use of this machinery by keeping up the humus content of the soil. When this is done, quality and health appear in the crop and in the live stock.

Evidence is accumulating that such healthy produce is an important factor in the well-being of mankind. That our own health is not satisfactory is indicated by one example. Carrel states that in the United States alone no less than £700,000,000 a year is spent in medical care. This sum does not include the loss of efficiency resulting from illness. If the restitution of the manurial rights of the soils of the United States can avoid even a quarter of this heavy burden, its importance to the community and to the future of the American people needs no argument. The prophet is always at the mercy of events; nevertheless, I venture to conclude this book with the forecast that at least half the illnesses of mankind will disappear once our food supplies are raised from fertile soil and consumed in a fresh condition.

Next: Appendixes

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