Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture

by J. Russell Smith, Sc.D.

Introduction -- by Wendell Berry

A Practical Visionary

I first read J. Russell Smith's Tree Crops perhaps fifteen years ago, and since then I have returned to it many times. Having just paid it another visit, I am pleased to say that I still like it as much as I ever did, and am just as much convinced by it. This book contributed to a fundamental rethinking of agriculture in our century. It is a predecessor of Sir Albert Howard's The Soil and Health, Wes Jackson's New Roots for Agriculture, and Masanobu Fukuoka's The One-Straw Revolution in its perception that in order for humans to know how to use the land of a particular locality, they must look to see how nature uses it. Agriculture, he wrote, must be "adapted ... to physical conditions"; he insisted "that farming should fit the land."

Smith begins his thinking with a fact that agricultural industrialists have made a convention of ignoring: that most land is vulnerable to erosion, and much land, especially hilly land, is extremely so. The normal condition of farming is not that of the deepest, flattest soils of the American grain belt. Much of agriculture, the world over, must take place on land that is not safely adaptable, or is not adaptable at all, to industrial assumptions and procedures. It is remarkable that in most times, but never so much as in modern times, agricultural methods have presupposed optimum conditions. The result, as J. Russell Smith saw, was a catastrophic impropriety: "Man has carried to the hills the agriculture of the flat plain." The catastrophe was, and is, soil erosion. The cycle of hill agriculture has thus too often been a one-time cycle: "Forest-field-plow-desert."

What, then, are we to do with the enormous acreage of potentially usable and perhaps much-needed land that is too steep for the plow? The practices and plans of the agricultural industrialists apparently offer us only two choices: to abandon it entirely, or to continue to treat it as a minable resource until it has been completely ruined. There is, of course, a good argument for abandonment -- not all land should be used -- but it is a limited argument because, for good economic and political reasons, we cannot afford to abandon all but the very best agricultural land. The argument for ruination, though it is never made, is implied in attitudes and methods, economies and technologies. The counter-argument is a simple one: we have no right to ruin land, and we cannot afford to ruin it. We are stuck, therefore, with two daunting agricultural obligations: to use vulnerable land, and to preserve it.

The best solution to this dilemma that I know about is in Smith's fundamental perception that "Trees are the natural crop plants for all such places." Smith understood that the annuals, as agricultural plants, have a great fault in that they leave the soil exposed to erosion for much of the year. The steeper the land, the worse it is served by annuals. Trees, on the other hand, are perennials; they "are a permanent institution." For that reason, Smith said, "the crop-yielding tree offers the best medium for extending agriculture to the hills, to steep places, to rocky places, and to the lands where rainfall is deficient."

He espoused, furthermore, the attractive idea of a "two-story agriculture" for the flatter lands, an agriculture consisting of "trees above and annual crops below." This idea is attractive because it would diversify both the agricultural and. the natural life of the arable farmlands; it would make them more productive, more healthy, and more beautiful. It proposes a countryside as far as possible unlike the monocultural deserts that we have made in the prime lands of the present day.

But Smith's mind was mainly on the hill lands, and the agriculture he proposed for them was "two-story" as well: trees above and pasture below, both stories here being perennial. He had a vision of what our hill lands should be. I would like to quote him at length on this, for it is a vision at once practical and lovely:

The trees would produce food both for people and for foraging animals, protecting the slopes while increasing their yield. Toward the realization of this vision, Smith contributed the incontrovertible argument "that farming should fit the land," an agenda of work to be done, and a host of examples of successful tree-cropping systems from all over the world. (One of the pleasures of this book is in its abundance of such information. It is a book to rummage in.)

Smith's vision is inherently and necessarily a democratic one. What he is proposing is not simple; he would protect the hills and make them more productive, not by the mechanical and chemical simplifications that are associated with industrial agriculture, but by complicating the biological pattern of human use. For this, great care, knowledge, and skill would be needed. The good agricultural solution thus presupposes the need for democratic land-ownership, not the plutocracy always implied in the economic and technological determinism of the industrialists. As Smith saw it, "the presence of the landowner is also needed. This is not a job for tenants. Let the tenant go down to the level land which carelessness cannot ruin so quickly."

To describe this book, even so minimally as I have done here, is to reveal the reasons why its influence, so far, has been small. The minds that have dominated agriculture since 1929 when Tree Crops was first published, have been little interested in conserving either the land or the people on the land. They have, Heaven knows, seen no visions of "a million neat farm homes snuggled in the hills." A farming system in which millions of small landowners would manage devotedly and skillfully a diversified, locally-adapted system of tree crops, pastures, animals, and row crops has been simply unthinkable to them.

Tree Crops nonetheless sets forth a thinkable possibility. It is a book full of common sense, and of great love for a kind of knowledge and a kind of life, addressed forthrightly "to persons of imagination who love trees and love their country." In its last pages, it pleads for "a new patriotism," expressing amazement at "patriots" who are willing to fight and perhaps die to defend from foreign threat a country that they themselves are destroying. The general run of patriots have always understood patriotism as love of a government. Tree Crops is one of the best American attempts to define it -- and enact it -- as love of a country.

Part One -- The Philosophy

Fig. 1. The U. S. Soil Conservation Service reports that the soil washed out and blown out of the fields of the United States each year would load a modern freight train long enough to reach around the world eighteen times. If it ran twenty miles an hour continuously, it would take it nearly three years to pass your station. We began with the richest of continents, but ...

Chapter I -- How Long Can We Last?

I stood on the Great Wall of China high on a hill near the borders of Mongolia. Below me in the valley, standing up square and high, was a wall that had once surrounded a city. Of the city, only a few mud houses remained, scarcely enough to lead one's mind back to the time when people and household industry teemed within the protecting wall.

The slope below the Great Wall was cut with gullies, some of which were fifty feet deep. As far as the eye could see were gullies, gullies, gullies -- a gashed and gutted countryside. The little stream that once ran past the city was now a wide waste of coarse sand and gravel which the hillside gullies were bringing down faster than the little stream had been able to carry them away. Hence, the whole valley, once good farm land, had become a desert of sand and gravel, alternately wet and dry, always fruitless. It was even more worthless than the hills. Its sole harvest now is dust, picked up by the bitter winds of winter that rip across its dry surface in this land of rainy summers and dry winters.

Beside me was a tree, one lone tree. That tree was locally famous because it was the only tree anywhere in that vicinity; yet its presence proved that once there had been a forest over most of that land -- now treeless and waste.

The farmers of a past generation had cleared the forest. They had plowed the sloping land and dotted it with hamlets. Many workers had been busy with flocks and teams, going to and fro among the shocks of grain. Each village was marked by columns of smoke rising from the fires that cooked the simple fare of these sons of Genghis Khan. Year by year the rain has washed away the loosened soil. Now the plow comes not -- only the shepherd is here, with his sheep and goats, nibblers of last vestiges. These four-footed vultures pick the bones of dead cultures in all continents. Will they do it to ours? The hamlets in my valley below the Great Wall are shriveled or gone. Only gullies remain -- a wide and sickening expanse of gullies, more sickening to look upon than the ruins of fire. You can rebuild after a fire.

Forest -- field -- plow -- desert -- that is the cycle of the hills under most plow agricultures -- a cycle not limited to China. China has a deadly expanse of it, but so have Syria, Greece, Italy, Guatemala, and the United States. Indeed we Americans, though new upon our land, are destroying soil by field wash faster than any people that ever lived -- ancient or modern, savage, civilized, or barbarian. We have the machines to help us to destroy as well as to create. The merciless and unthinking way in which we tear up the earth suggests that our chief objective may be to make an end of it.

We also have other factors of destruction, new to the white race and very potent. We have tilled crops -- corn, cotton, and tobacco. Europe did not have these crops. The European grains, wheat, barley, rye, and oats, cover all of the ground and hold the soil with their roots. When a man plows corn, cotton, or tobacco, he is loosening the earth and destroying such hold as the plant roots may have won in it. Plowing corn is the most efficient known way for destroying the farm that is not made of level land. Corn, the killer of continents, is one of the worst enemies of the human future.

We in America have another factor of destruction that is almost new to the white race -- the thunderstorm. South Europe has a rainless summer. North Europe has a light rainfall that comes in gentle showers. The United States has the rippling torrent that follows the downpour of the thunderstorm. When the American heavens open and pour two inches of rain in an hour into a hilly cornfield, there may result many times as much erosion as results from two hundred inches of gentle British or German rain falling on the wheat and grass.

I asked county agents in a number of counties in the hill country of North Carolina the following question: "What is your estimate of number of cultivated crops secured on steep land after clearing and before abandonment of cultivation?" The answers from ten counties were as follows: 5; 20; 12; 10; 5 to 10; 10 or 12; 10 or more; 12; 5, extremely variable and 10. (See Figs. 2, 3, 4, 6, 9.) Ten tilled crops, and ruin has arrived! How long can we last?

Even Oklahoma, newest of the new, so recently wrested from the Indian, who did not destroy it, has its million miles of gullies and a kingdom of good land ruined and abandoned.

To the surprise of a past generation, Oklahoma proved to be good land; so we pushed the Indian out and sent him on to the deserts farther west. The whites entered in two great rushes, 1890 and 1893. One of my students made a study of a typical county. (See Russell W. Lynch, "Czech Farmers in Oklahoma," published June 1942, as No. 13 of Vol. 39 of Bulletin, Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College.)

The white "civilization" (?) grew cotton in summer and oats in winter on rolling land, and by 1910 land abandonment had begun. Without any doubt, the American is the most destructive animal that ever trod the earth.

For decades, reports of ruin have come out of the hill section of the American Cotton Belt -- thousands of square miles of ruin. Some counties were reported one-third worn out before 1850. Worst of all is the plight of the loess lands east of the Mississippi. This layer of rich, wind-blown soil, half as wide as the State of Mississippi, reaching nearly all the way from the Ohio to the Gulf, is a kind of thin veneer lying on top of coastal plain sands. It is extremely rich and erodes very easily.

E. W. Hilgard, the great pioneer writer on soils (Soils, p. 2 18), says:

In this way we have already destroyed the homelands fit for the sustenance of millions. We need an enlarged definition for treason. Some people should not be allowed to sing "My Country." They are destroying it too rapidly.

Field wash, in the United States, Latin America, Africa, and many other parts of the world, is the greatest and most menacing of all resource wastes. For details see the U. S. Soil Conservation Service. It removes the basis of civilization and of life itself. It is far worse than burning a city. A burned city can be rebuilt. A field that is washed away is gone for ages. Hence the Old World saying, "After the man the desert."

H. H. Bennett, Chief of Soil Conservation Service, United States Department of Agriculture, says:

Can anything be done about it? Yes, something can be done. Therefore, this book is written to persons of imagination who love trees and love their country, and to those who are interested in the problem of saving natural resources -- an absolute necessity if we are to continue as a great power.

Next: 2. Tree Crops -- The Way Out

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