Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture

by J. Russell Smith, Sc.D.

Part Three
Economics, Farm Applications, and National Applications

Chapter XXIV
Plan or Perish -- Tree Crops
The Nation and the Race --
A New Patriotism is Needed

Considered from the standpoint of the future, and no long-distant future, either, a large part of the United States is on the road to economic Hades, going rapidly, by way of gullies, and few there are who seem to realize the significance of the catastrophe or the speed of its approach.

For example, the hillside shown in Figure 3 is in Virginia, within one hundred miles of Washington. It is fairly typical of thousands in the whole Piedmont area that reached from New York to Alabama, Kansas City, and the southern Ozarks. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were mightily concerned about soil erosion, such as shown in Figure 3, but the State Director of Extension Work in Virginia told me in 1920 that he did not know there was need for such a thing as mangum terrace in that area, which is typical of thousands of square miles of rolling hills impoverished and gullied by erosion, It would interest you to check upon the Pennsylvania official agricultural attitude toward gullies and soil conservation.

If there were danger that a foreign country might get possession of some little island on the coast of Maine, Florida, or Texas, thousands of Americans would jump to their feet, willing to fight and perhaps to die that this speck of land should not pass to the possession of another nation. If it did pass to some other national ownership, it would still be the same piece of land. It would still have the same good for humanity that it had before the fight. It would, in west European and American eyes, even continue to be the private property of its previous owners, yet these same men who would fight to prevent change in national government of a piece of land have little compunction about destroying land in their own country. By neglect, they will destroy an acre or two in a season. Thousands of them are doing it yearly, now. In a single generation, each of tens of thousands of Americans destroys enough land to support a European farm family for unknown generations of time.

These land-wasters think they are patriotic citizens. We need a new definition of patriotism and a new definition of treason! You are still free to destroy all of the land that you can buy or (in most cases) rent.

The Dead Neighborhood

Take as an example the hills of New England and the Appalachian hills and ridges. This area has one of the most wholesome climates in the world, a climate that helps man to be healthy and vigorous both in mind and body.

It has one of the most agriculturally dependable climates in the world. The land is not visited by the droughts and famines that are so often and so feelingly referred to in the Old Testament and which desolate so vast an area of South America, Africa, Australia, and Asia. These American hills have one of the best climates to feed man's body with food and his mills with raw material.

These American hills are variegated with beautiful flowers in spring, clothed with green in summer. The glory of autumn foliage, its red, brown, yellow, and gold set off by the evergreens, makes one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, fit to inspire man's spirit and lift it above the prosy but useful bellyful of nuts that lies beneath the falling leaves. Yet this wholesome, dependable, and beautiful land is in agricultural decline. Much of it is desolated and abandoned. The old agriculture of the level land has been tried upon the hills -- tried and found wanting.

The hills are gullied. The fields are barren. Tenantless houses, dilapidated cabins, tumbledown barns, poor roads, poor schools, and churches without a pastor -- all are to be found in too many places. No wonder whole townships are for sale and at a cheap rate. But these neighborhoods might be transformed through tree-crop agriculture and become like the chestnut communities of Europe described in Chapter II and in the chapter on the chestnut.

Professor Stephen S. Visher, Indiana University, puts it this way:

In 1946 a professor in Ohio University, Athens, on the same Ohio Valley Hills wrote me as follows:

And I add, they are right about that in most cases. But why must they kill their trees to use them? Why not crop-yielding trees?

Tree Crops and Tenancy

The tree-crop agriculturist must almost certainly be a home owner, not a shifting tenant. A half million square miles possessed by landowning small farmers is a greater basis of national strength and endurance than the landless and roving tenant who drifts from farm to farm, skinning them as he goes, or the still more landless and rootless crowds of humans, who, in the cities, shift from apartment to apartment and surge back and forth on the trolleys, subways, elevated railways. Can a nation survive on the basis of rented farms and rented apartments? There is small evidence that it can. For one thing look at the vital statistics. Our city dwellers have seventy babies per hundred funerals.

The Game Preserve

What a game preserve a collection of good crop trees would make! The trees would both shelter and feed the animals. This job is worth doing for that purpose alone by a naturalist and big-game hunter of great means or by a sportsman's club owning game preserves.

World Applications

An examination of the world regions map (Fig. 138) will show that every type of climate that is found in North America recurs in other continents. Some of them recur in every continent save Antarctica. Therefore, this book is one of world-wide application. Since I am an American and have spent only two and one-fourth years in foreign lands, my philosophy is naturally illustrated chiefly with American facts. But the philosophy is of world-wide application. The regional map shows in what parts of the world a given American tree has some chance of thriving. Conversely it shows the parts of the world in which we have a chance of finding trees that are likely to thrive in a given area within the United States.

In most cases a crop that is a success in one continent has several more continents in which to spread itself. For example, experiments by government agriculturists in India seem to indicate that mesquite seeds from California and Hawaii have been planted in several localities in India with apparent success. Since most of India suffers from drought, this is a fact of vast significance. The chapter on the Tropics (Chapter 22) gave some inkling of the valuable but unused tree crops that nature has already developed in arid lands.

Suppose we should work out a tree-crop agriculture along lines indicated and suggested by this book. What might it mean for the United States?

Tree Crops Can Increase Crop Area

This table shows that in 1925 less than one-fifth of Massachusetts was improved land in farms and less than one-eighth of the land of the State was in crop; that West Virginia had even less of her land in crop; while Iowa, a state blessed with much level land, has four-fifths of her land improved and three-fifths actually in crops, and the War Boom and tractors of 1944 showed that there was little room for expansion.

Total crop land and pasture land other than woodland, 1925
Total harvested crop land, 1925
Total harvested crop land, 1944
of area
Acres (thousand)
Percent of area
Acres (thousand)
Percent of area
New York
West Virginia

All figures from Yearbook, U. S. Department of Agriculture, except columns 5 and 6, from Agricultural Statistics, 1946.

The decline in harvested acres in Massachusetts, New York, West Virginia, and Tennessee is a plain result of the gully and of mechanization. Farm machines seek good topography, and the era of tree crops has not yet come.

Now, the soil and climate of Massachusetts and West Virginia are such that certainly ninety percent of their land area would grow crop-yielding trees of some productive variety, after the manner of the chestnut orchards of Corsica, described in this book. Therefore it seems fair to assume that tree crops may easily increase fivefold or sixfold the crop-yielding area of New England and of the Appalachian region of which West Virginia is a type.

When one adds to this the large amount of rolling land, too steep for permanent agriculture of the plow type, to be found in the nonmountainous parts of eastern States and the rolling sections of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois (Figs. 51, 52, 95, 116, 117, 129), Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and other States, it seems a conservative statement to say that tree crops, by utilizing steep, rough, and overflow lands, could double the crop-yielding area of that part of the United States lying east of the Mississippi and perhaps all east of the one hundredth meridian.

By utilizing the same sort of land in the foothills of the Rockies, the Sierras, the Cascades, and the Coast Ranges, it would seem probable that tree crops could double, perhaps more than double, the present crop-yielding area of the Rocky Mountain and Pacific States. Note the California figure, less than one-thirteenth of her area in harvested crops. This use of crop trees on the slopes of mountains in semiarid lands (Fig. 125) indicates that there are many tens of thousands of square miles waiting in the arid parts of the United States, Mexico, Central America, South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia. However, it should be pointed out that, in the irrigated West, it is not fair to compare unirrigated tree-crop acres with irrigated acres on a basis of equality.

Use of Tree Crops in Arid Lands

If the available gully water that now runs away in arid regions should be utilized for isolated crop trees in the manner indicated in the last chapter (Fig. 133), at least one million square miles of semiarid land west of the one hundredth meridian in the United States might possibly have its productivity doubled.

The Wood Supply

The continuance of geological surveys and technical invention seems to reveal unexpected supplies of some of the mineral resources, especially oil (from shales), but no credible estimator finds any optimism in, or any quick alleviation for, the declining timber supply. In other words, our Western civilization, with its vast use of raw material, seems to be inevitably moving into a shortage of wood and timber. The United States has the best there is. We are cutting timber faster than we grow it, and we are still exporting, for a time, at least, to wood-hungry neighbors east, west, and south, but the timber famine looms.

In our present civilization the refuse of the grain agriculture is straw, almost worthless and quite generally wasted. In contrast to this, the tree crops, once established, will leave a substantial annual by-product of wood. Only a little of it will be saw timber, but this fact is of declining importance today, when the use of wood in the form of pulp, paper, carton, and even paper board, is increasing rapidly.

Tree Crops, the Water Supply, and Navigation

Suppose that three-fifths of the hill lands east of the one hundredth meridian were in crop trees whose productivity made it profitable for the farmers to cover their lands with water pockets or terraces with back ditch (Fig. 130). This would mean a greatly increased amount of water held in the ground from rainy season to dry season. This would make decreased flow in the spring of the year, with the result that many streams would be carrying in the minimum period several times their present flow. This would mean improved water supply for cities and for river navigation and quite likely for lowland irrigation.

Tree Crops and Water Power

We are entering the age of almost universal distribution of electric power. To make this power we are rapidly building reservoirs to store mountain water for power purposes. And these reservoirs are being filled up by silt at a rate which promises an untimely end, and in some cases much sooner than the builders expected. It is now estimated that Lake Meade, back of the gigantic Hoover (Boulder) Dam in the Grand Canyon, will be full in a century. And what will that do to Southern California?! The people of California seem quite unconcerned over the fact that nearly half of the people live in a land that has prospect of greatly reduced water supply a century hence because of overpasturing and wild erosion in the Colorado River Basin. The future? What has the future done for us?? And what are we doing to the future?? Reservoirs built in Algeria by the French have been completely filled. The same thing has happened in our Cotton Belt. Most of this silt in eastern America is produced by wastage of fields through preventable erosion. The tree-crop agriculture, with field water pockets or Soil Conservation Service terraces, would keep most of the silt on the land where it is needed. This would greatly prolong the life of reservoirs. The storage of water in little field reservoirs would increase the minimum stream flow and therefore the minimum water supply and would therefore increase power output at minimum seasons. Since this low peak in power development is a very damaging factor, these water pockets would have a great influence on the capital value of power installations. It should be remembered that it has been done already for its power and timber value alone and for its agricultural value alone (Chapter 23).

Tree Crops and Flood Control

If three-fifths of the hill lands east of the one hundredth meridian had water pockets large enough to store all ordinary rains, the flood problems on our rivers, including the Ohio and the mighty Mississippi, would possibly be so much reduced in size as to cease to be a serious economic menace to property situated in their flood plains. Every continent can use these advantages. America has no monopoly on the possibilities of increasing the proportion of crop land, the usable resources of wood, of water, of navigation. Other continents also may mitigate the extremes of high and low water in their rivers by detaining the rain upon their uplands in water pockets and terraces with back ditch.

Discharge of Yadkin River at Salisbury, N. C., 1901
This graph shows (in part only) the actual amount of water day by day for a year in a small North Carolina river. In this particular year the maximum discharge per second was 104,640 cubic feet; the minimum was 2420; the average was 8,636. Suppose masonry reservoirs had raised the minimum to 6,000, while water terraces raised it to 7,500 and protected the masonry reservoirs from filling -- at the same time that they doubled the agricultural output and quadrupled the agricultural valuations. It is high time that we quit skinning this Continent.

After the great flood of 1907, Pittsburgh created a Flood Commission. The Commission investigated and recommended a series of reservoirs in the mountain defiles upstream from Pittsburgh to hold flood waters until the flood danger had passed. These expensive reservoirs, if built, are destined to rapid filling, if the short-lived mountain farming of the present type continues with its gullies. But if the agricultural land were in water pockets or horizontal terraces, these would catch the silt which otherwise fills the reservoirs, would hold back much more water than the reservoirs themselves hold back. It would thereby increase the available resources of flood control, of water power, of navigation, and would benefit every town from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Too bad some Pittsburgh millionaire does not make a demonstration of this on a few thousand acres.

The Ohio River floods are charged with destroying a thousand lives and a billion dollars' worth of property (1940 dollars), and they are getting worse rather than better.

Tree Crops and the World's Food

The ability of tree crops to increase the world's food is suggestively shown in a table invented by W. J. Spillman (Appendix). The high rank of nut trees compares most favorably with the animal products, because the animals eat our crops before we eat the animals.

Next: 26. The Great Hope and the Many Little Hopes

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