With the cold from winter and the dark from the time change upon us, I find myself in the house earlier in the evenings. As a son-in-law asked me to write a little about the kind of alternative agriculture we are practicing and why, for better or for worse, you as well as he get the benefit (if that is what it is) of my thoughts.
I might point out that what we are doing has been the normal for many centuries and only recently has the industrialization of agriculture brought about what we consider the norm today. As recently as the 1940’s most of the farms in the United States were operated on a diversified, more self-sustaining basis than today’s standard mono-cropped standard. Modern, large-specialty cropped farms were brought about by a combination of cheap oil and the transportation industry’ desire to increase their business. In this time of rapidly changing oil prices it’s hard for most of us to believe that there was a time when the oil companies had a glut of very cheap oil and a lack of customers, but in the early twentieth century that was the case. One of their solutions was to produce cheap fertilizers; another was to encourage transportation of agriculture products from one place to another. Up to that point in history there was a need for most farmers to keep animals. The animals were used to work the farm, to transport the produce to market, and to feed the farmer and his family. Not only were the above needs addressed by animal culture but so were the replacement fertility needs of the cropped acres. On a well-run, efficient crop farm about thirty percent of the acreage was needed to supply feed for the draft animals providing the motive power for the operation. Henry Ford once said that he thought that one of his great contributions to agriculture was that a farmer could raise enough potatoes on an acre to supply the alcohol fuel to run the machinery to farm ten acres. Rudolf Diesel actually designed the original engine which carries his name to run on vegetable oil and envisioned a farmer raising and producing all the fuel needed to power their agriculture machinery needs. Both of the above mentioned individuals had the idea of reducing the acreage used on farms to provide power needs.
And then there was the need to keep replacing the fertility taken away by crop production and sales. Essentially there were two ways to keep crop production up. Clear the ground, produce a crop until the nutrient needs of the crop were depleted in the soil and then move (What we today call “slash and burn agriculture”). Or raise some sort of livestock, save the manure, hopefully mix it with crop residues and put it back on the soil. The oil companies, recognizing an opportunity, started to promote what they called artificial or chemical manures. Many wells were coming in only hundreds of feet deep and many under pressure, hence the term “gusher”. With a glut of cheap oil, nitrogen fertilizer was cheap in every way: cheap to produce, in collusion with the railroads cheap to ship, and in terms of labor cheap to spread. With much of the soil in the United States deficient in nutrients because of depletion, the resulting crop increase was spectacular. An up and coming farmer could expand his crop production acreage without the problem of decreasing the fertility in his soil if he didn’t take on an increase of animals also. All that was stopping him from expanding was a more efficient power source. And there, once again, the oil companies were ready to help, they had gasoline to sell cheap and with just a little tweaking the diesel engine could run on the petroleum byproduct which was named after the engine. Even with the relatively primitive engines and tractors of the time one man could now do the work of several working with draft animals. And when they weren’t actually working, the machines needed less maintenance than the animals. A tractor could work twelve or fourteen hours a day while a team of draft animals couldn’t work more than eight or ten day after day. They also needed a couple hours of rest and a feeding at lunch time. Not only that but now that farmer could use every acre to produce his main or most profitable crop. One more factor entered in, the time and sheer manual labor of hand shoveling, storing and spreading all that manure. Farming has always been hard work and the new technology promised to help relieve that labor.
Now I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m joining in the game of ” let’s gang up on the evil oil companies”. They were, at least at that time, legal companies producing a legal product which truly was of enormous help. As with almost all technologies there were both good and bad consequences from the new fertilizers. Many of which helped the American farmer to produce the most abundant and cheap food at any time in history. And as I advocate for a new agricultural paradigm which I truly think is better I still do not deny the above fact. However, there were also many unintended and even unknown problems. While science at the time knew about the need for the big three plant nutrients, namely; Nitrogen, Phosphate, and Potassium there was little or no knowledge of the micro nutrients, many of which animals and people ingested in their diets either through plants or meat. As a result most American soils have been depleted of these nutrients over the last sixty or more years. One of the results of this depletion has been agriculture products which lack or have reduced levels of many essential minerals and vitamins. This applies both to plant and meat products.