site logo

Soils And Fertilizers

A farmer is a manufacturer of articles wherefrom mankind are fed and

clad; his raw materials are the soil and the various substances he

mingles therewith or adds thereto in order to increase its productive

capacity. His art consists in transforming by cultivation crude,

comparatively worthless, and even noxious, offensive materials into

substances grateful to the senses, nourishing to the body, and sometimes

g, even strengthening, to the mind.

I have heard of lands that were naturally rich enough; I never was so

lucky or perchance so discerning as to find them. Yet I have seen

Illinois bottoms whereof I was assured that the soil was fully sixteen

feet deep, and a rich, black alluvium from top to bottom; and I do not

question the statements made to me from personal observation that

portions of the strongly alkaline plain or swale on which Salt Lake City

is built, being for the first time plowed, irrigated, and sown to Wheat,

yielded ninety bushels of good grain per acre. I never saw, yet on

evidence believe, that pioneer settlers of the Miami Valley, wishing,

some years after settling there, to sell their farms, advertised them as

peculiarly desirable in that the barns stood over a creek or "branch,"

which swept away the manure each Winter or Spring without trouble to the

owner; and I have myself grown both Wheat and Oats that were very rank

and heavy in straw, yet which fell so flat and lay so dead that the

heads scarcely bore a kernel. Had I been a wiser, better farmer, I

should have known how to stiffen the straw and make it do its office, in

spite of wind and storm.

[And let me here say, lest I forget it in its appropriate place, that I

am confident that most farmers sow grain too thickly for any but very

poor land. If one thinks it necessary to scatter three bushels of Oats

per acre, I tell him that he should apply more manure and less

seed--that land which requires three bushels of seed is not rich enough

to bear Oats. He might better concentrate his manure on half so much

land, and save two-thirds of his seed.]

I do not hold that the remarkably rich soils I have instanced needed

fertilizing when first plowed; I will presume that they did not. Yet,

having never yet succeeded in manuring a corn-field so high that a few

loads more would not (I judge) have increased the crop, I doubt whether

even the richest Illinois bottoms would not yield more Corn, year by

year, if reenforced with the contents of a good barn-yard. And, when the

first heavy crop of Corn has been taken from a field, that field--no

matter how deep and fertile its soil--is less rich in corn-forming

elements than it was before. Just so sure as that there is no depletion

or shrinkage when nothing is taken from nothing, so sure is it that

something cannot be taken from something without diminishing its

capacity to yield something at the next call. Rotation of crops is an

excellent plan; for one may flourish on that which another has rejected;

but this does not overbear Nature's inflexible exaction of so much for

so much. Hence, if there ever was a field so rich that nothing could be

added that would increase its productive capacity, the first exacting

crop thereafter taken from it diminished that capacity, and rendered a

fresh application of some fertilizer desirable.

Years ago, a Western man exhibited at our Farmers' Club a specimen of

the soil of his region which was justly deemed very rich, taken from a

field whereon Corn had been repeatedly grown without apparent

exhaustion. A chemical analysis had been made of it, which was submitted

with the soil. It was claimed that nothing could improve its capacity

for producing the great Illinois staple. Prof. Mapes dissented from this

conclusion. "This soil," said he, "while very rich in nearly every

element which enters into the composition of Corn, gives barely a trace

of Chlorine, the base of Salt. Hence, if five bushels per acre of Salt

be applied to that field, and it does not thereupon yield five bushels

more per annum of Corn, I will agree to eat the field."

Many men fertilize their poor lands only, supposing that the better can

do without. I judge that to be a mistake. My rule would be to plant the

poorest with such choice trees as thrive without manure, and pile the

fertilizers upon the better. It seems to me plain that of two fields,

one of which has a soil containing nine-tenths of the elements of the

desired crop, while the other shows but one to three-tenths, it is a

more hopeful and less thankless task to enrich the former than the

latter. If you are required to supply to a field nearly everything that

your proposed crop will withdraw from it, I do not see where the profit

comes in; but if you are required to supply but a tenth, because the

soil as you found it stood ready to contribute the remaining

nine-tenths, it seems to me that the margin for profit is here decidedly

the greater.

How many tuns of earth ought a farmer to be obliged to turn over and

over in order to obtain therefrom a hundred bushels of Corn? Two

hundred? Five hundred? A thousand? Five thousand? Other things being

equal, no one will doubt that, if he can make the Corn from one hundred

tuns of soil, it were better to do so than to employ five hundred or

five thousand. It seems clear to my mind that, though other conditions

be unequal, it is generally well to endeavor to produce the required

quantity from the smaller rather than the larger area.

I fully share the average farmer's partiality for barn-yard manure in

preference to most, if not all, commercial fertilizers. In my judgment,

almost any farmer who has cattle, with fit shelter and Winter fodder,

can make fertilizers far cheaper than he can buy them. I judge that

almost every farmer who has paid $100 or over for Guano (for instance),

might have more considerably enriched his farm by drawing muck from some

convenient bog or pond into his barn-yard in August or September and

carting it thence to his fields the next Fall. If he can get no muck

within a mile, let him cut, when they are in blossom, all the weeds that

grow near him, especially by the road-side, cart them at once into his

barn-yard, and there convert them into fertilizers. In Autumn, replace

the hay-rack on the wagon or cart, and pile load after load of

freshly-fallen leaves into your yard; taking them, if you may, from the

sides of roads and fences, and from any place where they may have been

lodged or heaped by the winds, your own wood-lot excepted. Plow the turf

off of any scurvy lot or road-side, and pile it into the barn-yard; nay,

dig a hundred loads of pure clay, and place it there, if you can get it

at a small expense, and your average soil is gravelly or sandy. The

farmer who is unable or reluctant to buy commercial fertilizers should

apply his whole force every Autumn to replenishing his barn-yard with

that material which he can obtain most easily which the trampling of his

cattle may readily convert into manure. A month is too little, two

months would not be too much, to devote to this good work. Some may seem

obliged to postpone it to Winter; but that is to run the risk of

embarrassment by frost or snow, and encounter the certainty that your

material will be inferior in quality, or not so well fitted to apply to

grain-crops the ensuing Fall.

--All this, you may say, is not instruction. We ought to know exactly

what lands are enriched by Gypsum, and what, if any, are not; why these

are fertilized, why those are not, by a common application; how great is

the profit of such application in any case; and what substitute can most

nearly subserve the same ends where Gypsum is not to be had. I admit all

you claim, and do not doubt that there shall yet be a Scientific

Agriculture that will fully answer your requirements. As yet, however,

it exists but in suggestions and fragments; and attempts to complete it

by naked assertions and sweeping generalizations tend rather to mislead

and disgust the young farmer than really to enlighten and guide him. At

all events, I shall aim to set forth as true no more than I know, or

with good reason confidently believe.

I close by reiterating my belief that no farmer ever yet impoverished

himself by making too much manure or by applying too much of his own

manufacture. I cannot speak so confidently of buying commercial

fertilizers; but these I will discuss in my next chapter.