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FARMING AND THE SOIL
Farming and the Soil
In 1909, the Bureau of Soils officially announced, "The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses. It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted; that cannot be used up."
Twenty years later, after Hugh H. Bennett had exploded that myth permanently and scientifically, he sardonically replied, "I didn't know that so much costly misinformation could be put into a single, brief sentence."
Unfortunately, by 1941, many people again were acting as if the soil were indestructible. The horrors of the Dust Bowl years had begun to fade from national memory. A monoculture of corn, cotton, and tobacco was still the rule, especially in the South. And farmers, distracted by war pressures and economic need, were drifting back to bad farming practices. The conservation movement was effectively moribund during the 1940s.
Yet, at the same time, conservation sciences were taking giant strides forward. Scientists were discovering new techniques to measure the rate at which resources were being depleted, and in the process, discovering remedies for that depletion. Since some of these remedies had been practiced intuitively by intelligent farmers for generations, The Land set itself the hopeful task of broadcasting this information to anyone who worked on the land.
Good farming practices such as strip-cropping and field rotation were discussed in detail. Ed Faulkner's book, Plowman's Folly, which condemned the use of the moldboard plow, was debated hotly by the farmers themselves. During the war, The Land served as a little lighthouse of information and good cheer, beaming its light to farmers all across the country.
But after the war was over, the problems of farming took on a global dimension. America, in its new capacity as a world power, shouldered the responsibility of feeding an exploding world population. While despairing neo-Malthusians declared such a task impossible (sparking a national debate over the need for birth control), others had faith in the new chemical fertilizers. These, combined with labor-saving machinery, seemed to point the way to the future. The American farmer, no longer simply a self-sustaining citizen, became an economic tool for the production of foodstuffs. Farmers debated the benefits and drawbacks of the new agribusiness. Some even questioned whether they could afford to practice conservation at all. This unresolved question lies at the heart of our farming policy today.
EARTH IS HIS BOOK
How My Father Farms
BY JESSE STUART
MY FATHER never read anything about soil conservation in his life. He would not read. I never heard him use the word "conservation". I doubt that he would know what it meant. It would be a big word for him. He calls it "pertectin' the land." And now if anyone would read to him about how to conserve the soil or protect the land, and if he should sit still long enough to listen, I know he would interrupt and say: "I did that fifty years ago."
For thirty-five years, ever since I was big enough to tag at his heels, I could vouch for that. He had done everything I've read about soil conservation, and more.
He can't understand why everybody hasn't "pertected the land". He wonders why more people didn't use a little "horsesense" to keep all their topsoil from washing away.
He has never travelled far from these Kentucky hills, He's been in only three states—Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. He's been only in the hill section of Kentucky, not even as far as the Blue Grass section. In Ohio, he went as far west as Cincinnati, but not as far north as Columbus. Cincinnati, 135 miles away, is the farthest he's been from home. When he was young, he went east to Cabin Coal Mines in West Virginia to mine coal. And once he went as far south as Harlan County, Kentucky.
Despite his not being able to read, in magazines or books, he has read the surface of the earth, in every slope, hollow, creekbottom, on every piece of terrain he has walked in his day and time. He has loved the feel of the soil against his shoe-leather and of the fresh dirt in his hand. He has almost petted the earth beneath him as if it were something to be fondled and loved.
When he bought the first and only land he has ever owned, fifty acres of hill land in the head of W-Hollow, half of this small boundary was considered worthless. He bought the fifty acres for three hundred dollars. The only part of this farm that was not streaked with deep gullies was the timbered hillslopes. The slopes that had been cleared and farmed were streaked with gullies deeper than a man's height. My friends and I used to play on this farm. We cut long poles, and our favorite sport was pole-vaulting from one side of the gully to the other with a sixteen-foot pole. This gives some idea of the ugly scars that marked the earth's surface and gleamed yellow in the sun. Now, no one would know that the skin of this earth had ever been scarred by ugly wounds that cut down deep into the earth's flesh. For this land grows four crops of alfalfa each season and a mowing machine rolls smoothly over it.
Even when we were cutting logs to build us a home on this farm, he saved the branches and the tops of these trees. The branches from the pine tops especially appealed to him for the kind of soil protection he planned. He laid this brush down in these scars, putting the tips uphill. "When the water comes down the gully," he said, "all the grass, dirt and little twigs it carries will catch in this brush. The gully will soon fill up". These were deep gullies and it took wagon loads of brush. We seldom put rocks in one of these gullies. If we did, we put them on the bottom, down deep, so they would never work to the top of the ground and be a menace to the plow or the mowing machine. And we stacked the brush high above the earth's surface in these deep gullies. Because the weight of snow, the falling of rain, the wash of sediment weighted it until the brush was finally below the surface. Then we added more brush, finer brush, always placing the tips uphill to meet the avalanche or trickle of water.
My father always said if a cut on the surface of the earth was properly handled, it was like a cut on a man's body, and Nature would do wonders to heal it. Nature did wonders where we piled the brush. Nature edged in with her sediment wash. Nature pushed the skin of her surface over, trying to heal the ugly scar. For a year or two or three, we plowed up to these deep gullies. We plowed all around them. The dirt went over and into the brush. Soon we hauled wagons of oak leaves from the woods and spread over the place where the brush had sunk. We pushed in more dirt from the sides, healing the great scar and then we started plowing over. We reunited the earth's skin, leaving it without a blemish. It did not take long to do this. My father was always against building rock walls across the gulleys. He said it took too long to build the wall and Nature would not work as gently and as fast with rock walls as it would the brush and the leaves and the pine-needled branches. This was the way we handled the gullies that were from five to fifteen feet deep. The little gullies, those from six inches to five feet, were much easier to handle.
When we recleared these old slopes, land too poor to grow timber, we cut the scraggy-top pines, the black shoemakes, the saw briars and green-briars and instead of burning them we filled these gullies. The briars didn't matter. They formed an excellent interwoven network to hold the wash and sediment anyway. And by doing this, we cleared the land and filled the gullies at the same time. We used what we had cleared from the land to fill the gullies. We pushed the dirt with mattocks and shovels until it united over the brush-briar and leaf-filled gullies. We closed the little scars on the earth's surface before they grew to be big scars. And we did it in a hurry. We didn't take time to build rock walls and throw rocks into these scars, thereby abusing Nature. Water would wash around rocks; it would flow between; erosion would continue. But all we put into these ditches fertilized the earth, cemented the broken skin and held it together. We crossed over the scars with a plow the first year, reuniting what had once been joined. But man's folly had lacerated this earth's surface. Then man had abandoned this land, as worthless, never good again for crops, to the wind, rain and freeze.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," was an old saying my father used when he and I worked on his farm together. Never did I see him one time, ever drag a plow up or down hill and leave a mark that would start a ditch. Maybe that was one of the many reasons why everybody we ever rented from, before he bought land of his own, wanted him to remain on his farm. Instead of dragging a plow with a mule or a mule team hitched to it as I've seen so many other one-horse farmers do in my day, my father would drive his team ahead and carry his plow. He was that careful with other people's land, more careful, than the owners themselves, because he loved the land.
His way was Nature's way. And to this day I believe he did it the right way. One of the severest scoldings he ever gave me was for dragging a double shovel plow from the tobacco field down the hill. I had held to one of the handles and the plow left a little mark. He followed over the way I'd gone, took his foot and pushed back the loose dirt the plow had dug up. In a few places he picked up tiny twigs and laid them with the tips uphill and pushed dirt over them. He reunited the fresh cut across earth's skin that water would have followed down the hill.
Another thing he did all of his life, from the time I could remember, was to follow the contour of the hill with his plow. We never farmed anything but hills in those days and many of them were very steep. These hills didn't erode for my father. He could about judge the nature of flowing water, what it would do to the land he plowed. He didn't let it do anything; he never gave it a chance. Even on these hill slopes were deep ravines. My father plowed up into them and straight around on the other side, making a perfect contour, never up or down. And he never had a ditch to start down his slope.
Today it is recommended by the Department of Agriculture and this information is carried to us by our County Agent, that we farm corn on our level acres and sow our hillslopes in grass and use the uplands for pasture. My father learned this long ago. Again it was a matter of 'horsesense' and he learned, perhaps, the hard way. On our 'worthless' (never worthless to us) hillside acres that wouldn't grow timber but only shaggy brush, we cleared this land and farmed it three years straight in corn. We did this to prepare it for grass. We used fertilizer even when we planted the corn with a hand corn-planter. Dad planted the corn and I followed and dipped fertilizer from a bucket with a spoon. This was before fertilizer became popular in this section. It was before any great farm program was developed. Our first year gave us a fair yield of corn. Our second year the land was easier to plow since we'd torn out more roots and stumps, and we got a better yield of corn. Then the third year, we got about the same yield as we did the first year.
Then it occurred to my father that this land was already infertile to begin with and that he would not "corn it to death." This land wasn't hard to corn to death, for it was already about dead. So my father stopped growing corn on the hillsides altogether. We cut the brush, put it in the ditches if we had them; if we didn't have them we burned this brush and sowed the land in grass.
We learned the stumps were better left in the ground to rot and fertilize the ground instead of farming the land and tearing out stamps with the plow, digging them up or blowing them out with dynamite. Though we had to cut the sprouts and briars with mattocks and scythes in July and August of each summer, we soon had a better pasture on the steep hills by doing this than we did by raising corn three seasons to prepare the ground for grass. We lifted the fertility of our little creek bottoms, the flats on our hill slopes and the level hilltops by using oak leaves, barnyard manure and commercial fertilizer.
My father said the roots of grass that formed a fine root carpet in the surface of the earth were the greatest protection against erosion the land could have with the one exception of timber. But we had some ditches start along the cattle and sheep paths in our pastures. And here is what we did. If the land was rough and we couldn't mow the briars and sprouts with a mowing machine, we used mattocks and scythes. We placed this brush and briars we'd cut in the pasture along these paths. A barren scar we covered with a pitchfork of briars. If we used a mowing machine, around these slopes, we raked up the cuttings and laid them along these paths. That was a sure cure for erosion. Cattle and sheep wouldn't walk this way again. Soon these cuttings gathered wash and sediment and the path was covered over and the land was healed.
We had two places on my father's fifty acre farm that gave us trouble. One was a steep bluff, not far from the house, that was cleared and farmed. In the first place, this land should have never been cleared. But my father learned this after it was too late. This bluff started slipping off down into the valley in big slides. Again we hauled brush and laid it down in the valley to catch the slides. Then my father did something else. He suggested that we set this slope back in trees. It was a difficult type of erosion, the kind that he thought only the roots of trees would cure. And this would have to be done quickly by trees that had good roots and grew quickly. He decided on the yellow locust sprouts to set on this bluff. Because this tree grew all over the farm we could find small sprouts to dig and reset. He chose this tree because it had 'roots like iron ropes,' grew rapidly, and made good fence posts when it grew up. He chose it too because the grass would grow under its shade. These locusts stopped the slides on this steep slope. The scars were soon healed and the land reset itself in grass.
The other problem we had was where a stream sank in our pasture field and left a deep hole. Here is what we did about it. For sometime we used this hole for a trash dump. We hauled the old tin cans, trash, cornstalks and whatnots and dumped into this hole. But we couldn't fill it up with all of this flimsy material. Then we hauled wagonloads of rocks. They sank down, too. Again my father hauled brush and put into this hole to form some sort of bottom. Then he went about the farm and gathered all the old roots of barbed-wire that we had taken down and rolled up. He hauled these bales of worthless rusty wire, for he was always afraid to leave them about on account of the cattle, mules or horses which might get tangled up in them. These he put on top of the brush, and this held the wash that poured into it. The place healed over and grass covered the spot. No one, except us who remember, because we worked there, would know where it is today. My father worked carefully with Nature and she healed her own wounds. Not a scar was left on his eroded fifty acres seven years after he bought the farm.
To this day, although he is seventy, he practices his prevention of erosion. He uses a sled to haul tobacco, hay, fodder down a hill slope. He will not use a wagon because the wagon wheels cut deep and help to start ditches. Sled runners slide over the dirt and hardly leave a trace. He will not drag logs straight down a hill unless the ground is frozen. Old log-roads are another good way to start erosion. And if Nature with a bountiful rain, a freeze or a thaw, breaks the skin anywhere, he immediately does something about it before it gets a headstart. This is why he has had no erosion on his farm. He did not learn the second-hand way through words on a printed page, but he read the language that Nature scrawled upon her rugged terrain, and he understands that language better than any man I have ever known.
BY P. ALSTON WARING
HONEY HOLLOW is a little watershed of the Delaware Valley. I farm one of its six adjacent farms.
We are only six men and we farm only about 900 acres all told, a very small effort to be sure. But I think we have discovered something as we have worked, which may be of general interest, and it is about this that I want to write to you rather than to relate how much run-off we have checked by our strip cropping or terraces or whether we have increased yield per acre by our changed methods. Quite frankly we don't know the answers to these things as yet. But we do know that by getting together, the six of us, and by thinking of our problem on a watershed basis we have made a real beginning on a conservation job which may in the long run bear some real results.
Excerpted from From the Land by Nancy P. Pittman. Copyright © 1988 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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