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A Permanent Agriculture
By J. Russell Smith
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 1950 The Devin-Adair Company
All rights reserved.
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.
Five years ago there was not a gully on the place ... now it is badly cut by gullies ... all the top soil washed away, leaving nothing but the clay.... If not terraced ... the gullies [will] cut deeper until the rocks are touched or until all the clay soil is gone.... Five years ago it could have been saved by spending less than three dollars an acre to have it terraced. Today it will cost five times as much, in addition to getting nothing from it for at least two years." (Oklahoma Extension News, January, 1928.)
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. 218), says:
The washing away of the surface soil ... diminished the production of the higher lands, which were then (at the time of the Civil War) commonly "turned out" and left without cultivation or care of any kind. The crusted surface shed the rain water into the old furrows, and the latter were quickly deepened and widened into gullies—"red washes"....
As the evil progressed, large areas of uplands were denuded completely of their loam or culture stratum, leaving nothing but bare, arid sand, wholly useless for cultivation, while the valleys were little better, the native vegetation having been destroyed and only hardy weeds finding nourishment on the sandy surface.
In this manner, whole sections and in some portions of the State [Mississippi] whole townships of the best class of uplands have been transformed into sandy wastes, hardly reclaimable by ordinary means, and wholly changing the industrial conditions of entire counties, whose county seats even in some instances had to be changed, the old town and site having, by the same destructive agencies, literally "gone downhill."
Specific names have been given to the erosional features of this district; a "break" is the head of a small retrogressive ravine; a "gulf" is a large break with precipitous walls of great depth and breadth, commonly being one hundred or one hundred and fifty deep; a "gut" is merely a road-cut deepened by storm wash and the effects of passing travel.
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:
We have in this country about 460 million acres of available and potentially available good productive cropland. This includes from 80 to 100 million acres which need clearing, drainage, irrigation, or other improvements to condition or fit it for cultivation. All but about 100 million acres of this remaining good productive cropland is subject to erosion.
If present rates of erosion were allowed to continue—although I cannot conceive that we will permit any such thing—we would lose or severely damage a tremendous acreage of good productive cropland within the next 20 years. Nearly 90 percent of our farmland which is still subject to erosion is yet without the needed protection of effective, acre-byacre soil conservation treatment.
Nearly 25 percent of our cropland is being damaged at a rapid rate of erosion. This is an area of something over 100 million acres of cropland. The productive capacity of much of this highly vulnerable land will be permanently damaged and around 500,000 acres a year ruined for further cultivation unless and until it has the benefit of sound conservation farming within the next 10 to 15 years, preferably by 1960. On another large area (around 115 to 120 million acres) of cropland, erosion is taking place somewhat less rapidly but still at a serious rate. (Letter, October 29, 1947.)
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.CHAPTER 2
Tree Crops—The Way Out
Again I stood on a crest beneath a spreading chestnut tree, and scanned a hilly landscape. This time I was in Corsica. Across the valley I saw a mountainside clothed in chestnut trees. The trees reached up the mountain to the place where coolness stopped their growth; they extended down the mountain to the place where it was too dry for trees. In the Mediterranean lands, as in most other parts of the world, there is more rainfall upon the mountains than at sea level. This chestnut orchard (or forest, as one may call it) spread along the mountainside as far as the eye could see. The expanse of broad-topped, fruitful trees was interspersed with a string of villages of stone houses. The villages were connected by a good road that wound horizontally in and out along the projections and coves of the mountainside. These grafted chestnut orchards produced an annual crop of food for men, horses, cows, pigs, sheep, and goats, and a by-crop of wood. Thus, for centuries, trees upon this steep slope had supported the families that lived in the Corsican villages. The mountainside was uneroded, intact, and capable of continuing indefinitely its support for the generations of men.
Why are the hills of West China ruined, while the hills of Corsica are, by comparison, an enduring Eden? The answer is plain. Northern China knows only the soil-destroying agriculture of the plowed hillside. Corsica, on the contrary, has adapted agriculture to physical conditions; she practices the soil-saving tree-crops type of agriculture.
Man lives by plants. Plants live in the soil. The soil is a kind of factory in which the life force of plants, using plant food from earth, air, and water, and assisted by bacteria and the elements of the weather, changes these natural elements into forms that we can eat and wear, manufacture and burn, or use for building material. This precious soil from which we have our physical being is only a very thin skin upon the earth. Upon the hills and mountains it is appallingly thin. In some places there is no soil at all, and rocks protrude. Sometimes the earth mantle may be only a few inches in depth; rarely does the soil on hill or mountain attain a depth of many feet. Often soil is so shallow that one great rainstorm can gash and gully a slope down to bare rock. Where man has removed nature's protecting cover of plants and plant roots, the destroying power of rain is increased a hundredfold, a thousandfold, even at times a millionfold, or perhaps even more than that.
The creation of soil by the weathering of rock is a very, very slow process. In some places, centuries and millennia must have passed in making soil that, if unprotected, may be washed away in an hour. Therefore, today an observer in the Old World might see myriad landscapes once rich with farms where now only poverty-stricken men creep about over the ruined land, while their sheep and goats, scavengers and destroyers, pick the scanty browse that struggles for life in the waste. A handful of men are now living uncomfortably where once there were prosperous villages. Similar examples, even of large areas, can be found in almost any hill country with a long history of occupation by agricultural man.
Syria is an even more deplorable example than China. Back of Antioch, in a land that was once as populous as rural Illinois, there are now only ruin and desolation. The once-prosperous Roman farms now consist of wide stretches of bare rock, whence every vestige of soil has been removed by rain.
Geikie, in modern times writing of a section of Palestine, gives a similar example, which shows the ruination that man can create:
The ride from Eriha to the Jordan is about five miles over a stony plain, on which there is no vegetation. Year by year the winter rains sweep down the slope and wash away a layer of the wide surface, carrying it to the Jordan, there being little to check them but copses of the Zukkum tree and Apina Christi. Yet seven monasteries once stood on this now desolate tract, three of them still to be identified by their ruins. Until we reach the edge of the Jordan, only the stunted bushes I have mentioned, unworthy of the name of trees, and a few shrubs with dwarfed leaves are to be seen after leaving the moisture of Sultan's Spring. Not a blade of grass softens the dull yellow prospect around. (Quoted from Gila River Flood Control, p. 18, Secretary of the Interior, 1919.)
Greece, once so great, is shockingly ruined by soil wash. Its people undernourished and living (1949) on the American dole (Marshall Plan). Wolf von Schierbrand, in his book Austria Hungary (Chap. 14), says that in parts of Europe, people even pound stone to get a little bit of loose material in which plant roots can work.
In our own South, millions of acres are already ruined. "Land too poor for crops or grazing, such as old abandoned fields, of which Brazos County [Texas] alone has thousands of acres." (H. Ness, Botanist, Texas Experiment Station, Journal of Heredity, 1927.) The same destructive agency has caused ruin and abandonment of land in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana—indeed, in every one of our States. "In many sections of Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and other Corn Belt states, water erosion has a tendency to form deep, steep-sided ravines which will sometimes make farming almost impossible in a field as large as twenty or forty acres." (Letter, Ivan D. Wood, State Extension Agent, Agricultural Engineering, University of Nebraska, July 19, 1923.)
This is double danger. First, water erosion destroys soil. Secondly, it cuts up the remnant so that it cannot be used by the new machinery which cries aloud for room and good surface. And yet, as human history goes, we came to America only yesterday.
If we think of ourselves as a race, a nation, a people that is to occupy its country generation after generation, we must change some of our habits or we shall inevitably experience the steadily diminishing possibility of support for man.
FLAT-LAND AGRICULTURE GOES TO THE HILLS
How does it happen that the hill lands have been so frightfully destroyed by agriculture? The answer is simple. Man has carried to the hills the agriculture of the flat plain. In hilly places man has planted crops that need the plow; and when a plow does its work on lands at an angle instead of on flat lands, we may look for trouble when rain falls.
Whence came this flat-land agriculture of grass and grains? The origin of wheat, barley, and most of our important food plants is shrouded in mystery; but we know that our present agriculture is based primarily on cereals that came to us from the unknown past and are a legacy from our ancient ancestress —primitive woman, the world's first agriculturist. Searching for something to fill little stomachs and to hush the hunger cries of her children, primitive woman gleaned the glades about the mouth of her cave. Here she gathered acorns, nuts, beans, berries, roots, and seeds.
Excerpted from Tree Crops by J. Russell Smith. Copyright © 1950 The Devin-Adair Company. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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