An Agricultural Testament

Nature's methods of soil management

First published in 1940, this book focuses on the nature and management of soil fertility, and notably explores composting. At a time when modern, chemical-based industrialized agriculture was just beginning to radically alter food production, it advocated natural processes over man-made inputs as the superior approach to farming.

An Agricultural Testament
Oxford University Press 0-8785-7060-8

To Gabrielle who is no more. The earth, that's nature's mother, is her tomb.

Sir Albert Howard

Excerpt from the First Chapter

Introduction

The maintenance of the fertility of the soil is the first condition of any permanent system of agriculture. In the ordinary processes of crop production fertility is steadily lost: its continuous restoration by means of manuring and soil management is therefore imperative.

In the study of soil fertility the first step is to bring under review the various systems of agriculture which so far have been evolved. These fall into four main groups:

  • the methods of Nature — the supreme farmer — as seen in the primeval forest, in the prairie, and in the ocean;
  • the agriculture of the nations which have passed away;
  • the practices of the Orient, which have been almost unaffected by Western science; and
  • the methods in vogue in regions like Europe and North America to which a large amount of scientific attention has been paid during the last hundred years.

Nature’s Methods of Soil Management

Little or no consideration is paid in the literature of agriculture to the means by which Nature manages land and conducts her water culture. Nevertheless, these natural methods of soil management must form the basis of all our studies of soil fertility.

What are the main principles underlying Nature’s agriculture? These can most easily be seen in operation in our woods and forests.

Mixed farming is the rule: plants are always found with animals: many species of plants and of animals all live together. In the forest every form of animal life, from mammals to the simplest invertebrates, occurs. The vegetable kingdom exhibits a similar range: there is never any attempt at monoculture: mixed crops and mixed farming are the rule.

The soil is always protected from the direct action of sun, rain, and wind. In this care of the soil strict economy is the watchword: nothing is lost. The whole of the energy of sunlight is made use of by the foliage of the forest canopy and of the undergrowth. The leaves also break up the rainfall into fine spray so that it can the more easily be dealt with by the litter of plant and animal remains which provide the last line of defence of the precious soil. These methods of protection, so effective in dealing with sun and rain, also reduce the power of the strongest winds to a gentle air current.

The rainfall in particular is carefully conserved. A large portion is retained in the surface soil: the excess is gently transferred to the subsoil and in due course to the streams and rivers. The fine spray created by the foliage is transformed by the protective ground litter into thin films of water which move slowly downwards, first into the humus layer and then into the soil and subsoil. These latter have been made porous in two ways: by the creation of a well-marked crumb structure and by a network of drainage and aeration channels made by earthworms and other burrowing animals. The pore space of the forest soil is at its maximum so that there is a large internal soil surface over which the thin films of water can creep. There is also ample humus for the direct absorption of moisture. The excess drains away slowly by way of the subsoil. There is remarkably little run-off, even from the primeval rain forest. When this occurs it is practically clear water. Hardly any soil is removed. Nothing in the nature of soil erosion occurs. The streams and rivers in forest areas are always perennial because of the vast quantity of water in slow transit between the rainstorms and the sea. There is therefore little or no drought in forest areas because so much of the rainfall is retained exactly where it is needed. There is no waste anywhere.

The forest manures itself. It makes its own humus and supplies itself with minerals. If we watch a piece of woodland we find that a gentle accumulation of mixed vegetable and animal residues is constantly taking place on the ground and that these wastes are being converted by fungi and bacteria into humus. The processes involved in the early stages of this transformation depend throughout on oxidation: afterwards they take place in the absence of air. They are sanitary. There is no nuisance of any kind — no smell, no flies, no dustbins, no incinerators, no artificial sewage system, no water-borne diseases, no town councils, and no rates. On the contrary, the forest affords a place for the ideal summer holiday: sufficient shade and an abundance of pure fresh air. Nevertheless, all over the surface of the woods the conversion of vegetable and animal wastes into humus is never so rapid and so intense as during the holiday months — July to September.

The mineral matter needed by the trees and the undergrowth is obtained from the subsoil. This is collected in dilute solution in water by the deeper roots, which also help in anchoring the trees. The details of root distribution and the manner in which the subsoil is thoroughly combed for minerals are referred to in a future chapter. Even in soils markedly deficient in phosphorus trees have no difficulty in obtaining ample supplies of this element. Potash, phosphate, and other minerals are always collected in situ and carried by the transpiration current for use in the green leaves. Afterwards they are either used in growth or deposited on the floor of the forest in the form of vegetable waste — one of the constituents needed in the synthesis of humus. This humus is again utilized by the roots of the trees. Nature’s farming, as seen in the forest, is characterized by two things:

  • a constant circulation of the mineral matter absorbed by the trees; and
  • a constant addition of new mineral matter from the vast reserves held in the subsoil.

There is therefore no need to add phosphates: there is no necessity for more potash salts. No mineral deficiencies of any kind occur. The supply of all the manure needed is automatic and is provided either by humus or by the soil. There is a natural division of the subject into organic and inorganic. Humus provides the organic manure: the soil the mineral matter.

 

The soil always carries a large fertility reserve. There is no hand to mouth existence about Nature’s farming. The reserves are carried in the upper layers of the soil in the form of humus. Yet any useless accumulation of humus is avoided because it is automatically mingled with the upper soil by the activities of burrowing animals such as earthworms and insects. The extent of this enormous reserve is only realized when the trees are cut down and the virgin land is used for agriculture. When plants like tea, coffee, rubber, and bananas are grown on recently cleared land, good crops can be raised without manure for ten years or more. Like all good administrators, therefore, Nature carries strong liquid reserves effectively invested. There is no squandering of these reserves to be seen anywhere.

 

The crops and live stock look after themselves. Nature has never found it necessary to design the equivalent of the spraying machine and the poison spray for the control of insect and fungous pests. There is nothing in the nature of vaccines and serums for the protection of the live stock. It is true that all kinds of diseases are to be found here and there among the plants and animals of the forest, but these never assume large proportions. The principle followed is that the plants and animals can very well protect themselves even when such things as parasites are to be found in their midst. Nature’s rule in these matters is to live and let live.

If we study the prairie and the ocean we find that similar principles are followed. The grass carpet deals with the rainfall very much as the forest does. There is little or no soil erosion: the run-off is practically clear water. Humus is again stored in the upper soil. The best of the grassland areas of North America carried a mixed herbage which maintained vast herds of bison. No veterinary service was in existence for keeping these animals alive. When brought into cultivation by the early settlers, so great was the store of fertility that these prairie soils yielded heavy crops of wheat for many years without live stock and without manure.

In lakes, rivers, and the sea mixed farming is again the rule: a great variety of plants and animals are found living together: nowhere does one find monoculture. The vegetable and animal wastes are again dealt with by effective methods. Nothing is wasted. Humus again plays an important part and is found everywhere in solution, in suspension, and in the deposits of mud. The sea, like the forest and the prairie, manures itself.

The main characteristic of Nature’s farming can therefore be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease

In considering the various man-made systems of agriculture, which so far have been devised, it will be interesting to see how far Nature’s principles have been adopted, whether they have ever been improved upon, and what happens when they are disregarded.