It is an obvious oversimplification to say that the world has changed substantially over the past 100 years. With the dawn of the Internet and the boom of the information and technological age, there are many aspects of our life today that would be unrecognizable to someone living in the 1910s. This idea of advancement of society can make it easy to be dismissive of the past and view it as irrelevant and outdated. It may be a different time, but is wisdom of the past is still wisdom? This question has become particularly relevant while reading Dr. W.E. Taylor’s Soil Culture and Modern Farm Methods (1913), a copy of which can be found at the Plymouth Historical Society.
Many of the fears and concerns about agriculture Taylor had 100 years ago are the same concerns we have today. How to feed an ever-growing population with ever-diminishing tillable land? How to properly manage manure so that it does not go to waste nor harm the environment? How to maintain fertile soil that will continue to produce crops for generations to come? Taylor’s book cites these ever-important questions as one of the reasons for his book. Modern industrial agriculture is still struggling to answer them in a sustainable way.
Taylor makes an intriguing argument for sustainable agriculture that is shockingly simple, but a massive shift from the current agricultural paradigm. What is the most important aspect of successful farming throughout the history of the world? Proper management of… manure. Why is manure so important? When animals eat the plants from a farmer’s field, their bodies break down the food into nutrients that their bodies can use, but Taylor states that 80-82% of plant food removed from the soil can be returned through the animal wastes being applied back to the land. It plays a necessary role in maintaining soil fertility.
The proper use and value of manure as a potent fertilizer was even viewed as a driving force in the rise and fall of civilizations. Raising cattle on the same farms as crops are not two exclusive entities in Taylor’s mind, but a necessity for a healthy agricultural society. Taylor saw farmers misusing and improperly storing manure and found it appalling. He observed that in Eastern cultures they did not necessarily understand the specific details of the science of farming, but knew the art of farming. They knew enough to treat manure as if it was as precious as gold, because it was of utmost importance for the success of their crops. He writes:
Their ways of farming are not based upon scientific knowledge, but they do things as their forefathers did…Without being able to give a scientific reason, they have plowed deep, packed and pulverized, utilized organic matters of all kinds and irrigated, producing year after year from five to seven times more than our farmers.
He later pleads,
We…have heard the alarm of depletion which is being sounded through our land. Do you not think it time for us to imitate the methods of those farmers who are producing enough [on less land] to feed five hundred million of people?
In another example, Taylor discusses how Wisconsin’s land was becoming “emaciated” before the introduction of the dairy cow. The dairy cow not only turned Wisconsin into a top producer of milk and cheese, but also returned a remarkable amount of fertility to their fields. Becoming America’s Dairyland had the indirect benefit of boosting their crop production through the application of manure.
Taylor’s following quote highlights how important he viewed manure and proper soil care to the future of the United States:
America today is the foremost commercial nation of the world, but to maintain that supremacy we must produce from the soil food to feed our people, and if we produce a surplus for other nations, our power will be universal. On the other hand, if we disregard nature’s exacting laws which govern soil maintenance, history will repeat itself and our great commercial institutions will be crumbling monuments to the American farmer’s carelessness.
No matter how technologically advanced the world gets, effective food production has a huge role in the success of a country and its economy. Access to food and water is a basic survival need so it is the foundation for every other industry to survive. This is why Taylor emphasizes the importance of manure in proper soil maintenance for the continuation of the national economy.