The Best Kept Secret to Successful Farming, Part II
In The Best Kept Secret to Successful Farming, Part I, I examined W.E. Taylor’s book, Soil Culture and Modern Farming Methods (1913). In it, Taylor implores American farmers to use manure as a primary source of soil fertility maintenance.
So where does the United States find itself today? Farming as it once was is essentially gone, replaced by automated dairies and self-driving, GPS-guided tractors on mega farms rather than family farms. There has also been an increasing separation of stock-raising from crop-raising which Taylor explicitly warns against in his book. The challenges of manure management have taken on a whole new level of difficulty. Large farms mean a large number of animals in a much smaller area meaning a high concentration of manure as well. Spreading this manure becomes a problem as the farmer many not have enough tillable land to spread it as fertilizer. Manure is not viewed as a precious material, but a constant problem that is difficult to remove cheaply and efficiently. These problems are compounded by the fact that many farmers use sand as bedding in their barns rather than organic materials such as straw. Adding sand to the soil doesn’t increase fertility. Improperly spread manure leads to many wells being ruined when the manure contaminates them. There are people who need to stop using water in their homes for showers, cooking, and cleaning because the water smells like manure. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the challenges the modern model causes with manure management.
With cattle and crop raising no longer intertwined, the need for commercial fertilizers increases. Taylor warned against this 100 years ago, explaining that manure should not be replaced by commercial fertilizers, but rather be supplemented by them if certain essential elements were lacking. This holds with his belief that “manure is the foundation of successful agriculture,” and his warning, “Nineveh, Babylon, Venice and other ancient cities grew to greatness from the same source and then fell to the pit of destruction when the farmers ceased to observe stock-raising as a feature of farming.” Specialization of farms would not fit in well with Taylor’s vision of the ideal farm.
What does this all mean for today? Taylor likely would be shocked by agriculture as it is today and what he viewed as the appropriate future of farming. Would his concerns be warranted? In the name of scientific advancement and technological prowess, have we lost connection with the natural way of fertilization? Or have we developed new and appropriate systems to circumvent the wisdom of our past and blaze a new and superior path? Is it better to look back and correct or continue the current path? Or should we do both? The question ultimately is, does Taylor’s emphasis on manure have a place in modern farming?
 W.E. Taylor, Soil Culture and Modern Farming Methods (Minneapolis, MN: Deere & Webber Company, 1913), 70.
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