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By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

Lessons for Chapelboro from George Washington

By Jeff Danner Posted June 27, 2011 at 1:42 am

If we are going to use the forum of the Common Science blog to discuss matters of consequence to Chapelboro, I am going to have to persist in the use of multi-part series. I hope you have been following the series on petroleum which is about halfway completed. This story about George Washington and the soil is the first in a planned series about food production both globally and locally.
In addition to his exploits as an army general and President of the United States, George Washington was quite the farmer. He was a keen observer of farming practices in Virginia and was a sustainable farmer way ahead of his time (perhaps we can posthumously award him Chapelboro citizenship). Here are some of my favorite quotes from him about farming.
 
“The System of Agriculture (if this epithet of system can be applied to it (hey, George Washington writes with lots of parenthetical comments just like me!)), which is in use in this part of the United States is as unproductive to the practitioners as it is ruinous to the land holders. Yet it is perniciously adhered to.”
“Nothing in my opinion would contribute more to the welfare of these States, than the proper management of our Lands; and nothing in this State [Virginia] particularly, seems to be less understood. The present mode of cropping practiced among us, is destructive to landed property; and must, if persisted in much longer, ultimately ruin the holders of it.”
 
“… the aim of farmers in this country (if they can be called farmers) is, not to make the most they can from the land, which is, or has been cheap, but the most of the labour, which is dear; the consequence of which has been, much ground has been scratched over and none cultivated or improved as it ought to have been… “
 
 What concerned Washington was farmers who came upon an untilled plot of land, grew the same crop on the land for two or three years until yields fell and then moved on. They left behind fields which were bereft on nutrients with no cover crops or root structures to prevent erosion of the top soil. What he observed was not limited to Virginia, in Washington’s times farm yield were falling across the newly-formed United States. Corn harvests in New York went from 30 bushels an acre in 1775 to less than 10 bushels an acre in 1825.
 
Farmers knew that they needed to replenish the soil to maintain crop yields and many different amendments were tried; some worked some did not. In the early 1800’s European’s began to learn that farmers in South America were adding guano (bird poop!) to the soil with great success. Europe was in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution and the urban workforce needed food. Adding guano to the fields could raise yields by 200 to 300 percent! 
 
The world was struck by Guanomania. Islands near Peru and throughout the southern hemisphere had guano deposits which had been accumulating for many, many years and often exceeded 100 feet in depth. In the course of 30-40 years these islands and coastlines were scraped clean. As the guano was used up prices began to skyrocket and the market crashed (which happens with all non-renewable resources like whale oil or, sooner than we think, petroleum).   During the “mania” the United States got caught up in the excitement and passed the Guano Islands Act in 1856 which stated that unclaimed islands visited by an American citizen found to be containing guano were to be considered a United States possession. Many islands claimed under this act are still U.S. possessions today.
 
Food production after the collapse of the guano market, while poised to fall, was saved by the advent of the synthetic fertilizer industry (the subject of my next food/agriculture blog). These types of just-in-time technical solutions are what give rise to the cliché that “technology will advance to provide the answer” to all problems in the world.   What is lost in this view is that both guano and petroleum (which is the lynchpin of modern fertilizers) are both non-renewable. The bird poop which took hundreds of years to accumulate was used up in several decades and the petroleum which took over 300 million years to form is on pace to be used up in less than 200 years. Technology can do a lot, but it cannot create new plentiful energy and nutrient rich resources, it can only exploit them.
 
The observations and lessons from George Washington are just as pertinent to Chapelboro today as they were to Virginia in the 18th century. Typically when we list our top local resources, the quality of our soil does not come up; though it most certainly should. We are still in a good position to preserve this resource with strong stewardship from our farmers, guidance from our universities, and effective zoning decisions from our elected officials. Even our red clay is not without merit as it is effective in both nutrient and water storage. So the next time you think about ways to preserve what is great here in the southern part of heaven, look down at the soil below.  We will pick up on these theme in upcoming entries.
 
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