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Joseph Russell Smith (1874-1966) was a geography professor who grew up in the chestnut forests of Virginia. His book Tree Crops was originally published in 1929. Smith wrote it because he was horrified by the soil destruction caused by regularly tilling cropland — and hillside tilling drove him completely out of his mind, because it permanently destroyed good land at a much faster rate. Everyone knew this, but they kept doing it anyway, because they were cursed with a short-term mindset.
Tilling was a common practice in those days (and it’s still popular today). Farmers tilled because their daddies tilled, and their grandpas tilled, and their great-grandpas tilled in the old country. It was a powerful dirty habit that was nearly impossible to quit, until the land died — and it provided no long-term benefits! With great exasperation, Smith exclaimed: “Corn, the killer of continents, is one of the worst enemies of the human future!”
Old World crops like wheat, barley, rye, and oats provided a dense ground cover that slowed the rate of soil erosion a bit. New World crops like corn, potatoes, cotton, and tobacco were row crops that left the tilled soil exposed, and more vulnerable to erosion. In America, thunderstorms were common, producing downpours that were rare in Europe. Heavy rains filled the streams with lost topsoil. In the Cotton Belt, Smith saw erosion gullies that were 150 feet deep. Oklahoma was ruined with stunning speed. We were destroying land that could have fed millions. An Old World saying sums it up: “After the man the desert.” In the legends of our ancient wild ancestors, the First Commandment is: “Thou shalt not till.”
Joseph was a brilliant visionary, and one day he received an illuminating revelation. If you wanted to stop the destruction of soils caused by tilling, quit tilling! Live in a different way! Create a cuisine that majors in nutritious soil-friendly foods. Smith envisioned two-story farms: tree crops on the sloped land, and pastures for livestock below, both perennial. Farmers could abandon tilling forever, and pass the land on to future generations in a healthier condition. Imagine that.
Farmers scratched their heads when they heard this idea, and were more than a little perplexed and befuddled. Agroforestry wasn’t a mainstream tradition in European American agriculture. The required knowledgebase didn’t exist, so Smith researched it and wrote it down. His book is mostly a scrapbook of correspondence. Smith sent letters to hundreds of experts on tree crops, and then assembled their responses into a book. He created an amazing collection of information, including recommendations for agroforestry in other climates and continents.
Hogs won’t touch corn if there are acorns to eat, and oaks can produce more calories per acre than grain, when done right. A top quality pecan tree can drop nearly a ton of nuts per year. Hickory nuts can be smashed and boiled to produce hickory oil. Pistachios fetch a high price and have a long shelf life. Many types of pines produce nuts. The honey locust is a drought hearty US native that will grow where corn or cotton grows, and animals love the beans. The sugar maple produces sugar. Persimmons are enjoyed by man and beast. Pigs and chickens love mulberries. And don’t forget walnuts, beechnuts, almonds, cherry pits, soapnuts, holly, ginko, pawpaw, horse chestnut, osage orange, privet, wattle, wild plums, and choke cherries. The list goes on and on.
Trees can produce high quality foods, and they can be grown on slopes too steep to plow. Once the trees are established, little labor is needed until harvest time. Tree crops can be much more productive than mere pastures or forests. They typically suffer less from dry spells than field crops. Over time, they can actually build new topsoil. Like any crop, trees are vulnerable to pests, diseases, fire, and extreme weather. Like any crop, tree crops are not 100 percent dependable, year after year, so monocultures are not a wise choice. The Second Commandment is: “Thou shalt encourage diversity.”
Smith witnessed the blight epidemic that wiped out virtually all of the American chestnuts, rapidly killing millions of trees. He personally lost 25 acres of chestnuts. The blight fungus came to America on chestnut trees imported from Asia. Knowing this, it’s shocking that Smith advocated travelling the world in search of better varieties of trees, to bring home and experiment with. Hey, Japanese walnuts! And the USDA helped him! The Third Commandment is: “Thou shalt leave Japanese organisms in Japan.”
Smith was a tree-loving zealot who was on a mission from God, and he promoted his great ideas with great enthusiasm. But the world did not leap to attention, change its ways, and promptly end soil erosion as we know it. Farmers are almost as conservative as popes, and they are not fans of radical change — especially ideas that tie up land for decades before producing the first penny. Joseph was heartbroken: “The longer I live, the more amazed I become at the lack of constructive imagination, the lack of sheer curiosity, the desire to know.” It’s not easy being a brilliant visionary.
Smith's grand vision was reasonable, rational, and ecologically far superior to growing organic crops on tilled fields. Tree crops remain an important subject for the dreams of those who do not robotically march in lockstep with the status quo hordes. Planting America’s hills with tree crops would be an immense task, creating many jobs, and providing benefits for generations. Why don’t we do it? The Fourth Commandment is “Thou shalt live in a manner that is beneficial to the generations yet-to-be-born.”
Smith, Joseph Russell, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, Island Press, Covelo, California, 1987. Originally published in 1929. Free download of the scanned book is [HERE].