Thursday, August 25, 2011

Farmers of Forty Centuries

In 1909, F. H. King visited farm country in China, Japan, and Korea.  He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and the Chief of Soil Management at the U. S. Department of Agriculture.  The purpose of his visit was to learn how the farmers of Asia produced so much food per acre, and the techniques that allowed some regions to be farmed continuously for 4,000 years.  He published Farmers of Forty Centuries in 1911, which documented his findings.

The book provides a fascinating glimpse into a world of low-tech organic farming that was performed with maximum efficiency.  Almost all of the work was performed by human muscle power, and all of the fertilizer came from nutrient recycling — no guano or mineral fertilizers were used.  King observed long daily caravans of peasants pulling handcarts from town to farms, each loaded with 60 gallons of fresh sewage.  Manure and crop residues were carefully gathered and composted.  Weeds and bugs were picked by hand.

Because food production was extremely labor-intensive, most of the population was rural.  The labor was back-breaking, seven days a week.  Following many generations of population growth, the farms were postage stamp sized.  It was not uncommon for ten people and a few animals to be fed from a two or three acre farm.  In lucky times, everyone had something to eat.  In bad years, people starved.  There were no safety nets.  Everyone lived on the razor’s edge.  The surrounding region was stripped clean of everything wild.  The land was under the total domination of agriculture, and every year its health declined.

King, the agriculture wonk, was fascinated by how hard the people worked, and how much grain per acre they produced.  He was not an advocate of workers’ rights.  He reported that the farm folks seemed to be happy and content.  He was eager to bring this system home to America, to provide a significant boost to farm productivity.

King was not an ecologist.  He did not mourn the loss of what these lands had once been — the forests, the grasslands, the wetlands, the fish, the birds, the deer.  He was observing a system that was completely maxed out, approaching the brink of collapse.  Long-lived farming systems have a pattern.  They practice an unsustainable mode of farming until chronic problems emerge, or a new technology becomes available, and then change their ways — to another unsustainable mode of farming, and then another, and then another, until the land is permanently ruined.

Today, the land is worked with machinery and chemotherapy: herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers.  Many of the rural folks have moved to town to make cell phones and running shoes.  Much of the former cropland in China has been abandoned, because of serious erosion problems and urban sprawl.  And now, the end of the era of cheap and abundant energy is approaching, and it’s time to start building shit wagons again.

The way of life that King observed is very likely similar to how we will be living in the coming decades, and the rest of the world, too.  He presents us with a time-proven model of how to live when fossil fuels, farm chemicals, and traction animals are not available.  This is not a model of sustainable agriculture.  Yes, it’s absolutely organic, but organic agriculture is almost never sustainable, in the genuine sense of that term.  On the plus side, it’s far less wasteful, polluting, and destructive than organic agriculture practiced on an industrial scale.

King, Franklin Hiram, Farmers of Forty Centuries — Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea, and Japan, Jonathan Cape Limited, London, 1911.  The full contents of this book can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg.

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