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THE STORY OF THE SOIL
From the Basis Of Absolute Science and Real Life
BY CYRIL G. HOPKINS
Author of "Soil Fertility and Permanent Agriculture"
TO MY WIFE
Truth is better than fiction; and this true story of the soil is
written in co-operation with the Press of America and in competition
with popular fiction.
The scenes described exist; the references given can all be found
and verified; and the data quoted are exact, although some of the
story dates antedate the scientific data.
As a rule the names employed are substitutes, but the general
localities are as specified.
If the Story of the Soil should ever fall into the hands of any
individual who suspects that he has contributed to its information,
the author begs that he will accept as belonging to himself every
gracious attribute and take it for granted that anything of opposite
savor was due to autosuggestion.
CYRIL G. HOPKINS.
University of Illinois, Urbana.
THE OLD SOUTH
PERCY JOHNSTON stood waiting on the broad veranda of an old-style
Southern home, on a bright November day in 1903. He had just come
from Blue Mound Station, three miles away, with suit-case in hand.
"Would it be possible for me to secure room and board here for a few
days?" he inquired of the elderly woman who answered his knock.
"Would it be possible?" she repeated, apparently asking herself the
question, while she scanned the face of her visitor with kindly eyes
that seemed to look beneath the surface.
"I beg your pardon, my name is Johnston, - Percy Johnston - " he said
with some embarrassment and hesitation, realizing from her speech
and manner that he was not addressing a servant.
"No pardon is needed for that name," she interrupted; "Johnston is a
name we're mighty proud of here in the South."
"But I am from the West," he said.
"We're proud of the West, too; and you should feel right welcome
here, for this is 'Westover,'" waving her hand toward the inroad
fields surrounding the old mansion house. "I am Mrs. West, or at
least I used to be. Perhaps the title better belongs to my son's
wife at the present time; while I am mother, grandma, and
"Yes, Sir, you will be very welcome to share our home for a few days
if you wish; and we'll take you as a boarder. We used to entertain
my husband's friends from Richmond, - and from Washington, too,
before the sixties; but since then we have grown poor, and of late
years we take some summer boarders. They have all returned to the
city, however, the last of them having left only yesterday; so you
can have as many rooms as you like.
"Adelaide!" she called.
A rugged girl of seventeen entered the hall from a rear room.
"This is my granddaughter, Adelaide, Mr. Johnston."
Percy looked into her eyes for an instant; then her lashes dropped.
He remembered afterward that they were like her grandmother's, and
he found himself repeating, "The eye is the window of the soul."
"My Dear, will you ask Wilkes to show Mr. Johnston to the southwest
room, and to put a fire in the grate and warm water in the pitcher?"
"Thank you, that will not be necessary," said Percy. "I wish to see
and learn as much as possible of the country hereabout, and
particularly of the farm lands; and, if I may leave my suit-case to
be sent to my room when convenient, I shall take a walk, - perhaps a
long walk. When should I be back to supper."
"At six or half past. My son Charles has gone to Montplain, but he
will be home for dinner. He knows the lands all about here and will
be glad, I am sure, to give you any information possible."
With rapid strides Percy followed the private lane to the open
fields of Westover.
"Is he a cowboy, Grandma?" asked Adelaide, in a tone which did not
suggest a very high regard for cowboys. "Anyway," she continued,
detecting a shade of disapproval in the grandmother's face, "he has
a cowboy's hat, but he doesn't wear buckskin trousers or spurs."
Percy's hat was a relic of college life. Two years before he had
completed the agricultural course at one of the state universities
in the corn belt. Somewhat above the average in size, well
proportioned, accustomed to the heaviest farm work, and trained in
football at college, he was a sturdy young giant, - " strong as an ox
and quick as lightning," in the exaggerated language of his football
FORTY ACRES IN THE CORN BELT
PERCY JOHNSTON'S grandfather had gone west from "York State" and
secured from the federal government a 160-acre "Claim" of the rich
corn belt land. His father had received through inheritance only 40
acres of this; and, marrying his choice from the choir of the local
Lutheran congregation, he had farmed his forty and an adjoining
eighty acres, "rented on shares," for only three years, when he was
taken with pneumonia from exposure and overwork, and died within a
Percy was scarcely a year old when his father was laid in the grave;
but to the sorrowing mother he was all that life held dear.
Existence seemed possible to her only because she could bestow upon
him her double affection, and because the double duties which she
took upon herself completely occupied her time.
She was not in immediate financial need, for her husband had been
able to put some money in the bank during the last year, after
having paid for his "outfit;" the forty-acre farm was free from
debt, but under the law it must remain the joint property of mother
and child for twenty years.
Wisely or unwisely she rejected every opportunity presented that
would have given Percy a stepfather. As daughter and wife she had
learned much of the art of agriculture, and, after some consultation
with a neighbor who seemed to be successful, she made her own plans.
In her make up, sentiment was balanced with sense. Even as a young
wife she had sometimes driven the mower or the self-binder to
"help-out," and she had found pleasure and health in such hours of
out-door life. "I can work and not overwork," she said to her
friends; and in any case the crops seemed to grow better under the
eye of the mistress.
Some years she employed a neighbor boy or girl, and always hired
such other help as she needed. Prices were sometimes low and crops
were not always good; and only widowed mothers can know the full
story of her labor, love and sacrifice. With Percy's help he was
sent to school and finally to the university, choosing for himself
the agricultural college, much to the surprise and disappointment of
his devoted mother.
"Why," she asked, "why should my son go to college to study
agriculture? Have you not studied farming in the practical school of
experience all your life? Surely we have done as much as could be
done on our own little farm; and you have also had the benefit of
the longer experience of our best farmers hereabout, and of the
accumulated wisdom of our ancestors. Oh, I had hoped and truly
believed that you would become interested in engineering, or in
medicine, or may be in the law. I cannot understand why you should
think of going to college to study farming. Surely you already know
more than the college professors do about agriculture."
Percy's mother had too much good sense to have raised a spoiled boy.
He had been taught to work and to think for himself. She loved her
boy far better than her own life, - loved as only a widowed mother
can who has risked her life for him, and who has given to him all
her thought and all her energy from the best twenty years of her own
life; but she had never let herself enjoy that kind of selfishness
which prompts a mother to do for her child what he should be taught
to do for himself. Despite his natural love of sport and the severe
trials he had often brought to her patience and perseverance during
his boyhood days, he had reached a development with the advance of
youth that satisfied her high ideal. His love and appreciation and
tender care for her repaid her every day, she told herself, for all
the years of watching, working, waiting. Never before had he
withstood her positive wish and final judgment.
And yet it was she who had told him that he alone must choose his
life work and his college course in preparation for that work; but,
after the years of toil, she had not dreamed that he would choose
the farm life.
"My darling boy," she continued, "it leads to nothing. This little
farm is poorer to-day than it was when your dear father and I came
here to live and labor. To be sure, the lower field still grows as
good or better crops than ever; but I can remember when that field
was so wet and swampy that it could not be cultivated, and it was in
the work of ditching and tiling that field," she sobbed, "that your
father took the sickness that caused his death."
Tears were in Percy's eyes as he put his arm about his mother and
wiped her tears away.
"But I must tell you what I know to be the truth," she went on
quickly. "The older fields that your grandfather cultivated are less
productive now than when he received them from our generous
government. Indeed, it was your father's plan to continue to farm
here only for a few years longer until he could save enough to
enable him, with what we could have gotten from the sale of our own
forty, to go farther west and purchase a large farm of virgin soil.
He realized, my Son, that even that part of his father's farm that
was first put under cultivation was becoming distinctly reduced in
productiveness. He remembered, too, the stories often repeated by
your grandfather of the run-down condition of the once exceedingly
fertile soils of the Mohawk Valley and other parts of New York
"And you know, Percy, there were many Dutch farmers settled in New
York. They were probably the best farmers among all who came to
America from the Old World. I have heard your grandfather explain
their use of crop rotation, and they understood well the value of
clover and farm fertilizers. But with all of their skill and
knowledge, the land grew poor, and now the very farm upon which
Grandpa was born is not worth as much as the actual cost of the farm
buildings. I hope you will consider all of this. The farm life is so
unpromising for you, and there are such great opportunities for
success in other lines. Still I feel that you must decide this
question for yourself my Son, but tell me why you would choose the
life and work of a farmer?"
LINCOLN S VIEW OF AGRICULTURE
PERCY had listened without interrupting, grieved at her
disappointment, and open to any reasoning that might change his
"Mother dearest," he said, "it was a year ago that you said I would
have only till this fail to decide upon my college course and that
it should be a special preparation for my life work. I have given
much thought to it. You said that I should choose for myself, and I
have not consulted much with others, but I have tried to consider
the matter from different points of view.
"You know the Christmas present you gave me of the Lincoln books?"
"Yes, I know, and you have read them so much. I could not get you
many books, but I knew there could be nothing better for my boy to
read than the thoughts of that noble man. But, Percy dear, Lincoln
was a lawyer, and he rose from the lowest walk in life to the
highest position in the country, and with much less preparation than
my own boy will have. Suppose he had remained a farmer! Surely no
such success could ever have been reached. I am not so foolish as to
have any such high hopes for you. Percy; but if you can only put
yourself in the way of opportunity; and make such preparation as you
can to fill with credit some position of responsibility that may be
offered you! I had truly hoped that your study of Lincoln's life
would influence yours. To me Lincoln was the noblest of all the
noble men of our history, and I doubt not of all history, save Him
who came to redeem the world."
Percy stepped to his little homemade bookcase and took a volume from
the Lincoln set.
"May I read you some words of Lincoln?" he asked.
"Oh yes," she answered wonderingly.
"On September 30th, 1859," said Percy, "Lincoln gave an address at
Milwaukee, before the State Agricultural Society of Wisconsin, and
of all the addresses of Lincoln it seems to me that this is the
greatest, because it deals with the greatest material problem of the
United States. I think I have scarcely heard a public address in
which the speaker has not dwelt upon the fact that the farmer must
feed and clothe the world; and it seems to me that the missionaries
always speak of the famines and starvation of so many people in
India and other old countries. Do you remember the lecture by the
medical missionary? Well, would it not he better to send
agricultural missionaries to India and China to teach those people
how to raise crops?
"I have read and reread this address more than any other in the
Lincoln set. Let me read you some of the paragraphs I have marked.
"After making some introductory remarks about the value of
agricultural fairs, Lincoln began his address as follows:
"'I presume I am not expected to employ the time assigned me in the
mere flattery of the farmers as a class. My opinion of them is that,
in proportion to numbers, they are neither better nor worse than
other people. In the nature of things they are more numerous than
any other class; and I believe there are really more attempts at
flattering them than any other, the reason of which I cannot
perceive, unless it be that they can cast more votes than any other.
On reflection, I am not quite sure that there is not cause of
suspicion against you in selecting me, in some sort a politician and
in no sort a farmer, to address you.
"'But farmers being the most numerous class, it follows that their
interest is the largest interest. It also follows that that interest
is most worthy of all to be cherished and cultivated - that if there
be inevitable conflict between that interest and any other, that
other should yield.
"'Again, I suppose that it is not expected of me to impart to you
much specific information on agriculture. You have no reason to
believe, and do not believe, that I possess it; if that were what
you seek in this address, any one of your own number or class would
be more able to furnish it. You, perhaps, do expect me to give some
general interest to the occasion, and to make some general
suggestions on practical matters. I shall attempt nothing more. And
in such suggestions by me, quite likely very little will be new to
you, and a large part of the rest will be possibly already known to
"'My first suggestion is an inquiry as to the effect of greater
thoroughness in all the departments of agriculture than now prevails
in the Northwest - perhaps I might say in America. To speak entirely
within bounds, it is known that fifty bushels of wheat, or one
hundred bushels of Indian corn, can be produced from an acre.'"
Percy paused: "You know, Mother, that our corn has averaged some
less than fifty bushels per acre for the last five years, and, as
you say, the lower field has been much better than the old land, and
I think you are quite right in your belief that as an average the
land is growing poorer, although we cultivate better than we used to
do, and our seed corn is of the best variety and saved with much
care. But let me read further:
"'Less than a year ago I saw it stated that a man, by extraordinary
care and labor, had produced of wheat what was equal to two hundred
bushels from an acre. But take fifty of wheat, and one hundred of
corn, to be the possibility, and compare it with the actual crops of
the country. Many years ago I saw it stated, in a patent office
report, that eighteen bushels was the average crop throughout the
United States; and this year an intelligent farmer of Illinois
assured me that he did not believe the land harvested in that State
this season had yielded more than an average of eight bushels to the
acre; much was cut, and then abandoned as not worth threshing, and
much was abandoned as not worth cutting."'
"I know it is true," said the mother, "that wheat was once very much
grown in Central and Northern Illinois, but 1859 must have been an
unusually poor year, for it was grown for twenty years after that,
although it finally failed so completely that its cultivation has
been practically abandoned in those sections for nearly twenty
years. However, the chinch bugs were a very important factor in
discouraging wheat growing and the land has been very good for corn,
especially since the tile-drainage was put in; but on the whole is
it not as I told you?"
"But note these statements," said Percy, turning again to the book:
"'It is true that heretofore we have had better crops with no better
cultivation, but I believe that it is also true that the soil has
never been pushed up to one-half of its capacity.
"'What would be the effect upon the farming interest to push the
soil up to something near its full capacity?'"
"But what can he mean," said the mother. "How can anyone do better
than we have done? We change our crops, and sow clover with the
oats, and return as much as we can to the land. But let me hear
further what Lincoln said:"
"Yes, Mother, this is what he said:
"'Unquestionably it will take more labor to produce fifty bushels of
wheat from an acre than it will to produce ten bushels from the same
acre; but will it take more labor to produce fifty bushels from one
acre than from five? Unquestionably thorough cultivation will
require more labor to the acre; but will it require more to the
bushel? If it should require just as much to the bushel, there are
some probable, and several certain, advantages in favor of the
thorough practice. It is probable it would develop those unknown
causes which of late years have cut down our crops below their
former average. It is almost certain, I think, that by deeper
plowing, analysis of the soils, experiments with manures and
varieties of seeds, observance of seasons, and the like, these
causes would be discovered and remedied. It is certain that thorough
cultivation would spare half, or more than half, the cost of land,
simply because the same produce would be got from half, or from less
than half, the quantity of land. This proposition is self-evident,
and can be made no plainer by repetitions or illustrations. The cost
of land is a great item, even in new countries, and it constantly
grows greater and greater, in comparison with other items, as the
country grows older.'"
Percy paused and said: "If I understand correctly these words of
Lincoln, the land need not become poor. But I do not know why land
becomes poor. I do not know what the soil contains, nor do I know
what corn is made of. We plow the ground and plant the seed and
cultivate and harvest the crop, but I do not know what the corn
crop, or any crop, takes from the soil. I want to learn how to
analyze the soil and crop and to find out, if possible, why soils
become poor, in order, as Lincoln suggests, that the cause may be
discovered and remedied."
"It may be that the college professors could teach you in that way,"
said the mother, "but you know the farm life is so full of work and
so empty of mental culture."
"I used to think so too," said Percy, "but I fear we have worked too
much with our hands and too little with our minds; that we have done
much work in blindness as to the actual causes that control our crop
yields; and that we have not found the mental culture that may be
found in the farm life. Let me read again. These are Lincolns words:
"'No other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable
and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as
agriculture. I know nothing so pleasant to the mind as the discovery
of anything that is at once new and valuable - nothing that so
lightens and sweetens toil as the hopeful pursuit of such discovery.
And how vast and how varied a field is agriculture for such
discovery! The mind, already trained to thought in the country
school, or higher school, cannot fail to find there an exhaustless
source of enjoyment. Every blade of grass is a study; and to produce
two where there was but one is both a profit and a pleasure. And not
grass alone. but soils, seeds, and seasons - hedges, ditches, and
fences - draining, droughts, and irrigation - plowing, hoeing, and
harrowing - reaping, mowing, and threshing - saving crops, pests of
crops, diseases of crops, and what will prevent or cure
them - implements, utensils, and machines, their relative merits, and
how to improve them - hogs, horses, and cattle - sheep, goats and
poultry - trees, shrubs, fruits, plants, and flowers - the thousand
things of which these are specimens - each a world of study within
"'In all this book learning is available. A capacity and taste for
reading gives access to whatever has already been discovered by
others. It is the key, or one of the keys, to the already solved
problems. And not only so; it gives a relish and facility for
successfully pursuing the unsolved ones. The rudiments of science
are available, and highly available. Some knowledge of botany
assists in dealing with the vegetable world - with all growing crops.
Chemistry assists in the analysis of soils, selection and
application of manures, and in numerous other ways. The mechanical
branches of natural philosophy are ready help in almost everything,
but especially in reference to implements and machinery.
"'The thought recurs that education - cultivated thought - can best be
combined with agricultural labor, on the principle of thorough work;
that careless, half-performed, slovenly work makes no place for such
combination; and thorough work, again, renders sufficient the
smallest quantity of ground to each man; and this, again, conforms
to what must occur in a world less inclined to wars and more devoted
to the arts of peace than heretofore. Population must increase
rapidly, more rapidly than in former times, and ere long the most
valuable of all arts will be the art of deriving a comfortable
subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community whose every
member possesses this art, can ever be the victim of oppression in
any of its forms. Such community will be alike independent of
crowned kings, money kings, and land kings.'"
PERCY read these words as though they were his own; and perhaps we
may say they were his own, for, as Emerson says: "Thought is the
property of him who can entertain it."
The mother listened, first with wonder; then with deepened interest,
which changed to admiration for the language and for her son, who
seemed to be filled with the spirit which had led Lincoln to see the
problems and the possibilities of the farm life in a light that was
"Surely those are noble thoughts," she said, "from a noble and wise
man. I shall only hope that you will find some opportunity to make
the best possible of your life. We have such a small farm, and the
land hereabout is all so high in price that to enlarge the farm
seems almost hopeless. In part because of this difficulty it had
seemed to me that greater opportunities might be open for you in
other lines. Don't you feel that you will be greatly handicapped in
"Perhaps," said Percy, "in some ways; but not in other ways. We hear
on every hand that this is an age of specialists, that the most
successful man cannot take time to prepare himself well for many
different lines of work; that he must make the best possible
preparation in some one line for which he may have special talent or
special interest; and then endeavor to go farther in that line than
any one has gone before. When I first wrote to the State University
I asked how long a time would likely be required for me to complete
all the subjects that are taught there, and the registrar replied
that, if I could carry heavy work every year, I might hope to take
all the courses now offered in about seventy years. In considering
this point of preparation for future work, it has seemed to me that
if I leave the farm life and devote myself to law or to engineering,
I must in large measure sacrifice about ten years of valuable
experience in practical agriculture. I have learned enough about
farming so that I can manage almost as well as the neighbors; and
without this knowledge, gathered, as you say, in the school of
experience, I can see that serious mistakes would often be made.