Cyril G. Hopkins.

The Story of the Soil; from the Basis of Absolute Science and Real Life, online

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"You know that Doctor Miller bought the Bronson farm two years ago.
Well, he has been giving some directions himself concerning its
management. He has had no experience in farming, and last year,
after he had the new barn built, he directed his men to put the
sheaf oats in the barn so they would be safe from the weather. He
did not understand that oats must stand in the shock for two or
three weeks to become thoroughly "cured" before they can safely be
even stacked out of doors; and the result was that his entire oat
crop rotted in the barn.

"People who have lived always in the city sometimes express the most
amusing opinions of farm conditions so well understood even by a
ten-year-old country boy. I recently overheard two traveling men
remarking about the differences which they could plainly observe
between the corn crops in different fields as they rode past in the

"'Some fields have twice as good corn as other adjoining fields,'
one remarked. 'How do you account for the difference,' asked the
other. 'oh, I suppose the one farmer was too stingy of his seed,'
was the reply.

"I am convinced that there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of
valuable facts that have been acquired through experience and
observation by the average farm boy of eighteen or twenty years that
would be of little or no value to him in most other occupations; and
in this respect I should be handicapped if I leave the farm life and
begin wholly at the bottom in some other profession. Perhaps
agriculture is not a profession, but I think it should be if the
highest success is to be attained."

"I surely hope you will be successful, Percy, and your reasoning
sounds all right; but other occupations seem to lead to greater
wealth than farming."

"I very much doubt," replied Percy, "if there is any other
occupation that is so uniformly successful as farming, in the truest
sense. It provides constant employment, a good living, and a
comfortable home for nearly all who engage in it; and as a rule they
have made no such preparation as is required for most other lines of

"But there is still another side to the farm life, Mother dear, or
to any life for that matter. Your own life has taught me that to
work for the love of others is a motive which directs the noblest
lives. If agricultural missionaries are needed in India, they are
also needed in parts of our own country where farm lands that were
once productive are now greatly depleted and in some cases even
abandoned for farming; and. if the older lands of the corn belt are
already showing a decrease in productive power, we need the
missionary even here. If I can learn how to make land richer and
richer and lead others to follow such a system, I should find much
satisfaction in the effort."



"WELL, you found some mighty poor land, I reckon," was the greeting
Percy received from Grandma West as he returned from his walk over
Westover and some neighboring farms.

"I found some land that produces very poor crops," he replied, "but
I don't know yet whether I should say that the land is poor."

"Well, I know it's about as poor as poor can be; but it was not
always poor, I can tell you. When I was a girl, if this farm did not
produce five or six thousands bushels of wheat, we thought it a poor
crop; but now, if we get five or six hundred bushels, we think we
are doing pretty well. My husband's father paid sixty-eight dollars
an acre for some of this land, and it was worth more than that a few
years later and, mind you, in those days wheat was worth less and
niggers a mighty sight more than they are nowadays; but, somehow,
the land has just grown poor. We don't know how. We have worked
hard, and we have kept as much stock as we could, but we could never
produce enough fertilizer on the farm to go very far on a thousand

"Yes, Sir, we have just about a thousand acres here and we still own
it, - and with no mortgage on it, I'm mighty glad to say. But, laws,
the land is poor, and you can get all the land you want about here
for ten dollars an acre. There comes Charles, now. He can tell you
all about this country for more than twenty miles, I reckon.

"Wilkes!" A negro servant answered the call, and took the horse as
Charles West stopped at the side gate.

"Wilkes was born here in slave times, nigh sixty years ago," she
continued. "He is three years older than my son Charles. He has
remained with us ever since the war, except for a few months when he
went away one time just to see for sure that he was free and _could
_go. But he came back mighty homesick and he'll want to stay here
till he dies, I reckon.

"Charles, this is Mr. Johnston, Percy Johnston, as he says; but he
thinks he is no kin of General Joe or Albert Sidney. He's been
looking at the land hereabout, but I don't think he'll want any of
it after seeing the kind of crops we raise."

With this introduction, the mother disappeared within the house, and
Charles took her seat on the vine-covered veranda.

"I feel that I owe an apology to you, Sir," said Percy, "for
presenting myself here with bag and baggage, and asking to share the
hospitality of your home, with no previous arrangements having been
made; but by chance I met your friend, Doctor Goddard, on the train,
and, in answer to my inquiry as to whom I could go to for correct
information concerning the history and present condition and value
of farm lands in this section of the country, he advised me to stop
off at Blue Mound Station and consult with you. Had I known that you
were to be in Montplain to-day, of course I should have gone
directly there. Your mother very graciously consented to receive me
as a belated summer boarder, a kindness which I greatly appreciate,
I assure you.

"My mother and I have a small farm in Illinois, - so small that it
would be lost in such an estate as Westover, but the price of land
is very high in the West at the present time; and I am really
considering the question of selling our little forty-acre farm and
purchasing two or three hundred acres in the East or South. My
thought is that I might secure a farm that was once good land, but
that has been run down to such an extent that it can be bought for
perhaps ten or twenty dollars an acre. I should want the land to be
nearly level so that it would not be difficult to prevent damage
from surface washing. I should prefer, of course, to purchase where
there is a good road and not more than five miles from a railway

"If I secure such a farm, it would be my purpose to restore its
fertility. If possible I should want to make the land at least as
productive as it ever was, even in its virgin state."

"Well, Sir," said Mr. West, "if you could accomplish your purpose
and ultimately show a balance on the right side of the ledger, it
would be a work of very great value to this country. There will be
no difficulty in securing such land as you want with location and
price to suit you; but I think that you should know in advance that
older men than you have purchased farms hereabout with very similar
intentions, but with the ultimate result that they have lost more,
financially, than we who are native to the soil; for, while we were
once well-to-do and are now poor, we still own our land,
impoverished as it is. However, the farm still furnishes us a
comfortable living, supplemented, to be sure, with some income from
other sources.

"I am very willing to give as much information as I can regarding
our lands and the agricultural conditions and common practices,
although I fear that this knowledge will discourage you from making
any investments in our worn-out farms. If you still decide to make
the trial, I surely hope you will be successful, for we need such an
object lesson above all else.

"I assume that you will wish to locate near a town of considerable
size, in order that you can haul manures from town, and perhaps some
feed also; and have a good market for your milk and other products."

"No, Sir," said Percy, "I should prefer not to engage in dairying,
and I do not wish to make use of fertilizer made from my neighbors'
crops. We have some object lessons of that kind in my own state; and
I have no doubt that some can be found in this state who feed all
they produce on their own land and perhaps even larger amounts of
feed purchased from their neighbors, or hauled from town, and who,
in addition to using all of the farm fertilizer thus produced, haul
considerable amounts of such materials from the livery stables in
town. With much hard work, with a good market for the products of
the dairy and truck garden, and with business skill in purchasing
feed from their neighbors when prices are low, such men succeed as
individuals; but do they furnish an object lesson which could be
followed by the general farmer?"

"I had not looked at the matter from that point of view," said Mr.
West, "but it is plain to see that on the whole there can be only a
small percentage of such farmers; and in reality they are a
detriment to their neighbors who permit their own hay and grain to
be hauled off from their farms; but certainly these are the methods
followed by our most successful farmers, and these are they who live
on the fat of the land."

"Are they farmers or are they manufacturers?" asked Percy. "It seems
to me that, in large measure, their business is to manufacture a
finished product from the raw materials produced upon other farms,
either in the immediate neighborhood or in the newer regions of the
West. As you know, much of our surplus produce from the farms of the
corn belt is shipped into the eastern and southern states, there to
be used as food for man and beast, not only in the cities, but also
to a considerable extent in the country. Instead of living on the
fat of the land, such manufacturers live in the country at the
expense of special city customers who may have fat jobs and are able
to pay fancy prices for country produce made by the impoverishment
of many farms. In most cases, if such a 'successful farmer' were
compelled to pay average prices for what he buys and allowed to
receive only average prices for what he sells, his fat would have
plenty of lean streaks."



DINNER was served at the family table, with Mr. West at the head and
his mother at the foot.

"The eye is the window of the soul," thought Percy, as he met the
glance of Adelaide sitting opposite. Certain he was that he had
never before looked into such alluring eyes.

Adelaide was neither a girl nor a woman and yet at times she was
both. With the other children she was a child that still loved to
romp and play with the rest, free as a bird. Her mother, a
sweet-faced woman, some years her husband's junior, made sisters of
all her daughters, the more naturally perhaps, because the
grandmother was still so active and so interested in all phases of
homemaking that she seemed mother to them all. Adelaide's two older
sisters were married and her brother Charles, also older than
herself, by three years, was a senior in college. Adelaide had just
finished her course in the Academy where the long service of a
maiden aunt as a teacher had secured certain appreciated privileges,
without which it is doubtful if both Charles and Adelaide could have
been sent away to school at the same time. A boy of fourteen and the
eight-year old baby brother with two sisters between comprised the
younger members of the family.

Miss Bowman, the teacher of the district school, also occupied a
place at the table. The evening meal was disposed of without delay,
for there was something of greater importance to follow. A musicale
in the near-by country church had been in preparation and Percy
heartily accepted an invitation to accompany the family to the
evening's entertainment. Or rather he accompanied Mr. and Mrs. West
and the grandmother, for all the children had walked the distance
before the carriage arrived.

Without having specialized in music, nevertheless Percy had improved
the frequent opportunities he had had, especially while at the
university, and he had learned to appreciate quality in the musical
world. Consequently he was not a little surprised and greatly
pleased to sit and listen to a class of music that he had never
before heard rendered in country places; but, as he listened for
Adelaide's singing in chorus, duet, and solo, he found himself
wondering whether the eye or the voice more clearly revealed the

"It seemed like the old times," said the grandmother, with something
like a sigh, as she took her place in the carriage. "If our land was
only like it used to be! but it's become so mighty poor our children
can't have many advantages these days. The Harcourt's and Staunton's
whom you met are descendants of ancestors once well known in this

"It seems to me that the land need not have grown poor," said
Percy. "If the land was once productive, its fertility ought to be
maintained by the return of the essential materials removed in crops
or destroyed by cultivation. Surely land need not become poor; but
of course I know too little about this land to suggest at the
present time what method could best be adopted for its improvement."

"We can tell you what the best method is," she quickly replied.
"Just put on plenty of ordinary farm fertilizer, but, laws, we don't
have enough to cover fifty acres a year."

For a time each seemed lost in thought, or listening to the husband
and wife who sat in the front seat quietly talking of the evening's
performances. Percy recognized some of the names they mentioned as
belonging to persons to whom he had been presented at the church. It
gradually dawned upon him that he had spent the evening with the
aristocracy of the Blue Mound neighborhood. Culture, refinement, and
poverty were the chief characteristics of the people who had been

"It need not have been," he repeated to himself; "surely, it need
not have been, "and then he wondered if these were not much sadder
words than the oft repeated "it might have been."

"May I ask where your people came from, Mrs. West?" he questioned.

"Where we came from?" she repeated, "I don't quite understand."

"Excuse me," said Percy, "but in the West it is so common to ask
people where they are from. You know the West is settled with people
from all sections of the East, and many from Europe and from Canada,
and I thought your ancestors may have moved here from some other
state, as from Pennsylvania for example, where my mother's people
once lived."

"Let me advise you, Young Man," said the grandmother briskly, and in
a tone that reminded Percy of the twinkle he had at times noticed in
her eyes when she seemed young again - "Let me advise you never to
ask a Virginian if he was born in Pennsylvania. That's more than
most Virginians can stand. Once a Virginian, always a
Virginian, - both now, hereafter, and hitherto. It's mighty hard to
find a Virginian who came from anywhere except from the royal blood
of England; although some may condescend to acknowledge kinship to
the Scottish royalty."

The grandmother's voice was raised to a pitch which commanded the
attention of the other members in the carriage and a hearty laugh
followed her jovial wit, to the full relief of Percy's temporary

"Well," she continued, "to answer your question: my husband and my
children are direct descendants of Colonel Charles West, a brother
of Lord Delaware, who was Sir Thomas West, whose ancestry goes back
to Henry the Second, of England, and to David the First, of
Scotland; and my granddaughter is the great-granddaughter of Patrick
Henry. So now you know where _we _came from," and she laughed again
like a girl. "Yes," she added, "we have a family tree six feet from
branch to branch, but it is stored in a back room where I am sure it
is covered with cobwebs, for we have no time to live with the past
when the summer boarders are here."

As the carriage stopped at the side gate, the children's voices
could be heard in the rear; for Mr. West had been living over again
his younger days with his sweet-faced wife, and the farm team had
taken its own time.



"NOW, I shall be at home to-day and glad to assist you in any way
possible," announced Mr. West at the breakfast table.

"That is very kind of you," Percy replied. "I want especially to
learn some of the things you know about the soils of Westover. Can
you show me the best land and the poorest land on the estate?"

"I think I can." said Mr. West. "We have some land that has not
grown a crop in fifty years, and we have other land that still
produces a very fair crop if properly rotated."

"And what rotation do you practice?"

"Well, the system we have finally settled into and have followed for
many years is to plow up the run-out pasture land and plant to corn.
The second year we usually raise a crop of wheat or oats and seed
down to clover and timothy. We then try to cut hay from the land for
two years, and afterward we use the field for pasture for six or
eight years, or until finally it produces only weeds and foul grass.
Then we cover it with farm manure, so far as we can, and again plow
the land for corn. Wheat and cattle are the principal products sold
from the farm."

"In this way," said Percy, "you grow one crop of corn on the same
field about once in ten or twelve years."

"Yes, about that, and also one, or sometimes two, crops of small
grain. We usually have about seventy-five acres of corn, nearly a
hundred acres of small grain, and we cut hay from somewhat more than
hundred acres, thus leaving perhaps five hundred acres of pasture
land, besides about two hundred acres of timber land which has not
been cultivated for many years."

"Was the timber land that we see about here formerly cultivated?"
asked Percy.

"Oh, yes, nearly all of it was under cultivation when I was a boy,
although some had been allowed to go back to timber even before I
was born. On our own farm we have some timber land that, so far as I
have been able to learn, was never under cultivation; and the
character of the trees is different on that land. There you will
find original pine, but on the worn-out land the 'old-field' pine
are found. They are practically worthless, while the original pine
makes very valuable lumber.

"With our system of rotation we keep about all of our farm under
control; but the smaller farms were necessarily cropped more
continuously to support the family, and they became so unproductive
that many of them have been completely abandoned for agricultural
purposes; and even some of the large plantations were poorly
managed, one part having been cropped continuously until too poor to
pay for cropping, while the remainder was allowed to grow up in
scrub brush and 'old-field' pine; and, of course, the expense of
clearing such land is about as much as the net value of the crops
that could be grown until it again becomes too poor for cropping."

"Then the recleared lands are not as productive as when they were
first cleared from the virgin forest?"

"Oh, by no means. In the virgin state these lands grew bountiful
crops almost continuously for a hundred years or more. Virginia was
famed at home and abroad for her virgin fertility. Great crops of
corn, wheat, and tobacco were grown. Tobacco was a valuable export
crop, and there were many Virginians whose mothers came to America
with passage paid for in tobacco. History records, you may remember,
that it was the custom for a time to permit a young man to pay into
a general store house a hundred pounds of tobacco, - and this was
later increased to one hundred fifty pounds, - to be used in payment
of passage for young women who were thus enabled to come to America;
and there was a very distinct understanding that only those who had
come forth with the tobacco were eligible as suitors for the hand of
any 'imported' maiden. As a matter of fact some such arrangement as
this was almost a necessity," said Mr. West, as he noted Adelaide's
almost incredulous look. "Among the first settlers in Virginia,
young men greatly predominated; and in the main the people in the
home country were themselves in poverty. Under the hereditary laws
of England the father's estate and title became the possession of
his eldest son; and in large measure the other children of the
family were thrown absolutely upon their own resources, so that
many, even with royal blood in their veins, were very glad to
embrace any opportunity offered to seek a new home in this land of
virgin richness.

"Of course," he continued, smilingly and in direct answer to
Adelaide's inquiring look, "those young women were in no sense bound
to accept the attention or the offer of any man; but naturally most
of them did become the wives of those who were able to offer them a
husband's love and a home with more of life's comforts perhaps than
they had ever known before. They were at perfect liberty, however,
to remain in the enjoyment of single blessedness if they chose, and
I doubt not," he added, with a twinkle in his eyes, "that some of
them had no other choice."



WITH an auger in his hand, by means of which a hole could be quickly
bored into the soil to a depth of three or four feet, Percy joined
Mr. West for the tramp over the plantation.

In general the estate called Westover consists of undulating upland.
A small stream crosses one corner of the farm bordered by some
twenty acres of bottom land which is subject to frequent overflow,
and used only for permanent pasture. Several draws or small valleys
are tributary to the stream valley, thus furnishing excellent
surface drainage for the entire farm. In some places the sides of
these valleys are quite sloping and subject to moderate erosion when
not protected by vegetation. Above and between these slopes the
upland is nearly level. As they came upon one of these level areas,
grown up with small forest trees, Mr. West stopped and said:

"Now right here is probably as poor a piece of land as there is on
the farm. This land will positively not grow a crop worth harvesting
unless it is well fertilized."

"If we were in the Illinois corn belt," replied Percy, "I should
expect to find the land in this position to be the most productive
on the farm. Our level uplands are now valued at from one hundred
fifty to two hundred dollars an acre. A farm of one hundred eighty
acres, five miles from town, sold for two hundred and fourteen
dollars an acre a few days before I started east."

"Well," said Mr. West, "this may have been good land once, but if so
it was before my time. Of course most of our uplands here have been
cropped for upwards of two hundred years; and about all that has
ever been done to keep up the fertility of the soil has been to
rotate the crops. To be sure, the farm manure has always been used
as far as it would go, but the supply is really very small compared
to the need for it."

"Do you think that the proper rotation of crops would maintain the
fertility of the soil?" asked Percy.

"No, I have tried too many rotations to think that, but I suppose it
is a help in that direction, don't you?"

"I would say that crop rotation may help to maintain the supply of
some important constituents of a fertile soil, but it will certainly
hasten the depletion of some other equally essential constituents."

"Well, that's a new idea to me. I may not quite grasp your meaning;
but first tell me about these tests you are making."

When they stopped on the area of poor land as designated by Mr.
West, Percy had turned his auger into the earth and drawn out a
sample of moist soil, which he molded into the form of a ball. He
broke this in two, inserted a piece of blue paper, and pressed it
firmly together. He then laid the ball of soil aside, secured
another sample with the auger, and formed it into a cake with a
hollow in the upper surface. He took from his pocket a slender box
or tube of light wood, removed the screw cap, and drew out a
glass-stoppered bottle.

"This bottle contains hydrochloric acid," said Percy. "It is often
incorrectly called 'muriatic acid.' It consists of two elements,
hydrogen and chlorin, from which its name is derived. But you are
perhaps already familiar with the chemical elements."

"Well, I heard lectures at William and Mary for four years, and they
included some chemistry as it was then taught; but they certainly
did not include the application of chemistry to agriculture, and I

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Online LibraryCyril G. HopkinsThe Story of the Soil; from the Basis of Absolute Science and Real Life, → online text (page 2 of 23)