Cyril G. Hopkins.

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

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nitrification has no connection whatever with the free nitrogen of
the air.

"All plants take their food in solution; that is, the plant food
taken from the soil must be dissolved in the soil water or moisture.
Of the essential elements of plant food, seven are taken from the
soil through the roots into the plant. These seven do not include
those of which water itself is composed. Now, these seven plant food
elements exist in the soil almost exclusively in an insoluble form.
In that condition they are not available to the plant for plant
food; and it is the business of the farmer to make this plant food
available as fast as is needed by his growing crops.

"The nitrogen of the soil exists in the organic matter; that is, in
such materials as plant roots, weeds, and stubble, that may have
been plowed under, or any kind of vegetable maker incorporated with
the soil, including all sorts of crop residues, green manures, and
the common farm fertilizers from the stables. When these organic
materials are decomposed and disintegrated to such an extent that
their structure is completely destroyed, the resulting mass of
partially decayed black organic matter is called humus. The nitrogen
of the soil is one of the constituents of this humus or other
organic matter. It is not contained in the mineral particles of the
soil. On the other hand the other six elements of plant food are
contained largely in the mineral part of the soil, as the clay,
silt, and sand. thus the iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium,
all of which are called abundant elements, are contained in the
mineral matter, and usually in considerable amounts, while they are
found in the organic matter in very small proportion. The phosphorus
and sulfur are found in very limited quantities in most soils, but
they are present in both organic and mineral form.

"Practically the entire stock or store of all of the elements in the
soil is insoluble and consequently unavailable for the use of
growing plants; and, as I said, some of the chief plans and efforts
of the farmer should be directed to the business of making plant
food available.

"The nitrogen contained in the insoluble organic matter of the soil
is made soluble and available by the process called nitrification.
Three different kinds of bacteria are required to bring about the
complete change."

"Are these bacteria different from the nitrogen fixing bacteria?"
asked Mr. Thornton.

"Entirely different," Percy replied, "and there are three distinct
kinds, one for each of the three steps in the process.

"The first may be called ammonia bacteria. They have power to
convert organic nitrogen into ammonia nitrogen; that is, into the
compound of nitrogen and hydrogen; and this step in the process is
called ammonification.

"The other two kinds are the true nitrifying bacteria. One of them
converts the ammonia into nitrites, and the other changes the
nitrites into nitrates. These two kinds are known as the nitrite
bacteria and the nitrate bacteria.

"Technically the last two steps in the process are nitrification
proper; but, speaking generally, the term nitrification is used to
include the three steps, or both ammonification and nitrification

"Now, the nitrifying bacteria require certain conditions, otherwise
they will not perform their functions. Among these essential
conditions are the presence of moisture and free oxygen, a supply of
carbonates, certain food materials for the bacteria themselves, and
a temperature within certain limits.

"You may remember, Mr. Thornton, that more soil nitrogen is made
available for cowpeas during the summer weather than for clover
during the cooler fall and spring?"

"Yes, I remember that distinction."

"I declare," said Miss Russell, "Tom talks as though he had been
there and seen the things going on. I haven't seen you using any

"Well, I tell you, I've mighty near seen 'em," was the reply. "Mr.
Johnston makes everything so plain that I can mighty near see what
he saw when he looked through the microscope."

"I greatly enjoyed my microscopic work," said Percy, "and still more
the work in the chemical laboratory where we finally learned to
analyze soils, to take them apart and see what they contain, - how
much nitrogen how much phosphorus, how much limestone, or how much
soil acidity, which means that limestone is needed. Then I also
enjoyed the work in the pot-culture laboratory, where we learned not
to analyze but to synthesize; that is, to put different materials
together to make a soil. Thus, we would make one soil and put in all
of the essential plant food elements except nitrogen, and another
with only phosphorus lacking, and still another with both nitrogen
and phosphorus present, and all of the other essential elements
provided, except potassium, or magnesium, or iron. These prepared
soils were put in glass jars having a hole in the bottom for
drainage, and then the same kind of seeds were planted in each jar
or pot. Some students planted corn, others oats or wheat or any kind
of farm seeds. I grew rape plants in one series of pots, and I have
a photograph with me which shows very well that all of the plant
food elements are essential.

"You see one pot contained no plant food and one was prepared with
all of the ten essential elements provided. Then the other pots
contained all but one of the necessary soil elements, as indicated
in the photograph."

"Why, I never saw anything like that," said Mrs. Thornton.

"But I have many a time," said her husband, "right here on this old
farm; I don't know what's lacking, of course, but some years I've
thought most everything was lacking. But, according to this
pot-culture test, you can't raise any crops if just one of these ten
elements is lacking, no matter how much you have of the other nine;
and it seems to make no difference which one is lacking, you don't
get any crop. Is that the fact, Mr. Johnston?"

One pot with no plant food, and one with all the essential elements
provided, and still others with but one element lacking. All planted
the same day and cared for alike.

"Yes, Sir," Percy replied. "Where all of the elements are provided,
a fine crop is produced, but in each case where a single element is
omitted that is the only difference, and in some cases the result is
worse than where no plant food is supplied. It seems to hurt the
plant worse to throw its food supply completely out of balance than
to leave it with nothing except what it draws from the meager store
in the seed planted. Of course all the pots were planted with the
same kind of seed at the same time, and they were all watered
uniformly every day."

"Those results are very striking, indeed," said Miss Russell," but I
suppose one would never see such marked differences under farm

"Only under unusual or abnormal conditions," Percy replied, "but the
fact is that as a very general rule our crop yields are limited
chiefly because the supply of available plant food is limited.
Sometimes the clover crop is a complete failure on untreated land,
while it lives and produces a good crop if the soil is properly
treated; and in such cases the difference developed in the field is
just as marked as in the pot-cultures. In general we may set it down
as an absolute fact that the productive power of normal land depends
primarily upon the ability of the soil to feed the crop.

"I have here a photograph of a corn field on very abnormal soil.
They had the negative at the Experiment Station and I secured a
print from it, in part because I became interested in a story
connected with this experiment field, which our professor of soil
fertility reported to us.

"This shows a field of corn growing on peaty swamp land, of which
there are several hundred thousand acres in the swamp regions of
Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. This peaty soil is extremely rich
in humus and nitrogen, well supplied with phosphorus and other
elements, except potassium; but in this element it is extremely
deficient. This land was drained out at large expense, and produced
two or three large crops because the fresh grass roots contained
some readily available potassium; but after three or four years the
corn crop became a complete failure, as you see from the untreated
check plot on the right; while the land on the left, where potassium
was applied, produced forty-five bushels per acre the year this
photograph was taken, and with heavier treatment from sixty to
seventy-five bushels are produced."

"Seventy-five bushels would be fifteen barrels of corn per acre.
How's that, Little Wife?" asked Tom.

"It's even more wonderful than the pot culture," replied Mrs.
Thornton; "but how much did the potassium cost, Mr. Johnston."

"About three dollars an acre," replied Percy; "but of course the
land has almost no value if not treated; and as a matter of fact the
three dollars is less than half the interest on the difference in
value between this land and our ordinary corn belt land. These peaty
swamp lands are to a large extent in scattered areas, and commonly,
if a farmer owns some of this kind of land, he also owns some other
good land, perhaps adjoining the swamp; but this is not always the
case, and was not with the man in the story I mentioned. This man
lived a few miles away and his farm was practically all of this
peaty swamp land type. He heard of this experiment field and came
with his family to see it.

"As he stood looking, first at the corn on the treated and untreated
land, and then at his wife and large family of children, he broke
down and cried like a child. Later he explained to the
superintendent who was showing him the experiments, that he had put
the best of his life into that kind of land. 'The land looked rich,'
said he, - 'as rich as any land I ever saw. I bought it and drained
it and built my home on a sandy knoll. The first crops were fairly
good, and we hoped for better crops; but instead they grew worse and
worse. We raised what we could on a small patch of sandy land, and
kept trying to find out what we could grow on this black bogus land.
Sometimes I helped the neighbors and got a little money, but my wife
and I and my older children have wasted twenty years on this land.
Poverty, poverty, always! How was I to know that this single
substance which you call potassium was all we needed to make this
land productive and valuable? Oh, if I had only known this twenty
years ago, before my wife had worked like a slave, - before my
children had grown almost to manhood and womanhood, in poverty and

"Why wasn't the matter investigated sooner?" asked Miss Russell.
"Why didn't the government find out what the land needed long

"I am a Yankee," said Percy. "Why have American statesmen ridden
back and forth to the national capitol through a wilderness of
depleted and abandoned farms in the eastern states for half a
century or more before the first appropriation was made for the
purpose of agricultural investigation? and why, even now, does not
this rich federal government appropriate to the agricultural
experiment station in every state a fund at least equal to the
aggregate salaries of the congressmen from the same state, this fund
to be used exclusively for the purpose of discovering and
demonstrating profitable systems of permanent agriculture on every
type of soil? Why do we as a nation expend five hundred million
dollars annually for the development of the army and navy, and only
fifteen millions for agriculture, the one industry whose ultimate
prosperity must measure the destiny of the nation?

"Moralists sometimes tell us that the fall of the Babylonian Empire,
the fall of the Egyptian Empire, of the Grecian Empire, and the
Roman Empire, were all due to the development of pride and
immorality among those peoples; whereas, we believe that
civilization tends rather toward peace, security, and higher
citizenship. Is not the chief explanation for the ultimate and
successive fall of those great empires to be found in the exhausted
or wasted agricultural resources of the country?

"The land that once flowed with milk and honey might then support a
mighty empire, with independent resources sufficient for times of
great emergencies, but now that land seems almost barren and
supports a few wandering bands of marauding Arabs and villages of

"The power and world influence of a nation must pass away with the
passing of material resources; for poverty is helpless, and
ignorance is the inevitable result of continued poverty. Only the
prosperous can afford education or trained intelligence.

"Old land is poorer than new land. There are exceptions, but this is
the rule. The fact is known and recognized by all America.

"What does it mean? It means that the practice of the past and
present art of agriculture leads toward land ruin, - not only in
China, where famine and starvation are common, notwithstanding that
thousands and thousands of Chinese are employed constantly in saving
every particle of fertilizing material, even gathering the human
excrements from every house and by-place in village and country, as
carefully as our farmers gather honey from their hives; not only in
India where starvation's ghost is always present, where, as a rule,
there are more hungry people than the total population of the United
States; not only in Russia where famine is frequent; but, likewise
in the United States of America, the present practice of the art of
agriculture tends toward land ruin.

"Nations rise and fall; so does the productive power of vast areas
of land. Better drainage, better seed, better implements, and more
thorough tillage, all tend toward larger crops, but they also tend
toward ultimate land ruin, for the removal of larger crops only
hastens soil depletion.

"To bring about the adoption of systems of farming that will restore
our depleted Eastern and Southern soils, and that will maintain or
increase the productive power of our remaining fertile lands of the
Great Central West, where we are now producing half of the total
corn crop of the entire world, is not only the most important
material problem of the United States; but to bring this about is
worthy of, and will require, the best thought of the most
influential men of America. Without a prosperous agriculture here
there can be no permanent prosperity for our American institutions.
While some small countries can support themselves by conducting
trade, commerce, and manufacture, for other countries, American
agriculture must not only be self-supporting, but, in large degree,
agriculture must support our other great industries.

"Without agriculture, the coal and iron would remain in the earth,
the forest would be left uncut, the railroads would be abandoned,
the cities depopulated, and the wooded lands and water-ways would
again be used only for hunting and fishing. Shall we not remember,
for example, that the coal mine yields a single harvest - one
crop - and is then forever abandoned; while the soil must yield a
hundred - yes, a thousand crops, and even then it must be richer and
more productive than at the beginning, if those who come after us
are to continue to multiply and replenish the earth.

"Even the best possible system of soil improvement, we must admit,
is not the absolute and final solution of this, the most stupendous
problem of the United States. If war gives way to peace and
pestilence to science, then the time will come when the soils of
America shall reach the limit of the highest productive power
possible to be permanently maintained, even by the general adoption
of the most practical scientific methods; and before that limit is
reached, if power, progress, and plenty are to continue in our
beloved country, there must be developed and enforced the law of the
survival of the fittest; otherwise there is no ultimate future for
America different from that of China, India, and Russia, the only
great agricultural countries comparable to the United States. An
enlightened humanity must grant to all the right to live, but the
reproduction and perpetuation of the unfit can never be an absolute
and inalienable right.

"Under the present laws and customs, a man may spend half his life
in the insane asylum or in the penitentiary, and still be the father
of a dozen children with degenerate tendencies. There should be no
reproduction from convicted criminals, insane persons, and other
degenerates. Thieves, grafters, bribers and bribe-takers all belong
in the same class, and it should not be left possible for them to
reproduce their kind. They are a burden upon the public which the
public must bear, but the public is under no obligation to permit
their multiplication. The children of such should never become the
parents of others. It is a crime against both the child and the

"No doubt you will consider this extremely visionary, and so it is;
but unless America can see a vision somewhat like this, a population
that is doubling three or four times each century, and an area of
depleted soils that is also increasing at a rapid rate will combine
to bring our Ship of State into a current against which we may
battle in vain; for there is not another New World to bring new
wealth, new prosperity, and new life and light after another period
of 'Dark Ages.'

"Whether we shall ever apply any such intelligence to the possible
improvement of our own race as we have in the great improvement of
our cattle and corn is, of course, an open question; but to some
extent you will agree that the grafter and the insane, like the
poet, are born and not made. Of course there are, and always will
be, marked variations, mutants, or 'sports,' but, nevertheless,
natural inheritance is the master key to the improvement of every
form of life; and it is an encouraging fact that some of the states,
as Indiana, for example, have already adopted laws looking toward
the reduction of the reproduction of convicted degenerates."



"BUT I have rambled far from the subject assigned me," Percy

"That's only because I interrupt and ask so many side questions,"
replied Mr. Thornton, "but I hope yet to learn more about those
'suitable conditions' for nitrogen-fixation and nitrification. It
begins to look as though the nitrogen cycle deviates a good deal
from a true circle, and nature seems to need some help from us to
make that element circulate as fast as we need it. I confess, too,
that this method appeals to me much more than the
twenty-cent-a-pound proposition of the fertilizer agent."

"Yes, indeed," added Miss Russell; "and if we had to spend three
dollars an acre on this farm our 'Slough of Despond' would be worse
than the slough, or swamp, Mr. Johnston has told us about."

"I fear the practical and profitable improvement of an acre of this
land is more likely to cost thirty dollars than three," said Percy.

"Oh, for the land's sake!" came the ejaculation.

"Yes, 'for the land's sake,'" repeated Percy; "and for the sake of
those who must depend upon the land for their support for all time

"How ridiculous! Thirty dollars an acre for the improvement of land
that will not bring ten dollars to begin with!"

"It is better to look at the other end of the undertaking," said
Percy. "Suppose you invest thirty dollars an acre and in a few years
make your ten-dollar land produce as much as our two-hundred dollar

"But, Mr. Johnston; do you realize how much money it would require
to expend thirty dollars an acre on nine hundred acres?" continued
Miss Russell, with stronger accentuation.

"Twenty-seven thousand dollars," was the simple reply.

"Well, Sir," she said, "you are welcome to this whole farm for ten
thousand dollars."

"I am not wishing for it," he answered. "In fact I would not take
this farm as a gift, if I were obliged to keep it and pay the taxes
and had no other property or source of income."

"That's just the kind of talk I've been putting up to these girls,"
said Mr. Thornton. "By the time we live and pay about two hundred
dollars a year taxes on all this land, I tell you, there is nothing
left; and we'd been worse off than we are, except for the sale we
made to the railroad company."

"Well, the Russells lived here very well for more than a hundred
years," she retorted, "and my grandfather supported one nigger for
every ten acres of the farm, but I would like to know any farmers
about here who can put thirty dollars an acre, or even ten dollars
an acre, back into their soil for improvement."

"The problem is indeed a serious one," said Percy. "Unquestionably
much of the land in these older states is far past the point of
possible self-redemption under the present ownership. Land from
which the fertility has been removed by two hundred years of
cropping, until it has ceased to return a living to those who till
it, cannot have its fertility restored sufficiently to again make
its cultivation profitable, except by making some considerable
investment in order to replace those essential elements the supply
of which has become so limited as to limit the crop yields to a
point where their value is below the cost of production. Even on the
remaining productive lands in the North Central States, if we are
ever to adopt systems of permanent agriculture, it must be done
while the landowners are still prosperous. If the people of the corn
belt repeat the history of the Eastern States until their lands
cease to return a profit above the total cost of production, then
they, too, will have nothing left to invest in the improvement of
their lands."

"But their fertility could still be restored by outside capital?"
suggested Mr. Thornton. "I know very well that is the only solution
of our problem."

"Well, Tom, I would like to know where the outside capital is coming
from," said Miss Russell.

"Marry rich," he replied. "Don't make such a blunder as your sister

"I fear that Mr. Johnston will suggest that we sell some more land,"
remarked Mrs. Thornton.

"All right," replied her sister; "and we will sell it to him. If he
won't take the whole farm as a gift, we'll cut it to any length he
wishes. Do you consider 'Ten Acres Enough,' Mr. Johnston; or would
you prefer 'Three Acres and Liberty?' We'll do our best to enable
you to enjoy 'The Fat of the Land.' Just tell us how large a farm
you want, I know already that you do not want nine hundred acres."

"My dear Miss Russell," said Percy. "This is so sudden"; whereupon
Mr. Thornton nearly fell from his chair and Mrs. Thornton laughed
heartily at the sister's expense who blushed as she might have done
twenty years before.

"However," Percy resumed, "if you should decide to dispose of about
half of that seven hundred acres which you use only as a safety bank
for most of your two hundred dollars in taxes, please consider me a
prospective taker."

"Take her," said Mr. Thornton, and again confusion reigned.

"Tom is so anxious to get rid of his sister-in-law that he reminds
me of the man whose mother-in-law died," said Miss Russell. "He was
too far from home to return to the usual funeral, and they
telegraphed him the sad news and asked if they should embalm,
cremate, or bury the remains. He wired back: 'Embalm, cremate, and

"That matter of outside capital is by no means so substantial as it
might seem," said Percy. "It is worth while to consider how little
real wealth there would be in America if the remaining rich lands
should become impoverished. The railroads would at once cease to pay
dividends, and those who are now millionaires in railroad stock
would find themselves on the rapid road to poverty. The manufacturer
of finished products from the raw materials raised on the farm, the
manufacturer of agricultural implements, and the great urban
population whose income is from the trade in raw materials and
manufactured goods would soon see their wealth shrivel. The great
sky scrapers of the cities would be left for the owls and bats to
harbor in, if our agricultural lands ceased to yield their great
harvests. Meanwhile the farming people would continue to live upon
the meager products still produced from the impoverished soil, even
though they had no surplus food to ship into the cities. Human labor
would replace that of domestic animals on the farm, just as it has
done in China and India, in part because man's labor is worth more
than that of the beast, when measured only by the amount of food
consumed, and in part because a thousand bushels of grain will

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Online LibraryCyril G. HopkinsThe Story of the Soil; from the Basis of Absolute Science and Real Life, → online text (page 7 of 23)