Cyril G. Hopkins.

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

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"How many pounds are there in a ton of hay?" asked Percy.

"Two thousand."

"How many pounds in a bushel of oats?"

"Thirty in Virginia, but thirty-two in Carolina."

"How many in a bushel of wheat?"



"Fifty-six pounds of shelled corn, or seventy pounds of ears."


"Eighty-six pounds, - both kinds the same, but most States require
sixty pounds for the Irish potatoes."

Percy laughed. "You see," he said, "you have more figures in your
head than I have in mine. You have mentioned twice as many right
here, without a moment's hesitation, as I try to remember for the
plant food contained in clover. I like to keep in mind the
requirements of large crops, such as it is possible to raise under
our climatic conditions if we will provide the stuff the crops are
made of, so far as we need to, and do the farm work as it should be
done. I never try to remember how much plant food is required for
twenty-two bushels of corn per acre, which is the average yield of
Virginia for the last ten years, while an authentic record reports a
yield of 239 bushels from an acre of land in South Carolina. On our
little farm in Illinois we have one field of sixteen acres, which
was used for a pasture and feed lot for many years by my grandfather
and has been thoroughly tile-drained since I was born, that has
produced as high as 2,015 bushels of corn in one season, thus making
an average of 126 bushels per acre.

"What I try to remember is the plant food requirements for such
crops as we ought to try to raise, if we do what ought to be done. I
try to remember the plant food required for a hundred-bushel crop of
corn, a hundred-bushel crop of oats, a fifty-bushel crop of wheat,
and four tons of clover hay. It is an easy matter to divide these
amounts by two, as I have really been doing here in the East where
it is hard for people to think in terms of such crops as these lands
ought to be made to produce.

"The requirements of the clover crop I certainly want to have in
mind as a part of my little stock of ever-ready knowledge. It is not
very hard to remember that a four-ton crop of clover hay, which we
ought to harvest from one acre in two cuttings, contains:

160 pounds of nitrogen,
31 pounds of magnesium,
20 pounds of phosphorus,
120 pounds of potassium,
117 pounds of calcium.

"It is just as easy to think in these terms as in per cent. or
pounds of butter fat, which I understand is the basis on which you
sell your cream."

"Yes, I believe you are right in this matter, Mr. Johnston, but I
have never been able to see how we could apply the figures reported
from chemical analysis."

"Neither do I see how any one but a chemist could make much use of
the reports which the analyst usually publishes. Such reports will
usually show the percentages of moisture and so-called 'phosphoric
acid,' for example, in a sample of clover hay, and perhaps the
percentages of these constituents in a sample of soil; but to
connect the requirements of the clover crop with the invoice of the
soil demand more of a mental effort than I was prepared for before I
went to the agricultural college.

"On the other hand we were taught in college that the plowed soil of
an acre of our most common Illinois corn belt land contains only
1200 pounds of phosphorus, and that a hundred-bushel crop of corn
takes twenty-three pounds of phosphorus out of the soil. Furthermore
that about one pound of phosphorus per acre is lost annually in
drainage water in humid regions. By dividing 1200 by 24 it is easy
to see that fifty corn crops such as we ought to try to raise would
require as much phosphorus as the present supply in our soil to a
depth of about seven inches. Of course there is some phosphorus
below seven inches, but it is the plowed soil we must depend upon to
a very large extent. The oldest agricultural experiment station in
the world is at Rothamsted, England. On two plots of ground in the
same field where wheat has been grown every year for sixty years,
the soil below the plow line has practically the same composition,
but on one plot the average yield for the last fifty years has been
thirteen bushels per acre, while on the other the yield of wheat has
averaged thirty-seven bushels for the same fifty years."

"The same kind of wheat?" inquired Mr. Thornton.

"Yes, and great care has always been taken to have these two plots
treated alike in all respects, save one."

"And what was that?"

"Plant food was regularly incorporated with the plowed soil of the
high-yielding plot."

"You mean that farm manure was used?"

"No, not a pound of farm manure has been used on that plot for more
than sixty years; and, furthermore, the two plots were very much
alike at the beginning; but, to the high-yielding plot, nitrogen,
phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sulfur have all been
applied in suitable compounds every year."

"That is to say," observed Mr. Thornton, "that the land itself has
produced thirteen bushels of wheat per acre and the plant food
applied has produced twenty four bushels, making the total yield
thirty-seven bushels on the fertilized land."

"That is certainly a fair way to state it," replied Percy.

" Well, that sounds as though something might be done with run-down
lands. About what part of the twenty-four bushels increase would it
take to pay for the fertilizers?"

"About 150 per cent. of it," Percy replied.

"One hundred and fifty per cent! Why, you can't have more than a
hundred per cent. of anything."

"Oh, yes, you can. The twenty-four bushels are one hundred per cent.
of what the fertilizers produced, and the land itself increased this
by fifty per cent., so that the fertilized land produced one hundred
and fifty per cent. of the increase from the plant food applied.

"Well, that's too much college mathematics for me; but do you mean
to say that it would take the whole thirty-seven bushels to pay for
the plant food that produced the increase of twenty-four bushels?"

"That is exactly what I mean. I see that you do not like percentage
any better than I do. Really the acre is the best agricultural unit.
We buy and sell the land itself by the acre; we report crop yields
at so many bushels or tons per acre; we apply manure at so many
loads or tons per acre; we apply so many hundred pounds of
fertilizer per acre; sow our wheat and oats at so many pecks or
bushels per acre; and we ought to know the invoice of plant food in
the plowed soil of an acre and the amounts carried off in the crops
removed from an acre.

"Now, referring again to these figures from the forty acres of
clover at two tons per acre. If the eighty tons were burned and the
ashes mixed with the surface soil on a tenth of an acre the increase
per acre would be as follows:

4,000 pounds of phosphorus
24,000 pounds of potassium
6,200 pounds of magnesium
23,400 pounds of calcium.

"These, remember, are the amounts per acre that would be added to
the soil by burning the eighty tons of clover on one-tenth of an

"Now compare these figures with the total amounts of the same
elements contained in the common corn belt prairie soil of Illinois,
which are as follows:

1,200 pounds of phosphorus
35,000 pounds of potassium
8,600 pounds of magnesium
5,400 pounds of calcium.

"From these figures you will see that the analysis of a single
sample of soil collected from a spot of ground that had sometimes
received such an addition as this would be positively worse than
worthless, because it would give false information, and that is much
worse than no information.

"The methods of chemical analysis have been developed to a high
degree of accuracy, and it is not a difficult matter to find a
chemist who can make a correct analysis of the sample placed in his
hands; but the chief difficulties lie, first, in securing samples of
soil that will truly represent the type or types of soil on the
farm; and, second, in the interpretation of the results of analysis
with reference to the adoption of methods of soil improvement."

"Is the report of the analysis as confusing with respect to other
elements as with potassium and phosphorus, which, I understand, are
likely to be reported in terms of potash and a 'phosphoric acid'
that is not true phosphoric acid?"

"Still worse," Percy replied. "The calcium is commonly reported in
terms of lime, or, as you would say, quick lime; and vet the soil
may be an acid soil, like yours, and contain no lime whatever,
neither as quick lime nor limestone. I have seen an analysis
reporting half a per cent. of calcium oxid, which would make five
tons of quick lime in the plowed soil of an acre; whereas the soil
not only contained no lime whatever, but was so acid that it needed
five tons of ground limestone per acre to correct the acidity.

"The trouble is that when the chemist found calcium in the soil
existing in the form of acid silicate, or calcium hydrogen silicate,
he reported calcium oxid, or lime, in his analytical statement,
assuming apparently that the farmer would understand that the
analytical statement did not mean what it said."

"But some soils do contain lime, do they not?"

"Some soils contain limestone," replied Percy, "and the analysis of
such a soil should report the amount of limestone, or calcium
carbonate, based upon the actual determination of carbonate carbon
or carbon dioxid, which is a true measure of the basic property of
the soil, even though the limestone may be somewhat magnesian in

For a set of soil samples. Percy collected soil from three different
strata. The first sample represented the surface stratum from the
top to six and two-third inches; the second sample represented the
subsurface stratum from six and two-thirds to twenty inches; and the
third sample represented the subsoil from twenty to forty inches,
each sample being a composite of about twenty borings.

In collecting these the hole was bored to six and two-third inches
and somewhat enlarged by scraping up and down with the auger, all of
the soil being put into a numbered bag. Then, the hole was extended
and the subsurface boring removed without touching the surface soil.
This boring to a depth of twenty inches was put into a second bag.
The hole was then enlarged to the twenty-inch depth but the
additional soil removed was discarded as a mixture of the surface
and subsurface strata. Finally the hole was extended to the
forty-inch depth and the subsoil from one groove of the auger was
put into a third bag. In this manner about an equal quantity of soil
was bagged from each stratum; and twenty such borings taken with an
auger about one inch in diameter make a sufficient quantity to
furnish to the chemist.

"Of course the surface soil is by far the most important," Percy
explained. "It represents just about the depth of earth that is
turned by the plow in good farming on normal soils; and it weighs
about two million pounds per acre. The subsurface stratum extending
from six and two-thirds to twenty inches in depth represents the
practical limit of subsoiling; and this stratum weighs about four
million pounds; while the subsoil stratum weighs about six million
pounds, where the soil is normal, such as loam, silt loam, clay
loam, or sandy loam. Pure sand soil weighs about one-fourth more,
while pure peat soil weighs only half as much as normal soil."

"I wish you would tell me," said Mr. Thornton, "what the fertilizers
cost that have been used on that Rothamsted wheat field."

"The annual application of nitrogen has been one hundred twenty-nine
pounds per acre," said Percy. "What will it cost?"

"Well, at twenty cents a pound, it would cost $25.80," was Mr.
Thornton's reply after he had figured a moment. "But why didn't they
grow clover and get the nitrogen from the air?"

"For two reasons," replied Percy. "First, when those classic
experiments were begun by Sir John Lawes and Sir Henry Gilbert in
1844, it was not known that clover could secure the free nitrogen
from the air; and, second, the experiment was designed to discover
for certain whether wheat must be supplied with combined nitrogen,
by ascertaining the actual effect upon the yield of wheat of the
nitrogen applied."

"And what was the actual effect of the nitrogen?" questioned Mr.
Thornton. "How much did the wheat yield when they left out the
nitrogen and applied all the other elements?"

"Only fifteen bushels," was the reply.

"Only fifteen bushels! Only two bushels increase for all the other
elements, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, - and I
remember you said that sulfur also was applied. Why didn't they
leave off all these other elements, and just use the nitrogen

"They did on another plot in the same field."

"Oh, they did do that? What was the yield on that plot?"

"Only twenty bushels."

"Only twenty bushels! Well, that s mighty queer. How do you account
for that?"

"Does Mrs. Thornton sometimes make dough out of flour and milk?"
asked Percy.

"Another Yankee question, eh?" said Mr. Thornton. "I told my wife
once that I wished she could make the bread my mother used to make,
and she said she wished I could make the dough her father used to
make. Yes, my wife makes dough, a good deal more than I do, and she
makes it of flour and milk, when we aren't reduced to corn meal and

"Can she make dough of flour alone?" continued Percy.

"No," replied Mr. Thornton.

"Nor of milk alone?"


"Well, wheat cannot be made of nitrogen alone, nor can it be made
without nitrogen. On Broadbalk field at Rothamsted, where the wheat
is grown, the soil is most deficient in the element nitrogen. In
other words, nitrogen is the limiting element for wheat on that
soil; and practically no increase can be made in the yield of wheat
unless nitrogen is added. However, some other elements are not
furnished by this soil in sufficient amount for the largest yield of
wheat, and these place their limitation upon the crop at twenty
bushels. To remove this second limitation requires that another
element, such as phosphorus, shall be supplied in larger amount than
is anually liberated in the soil under the system of farming

"Yes, I see that," said Mr. Thornton, "it's like eating pancakes and
honey; the more cakes you have the more honey you want. I think I
can almost see my way through in this matter; we are to correct the
acid with limestone, to work the legumes for nitrogen, and turn
under everything we can to increase the organic matter, and if we
find that the soil won't furnish enough phosphorus, potassium,
magnesium, or calcium, even with the help of the decaying organic
matter to liberate them, why then it is up to us to increase the
supply of those elements."

"You must remember that the calcium will be supplied in the
limestone;" cautioned Percy. "And, if you use magnesian limestone,
you will thus supply both calcium and magnesium. Keep in mind that
_magnesian _only means that the limestone contains some _magnesium._
and that it is not a pure calcium carbonate. The purest magnesian
limestone consists of a double carbonate of calcium and magnesium,
called dolomite."

"But I have heard that magnesian lime is bad for soils," said Mr.

"That is true," Percy replied, "and so is ordinary lime bad for
soils. The Germans say: 'Lime makes the fathers rich but the
children poor.' The English saying is:

'Lime and lime without manure
Will make both farm and farmer poor.'

"Both of these national proverbs are correct for common, every-day
lime; but you know, do you not, that limestone soils are usually
very good and very durable soils?"

"That's what I've always heard," replied Mr. Thornton.

"Well, there is no danger whatever from using too much limestone;
and all the information thus far secured shows that magnesian
limestone is even better than the pure calcium limestone. I know two
Illinois farmers who are using large quantities of ground magnesian
limestone, and one of them has applied as much as twenty tons per
acre. On that land his corn crop was good for eighty bushels per
acre this year. Of course that heavy application was more than was
needed, but initial applications of four or five tons are very
satisfactory, and these should be followed by about two tons per
acre every four to six years."

Mr. Thornton took his guest to Blairville that evening as they had
planned and he assured Percy that should he decide to purchase land
in that section they would let him have three hundred acres of their
land at ten dollars an acre.

"I will let you know after I get the samples analyzed for you," said
Percy. "The price is low enough and the location ideal, but still I
want to have the invoice before I buy the goods. I will write you
about sending the samples to the chemist after I hear from some I
sent him from Montplain."



THE next day Percy spent a few hours at the State Capitol in
Richmond, where he found the records of the State of much interest.

Thus he found that in practically every county there was more or
less land owned by the commonwealth, because of its complete
abandonment by former owners, and the failure of any one to buy when
sold by the state for taxes.

Under such conditions the title to the land returns to the State,
and after two years it may be sold by the State to any one desiring
to purchase and the former owner has no further right of redemption.
Some of these lands which are owned by the State, and on which the
State has received no taxes for many years, are still occupied by
their former owners or by "squatters"' and may continue to be so
occupied unless the land should be purchased from the State by some
one else who would demand full possession. Such purchasers, however,
are likely to be unpopular residents in the community, if the
transaction forces poor people from a place they have called home,
even though they had no legal right to occupy it.

Percy found that the report of the State Auditor showed that the
clerk of the court of Powhatan county had returned to the State
$1.05 "for sales of lands purchased by the commonwealth at tax
sales," while from Prince Edward county the State received a similar
revenue amounting to $17.39 for the same year. The total revenue to
the commonwealth from this source amounted to $667.85 for the year.
Contrasted with this was the revenue from "Redemption of Land,"
amounting to $27,436.38, suggesting something of the struggle of the
man to retain possession of his home before it becomes legally
possible for another to take it from him beyond redemption.

According to the records about a million acres of land are owned by
the Commonwealth of Virginia alone.

Percy decided to go to Washington to learn what definite information
he might obtain from the United States Department of Agriculture. On
the train for Washington he found himself sitting beside a Virginia

"These lands remind me of our Western prairies," Percy remarked.
"You have some extensive areas of level or gently undulating

"They don't remind me of the Western prairies, I can tell you," was
the reply. "I am a Westerner myself, or I was until eight years ago.
These lands look all right from the train when the crops are all
off, but I find that every patch of the earth's surface doesn't
always make a good farm. Why you can go from Danville, Illinois, to
Omaha, Nebraska, and stop anywhere in the darkest night and you're
mighty near sure to light on a good farm where one acre is worth ten
of this land along here."

"About what is this land worth?" asked Percy.

"Well, I thought six hundred acres of it was worth $5,000 about
eight years ago, especially as the buildings on the place were in
good repair and couldn't be built to-day for less than $6,000: but
right now I think I paid a plenty for my land. It's just back a few
miles at the station where I got on."

"How far is that from Washington?"

"About fifteen miles, I reckon, as the crow flies. My boy has a
telescope his uncle sent him and we can see the Monument on a clear

"What monument?" asked Percy.

"Why, Washington's monument. Haven't you ever been to Washington?"

"No, this is my first visit. I am really thinking of buying a farm
somewhere here in the East. I have been in Richmond and learned a
great deal from the state reports, and I thought I might get more
information from the Department of Agriculture in Washington."

"Perhaps," said the man, "but my advice is to keep in mind that
there is a difference between buying land and buying a farm. I've
got land to sell, by the way. I thought I'd need it all when I
bought, but I can see now that I'll not need more'n half of it at
the most; so, if you want two or three hundred acres of this kind of
land right close here where you kind o' neighbor with the senators
and other upper tens, and run back and forth from the City in an
hour or so, why I think I can accommodate you. My name is
Sunderland, J. R. Sunderland, and you'll find me at home any day."

"How much would you sell part of your land for?" inquired Percy.

"Well, I'd kind o' hate to take less than ten dollars an acre for
it; but I think we can make a deal all right if you like the



ABOUT nine o'clock the day following Percy's arrival in Washington
he sent his card into the office of the Secretary of Agriculture.

"Just step this way," said the boy on his return. "The Secretary
will see you at once."

A gentleman who appeared to be sixty, but was really several years
older, arose from his desk and greeted Percy very kindly.

"I see you are from Illinois, Mr. Johnston. I am an Iowa man myself,
and I am always glad to see any one from the corn belt. Do you know
we are going to beat the records this year? It is wonderful what
crops we grow in this country, and they are getting better every
year. We are growing more than two-thirds of the entire corn crop of
the globe, right here in these United States. Yes, Sir, and we are
just beginning to grow corn; and corn is only one of our important
agricultural products. Do you know that eighty-six per cent. of all
the raw materials used in all the manufactured products of this
country come from the farms of the United States; yes, Sir,
eighty-six per cent.

"Now, what can I do for you? I am very glad you called, and I will
be glad to serve you in any way you desire. By the way, how is the
corn turning out in your part of Illinois? Bumper crop, I have no

"I think so," said Percy, "after seeing the crops here in the East.

"That's what I thought," continued the Secretary." A bumper crop,
the biggest we ever raised. Oh, they don't know how to raise corn
here in the East. They just grow corn, corn, corn, year after year;
and that will get any land out of fix. I found that out years ago in
Iowa. I am a farmer myself, as I suppose you know. I found you
couldn't grow corn on the same land all the time. But just rotate
the crops; put clover in the rotation; and then your ground will
make corn again, as good as ever."

"But I understand that clover refuses to grow on most of this
eastern land," said Percy.

"Oh, nonsense. They don't sow it. I tell you they don't sow it, and
they don't know how to raise it. It takes a little manure sometimes
to start it, but it will grow all right if they would only give it
half a chance. Why, for years the Iowa farmers said blue grass
wouldn't grow in Iowa. Yes, Sir, they just knew it wouldn't grow
there; and then I showed them that blue grass was actually growing
in Iowa, - actually growing along the roadsides almost
everywhere, - blue grass that would pasture a steer to the acre - just
came in of itself without being seeded. No, I tell you they don't
sow clover down here. They just say it won't grow and keep right on
planting corn, corn, corn, until the corn crop amounts to nothing,
and then they let the land grow up in brush."

"Now, I do not wish to take up more of your time," said Percy, "for
I know how busy a man you must be, but I am thinking of buying a
farm, or some land, here in the East and have come to you for
information. We have a small farm in Illinois and land is rather too
high-priced there to think of buying more; but I thought I could
sell at a good price, and buy a much larger farm here in the East
with part of the money and still have enough left to build it up
with; and, with the high price of all kinds of farm produce here, we
ought to make it pay."

"You can do it," said the Secretary. "No doubt of it. Any land that

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Online LibraryCyril G. HopkinsThe Story of the Soil; from the Basis of Absolute Science and Real Life, → online text (page 9 of 23)