William H. (William Henry) Bowker.

The problem of fertility in the middle west : address online

. (page 1 of 2)
Online LibraryWilliam H. (William Henry) BowkerThe problem of fertility in the middle west : address → online text (page 1 of 2)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Cornell University

The original of this book is in
the Cornell University Library.

There are no known copyright restrictions in
the United States on the use of the text.


"Read not to contradict and to confute
nor to believe and take for granted, but to
weigh and consider." (Bacon.)

The Problem of Fertility
In the Middle West

Address prepared by W. H. Bowker and Horace Bowker and
read by the latter at a Luncheon given to representative Bankers
and Railroad Men by the Middle West Soil Improvement Com-
mittee of The National Fertilizer Association, in Chicago
January 9, 1914.


We are met here to discuss fertility or commercial plant foods,
the product of the plant food industry. It is the province of our
industry to send its ships to the four quarters of the globe to
gather fertility and to render it available for man's use. We
are now tapping the air for nitrogen, of which there are 35,000
tons hanging over each acre of the earth's surface, — an exhaust-
less reservoir, soon to be extensively utilized to restore the nitro-
gen which has been sent abroad in the shape of cattle and cereals.

Liebig's Great Discovery

About seventy-three years ago a chemist, Baron Von Liebig,
discovered that bone dissolved in sulphuric acid was more avail-
able for plants than the raw bone. Bone and wood ashes had
been used as fertilizers for ages, but it was known that bone
was slow-acting, that it did not render up its plant food readily
enough. It was known that plants took their nourishment
from the soil in solution, and must have most of it during 60
days of the growing season. It was known that bone was not
soluble in water. Liebig reasoned that if it could be made soluble
in water, plants would assimilate it more readily. He found by
treating bone (a three-lime phosphate) with sulphuric acid, that
he took away two parts of lime, forming sulphate of lime, or
land plaster, and left the remaining part of lime in combination
with phosphorus as a one-lime phosphate which was soluble
in water, a form easily assimilated by growing crops, and
which would produce an earlier and more vigorous growth. He
called this product Superphosphate of Lime. It was one of the
great discoveries of the ages, and the beginning of the fertilizer
' industry. Thus you see that chemistry is the basis of the industry.

Sources of Commercial Plant Foods

Let us consider the chemical elements in which the fertilizer
industry deals. It is known that crops require some thirteen
elements for their growth, ranging from nitrogen to iron. It
is known that soil and air are abundantly supplied with most of
them; that through continuous cropping, without adequate
returns, most soils are deficient in nitrogen, phosphorus, potas-
sium, and in some cases lacking in lime and sulphur; that as a
rule, the three which we need to supply, the great trio, are nitrogen,
phosphorus and potash.

Thus we have searched the world for sources of phosphorus,
contained in phosphate of lime. We have found enormous
quantities of phosphates in the Carolinas, in Florida, in Tennes-
see, and now in Wyoming and Montana. We have mined this
phosphate, washed it, and ground it, and following the discovery
of Liebig, we have dissolved it and converted it into a super-
phosphate, now popularly known as Acid Phosphate.

We have searched the earth for potash to take the place of
the potash which we used to get in wood ashes, and so far we have
found only one available source, in Germany, and that seems to be
inexhaustible. But it is a monopoly, and we are made to pay
much more for it than we should pay.

We have searched the world for nitrogen, the most costly
element of plant food, and we have found it in the enormous
nitrate deposits of Chili, and in the coal deposits of Pennsyl-
vania, Ohio, and Illinois, or wherever there is soft coal which
can be used for coking purposes. This we are recovering in the
form of sulphate of ammonia, the use of which should be encour-
aged, for the reason that it is not only an excellent source of
nitrogen, but it is a home source, lying right here under our feet,
by the use of which we can build up our agriculture and keep at
home some part of the millions we are now sending abroad for
nitrogen, — an economic proposition from any angle we view it.

We also find nitrogen in the by-products of our packing houses
and fisheries, — in the immense quantities of tankages, waste
meat and waste fish, which are converted into fertilizers. We also
find it in seed meals, like cotton seed and linseed; but these and
the tankages are now being used so extensively for feeding pur-
poses that they are not a dependable source.

Finally in our search for nitrogen we come to the atmosphere,
the greatest source of all. Recent discoveries are rendering
available the nitrogen of the atmosphere in a chemical known


as Cyanamid, and also in Nitrate of Lime, but the utilization of
atmospheric nitrogen at present depends upon a high degree of
heat, which can be generated only by means of an electrical cur-
rent. Where cheap water power is abundant and an electrical
current can be generated at low cost, which cannot be sold for
lighting or manufacturing purposes, at that point it can be
utilized to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere. A plant is in
successful operation at Niagara Falls and one in Norway. Also
plans are under way for developing the great water powers in
the Blue Ridge mountains for this purpose. A scheme is also
reported in the newspapers to utilize Grand Falls in Labrador for
extracting atmospheric nitrogen.

Another source of nitrogen is the leguminous crops grown by
farmers, whereby soil bacteria are utilized. It is known that no
plant can thrive above the earth unless smaller plants, known as
bacteria, are growing in the earth, — in other words, a lower
order of life, which yields up its life to a higher order in the shape
of farm crops, which in turn yield up their life that men and
animals may exist, thus rounding out a marvelous cycle, the
connecting links of which we are just beginning to study, and
in a small way, to comprehend.

So we see that the fertilizer industry is something more than
mixing a few ingredients together with a shovel on a barn floor.
If you men have to deal with commercial, labor and engineer-
ing problems, we have all these, and in addition we must know
something of the applied sciences, such as chemistry, mineralogy,
botany, and bacteriology. If one will take the time to go through
a modern fertilizer plant and note its laboratories, furnaces, lead
chambers, retorts and towers, its crushers and grinders, he will
see that it is something more than a mixing mill and warehouse.

Lawes, the Founder of the Industry

We spoke of Liebig being the inventor of superphosphate of
lime, the basis of the business, yet the real founder of the fer-
tilizer industry, as an industry, was Sir John Lawes of England.
He claims to have discovered superphosphate simultaneously
with Liebig, but whether he did or not, he was the first man to
begin the manufacture of mineral phosphates (the Cambridge
coprolites of England) into superphosphate or acid phosphate,
and to add nitrogen to it in the shape of sulphate and muriate of
ammonia. Later, potash in the shape of German salts was added,
making what is now called the "complete fertilizer."

Lawes made a large fortune in the business, a portion of which
he devoted to the maintenance of an experiment station on his
own estate, Rothamsted, which he inherited. For more than
sixty years he conducted a series of experiments with all sorts of
fertilizers and fertilizing materials and reported them so accu-
rately and so fairly, no matter whether for or against commercial
fertilizers, that they have been accepted as authoritative through-
out the world. His work was so good that he was knighted by
Queen Victoria and since his death the Rothamsted station has
been taken over by the Government, and is now conducted as a
public experiment station, much like our state experiment

Now the fertilizing industry the world over has copied Lawes,
and is making exactly the same things which he made, and which
the Lawes Manure Company is making today in England, so if
we are not making good things the blame must rest with Lawes,
whom we have imitated. By some critics complete fertilizers
have been called "soil stimulants" and "patent soil medicines,"
and for that reason the public is sometimes warned against
them. If they are stimulants like rum why should Lawes be
praised for manufacturing them, and we, in this country, con-
demned for doing the same thing? To laud the one and condemn
the other is inconsistent, to say the least.

The Evolution of the "Complete" Fertilizer

Let us consider what a so-called complete fertilizer really is,
containing the three leading elements, nitrogen, phosphorus, and
potash. It is an evolution. Liebig started with ground bone,
which contains nitrogen and phosphate of lime. He took prac-
tically a thousand pounds of bone and added a thousand pounds
of sulphuric acid, the thousand pounds of bone originally contain-
ing 4% of nitrogen and 20% of phosphoric acid. When he
added the thousand pounds of sulphuric acid he divided the result
by two and the final product of dissolved bone contained, there-
fore, approximately 2% of nitrogen and 10% of phosphoric acid.
In the trade today it is what is called a 2-10 goods.

What was the next step? Somebody added some concentrated
potash, and then we had the "complete" fertilizer containing
nitrogen, soluble phosphorus, and potash, or practically a 2-8-2
goods, dissolved bone with potash, which some of our critics affect
to call a soil or plant stimulant.

Milk is a complete food, containing the three leading elements
of food; namely, protein, in the shape of cheese, fat in the shape
of cream, and sugar in the shape of milk sugar. Would you call
it a stimulant because of that fact?

There is no such thing as a stimulant to plants in the sense
that alcohol is a stimulant to man. Fertilizers are available
plant food. They encourage and sustain growth because they
are largely soluble in water, and are easily assimilated by plants,
as milk is easily assimilated by children. Fertilizers are "liquid
assets" which are as essential in the soil as in business. Crops
are living things; they want what they want as and when they
want it; failing of it they "go broke." There are some who go
so far as to say that anything is a stimulant to plants which
makes them grow. In that sense, water, the greatest known
solvent, is a stimulant, and sunshine is a stimulant, and the elec-
tric light may yet prove to be a stimulant. However, to satirize
fertilizers by classing them with rum is neither scientific nor fair.

The "Filler" in Fertilizers

A great many people think fertilizers contain "filler" or
extraneous material. They are encouraged to think so by those
interested in the sale of chemicals produced in and outside of
this country. When Liebig added 1,000 pounds of sulphuric
acid to 1,000 pounds of bone, he practically had a ton of half the
strength of the original bone, but it had been rendered soluble
hence much more valuable. In the process there is some shrink-
age, perhaps 10% or 200 pounds, which gives room to add potash
in the form of a German potash salt, and then the ton is rounded
out and the mixture is a "complete fertilizer," containing the
three elements, — nitrogen, available phosphorus, and potash,
but where is the filler — that bugbear, that scarecrow, that thing
which is held up by some of our critics to discredit our wares?
There was no filler in Liebig's Dissolved Bone or in Lawes'
"Complete Fertilizer" made from dissolved bone, for there was
no room for any; and there is practically no filler in fertilizers
today, for the reason that there~ is little or no room for any.
Moreover, there is another and more potent reason, namely, it
costs money to assemble and prepare extraneous matter, even
common sand, when by proper balancing of materials it is not
necessary. A chemist who figured his formulas so that it cost
25 cents or even 10 cents a ton "to fill up" would soon lose his

Did it ever occur to you that only 15% of pure milk is solids
or food, and that the remaining 85% is water? Can you separate
the water from the milk and still have a white, limpid fluid?
The water in milk is the "normal water of composition" which
holds and carries the actual nourishment of milk. So in fertil-
izers, take nitrate of soda, one of the most popular fertilizer
chemicals ; 100 lbs. contains 15 pounds of nitrogen; the remaining
85 pounds is the "normal oxygen, soda and water of composition."
Take the most concentrated fertilizer chemical salt in use, namely,
muriate of potash. It contains only 50 pounds of potash in the
hundred pounds.

Finally, take one of the most concentrated complete fertilizers
which the industry puts out; it contains but 25% of actual plant
food in a ton, or 500 pounds of nitrogen, potash, and phosphoric
acid added together. What is the remaining 1,500 pounds?
Naturally one not familiar with chemistry thinks it is so called
" filler " but it is nothing of the kind. It is made up of organic,
matter, salts, alkalies and acids, which are the carriers or con-
tainers of plant food, as the water of milk is the natural carrier
of the food of milk, as the fibre of meat is the natural carrier of
the protein and fat of meat. And right here it is well to observe
that one of the medium grades of fertilizer on the market, 3-8-4,
which equals 15 units of plant food to a ton, is exactly the same
number of units that nitrate of soda contains. Does anyone
claim that nitrate contains any filler in the popular sense of that
term because it carries only 15 units or 300 pounds of plant food
in a ton?

It may be urged that by using concentrated chemicals one
can make the same grade with two-thirds of the bulk. So he
can in some cases, but such mixtures would cake and would not
be drillable in a machine. Moreover, they would not supply
the forms of plant food which crops need. Besides, the exclu-
sive use of these concentrated chemicals would displace just so
much by-product plant foods, which it is good to use, both from
the standpoint of economy and from that of making stable,
drillable goods. No sound economist or wise agronomist advises
the exclusive use of concentrated chemicals any more than he
would advise the exclusive use of concentrates in the feeding of
live stock.

We have gone into this matter with some detail because the
imputation of the use of fillers is so often thrown up against the
industry to injure it. Now while we do not say that fillers are never


used, it is the exception rather than the rule, and the exceptions
are usually where they are needed as "conditioners" and in that
case they are usually such materials as not infrequently contribute
to the sum total of plant food. Fillers, in the shape of extraneous
matter, would be disclosed in the analysis, which rarely occurs.
As a matter of fact, they exist chiefly in the imagination of the

Barren (?) East and Fertile (?) West Compared

It has been said that where fertilizers have been used longest
in the East, there the soil is worn out. The Crop Census does
not show it. On the contrary, where attention is paid to rota-
tion of crops, and to keeping up the humus, the Census shows
that the East is producing, even of the staple crops, much more
per acre than is grown in the Middle West*. Moreover, where
fertilizers have been used extensively and intelligently, there the
soils are increasing in fertility and agriculture is prospering. In
Europe they find it pays to make a fertile soil still more fertile by
the use of chemical fertilizers. Gov. Herrick, our minister to
France, writes:

"All the states along the Atlantic seaboard now use com-
mercial fertilizers. Eventually there will not be an acre in
the Nation that cannot profitably use fertilizers. If used in
the smallest European proportions of $6 to the acre, the ag-
gregate sum bulks so large as to stagger the imagination."

Fertilizers Serve Other Purposes

Commercial fertilizers, in addition to supplying plant food,
serve other purposes which are often lost sight of. Because they
supply this food in soluble, active forms, they improve quality;
as in the case of grains, they stiffen the straw and fill out kernels;
but what is quite as important, they hasten maturity, reducing
the percentage of soft corn or wheat. Oftentimes they are the
best crop insurance a farmer can employ.

In New England, commercial fertilizers were first used as
"starters," as concentrated foods are used to start a calf to an
early vigorous maturity. Before the days of dissolved bone
they could not raise corn successfully in New Hampshire. The
seasons, as a rule, were not long enough to mature it. Now
almost every county in the state has its corn king who raises
more corn per acre than the average yield of the Corn Belt.

♦See Addenda.

New Hampshire, according to the Census, produced in 1910
46 bushels of corn to Illinois' 39 bushels per acre, and Iowa's
37 bushels.

Thirty years ago they came near giving up the growing of
wheat in the Genesee Valley in New York, because of the ravages
of the Hessian fly. Someone tried commercial fertilizer and
found it hastened the growth of the wheat plant so that it got
ahead of the fly and for years the wheat industry in the Genesee
Valley was preserved. Now commercial manures are used ex-
tensively in that valley on every variety of crop.

Sole Source of Fertility

In the East, from the use of fertilizers for a particular purpose
on a particular crop, their use has extended to all crops and in
many cases they have become the sole source of applied fertility.
Take for example the potato crop. It was discovered that better
potatoes could be grown on fertilizers than on stable manure and
the result is that in Aroostook County, Maine, more than 25,000,-
000 bushels of potatoes are grown exclusively on high grade com-
mercial fertilizer. They are producing in that county 300 bushels
per acre against 92 in the Middle West. The county reminds
one of Iowa. Much of the land is recently cleared and all the
soil is naturally fertile ; but they find it pays to make it still
more fertile by the liberal use of fertilizers. It is conservatively
estimated that 60,000 tons are used each year in this one
county. The bankers in Aroostook County will tell you that fer-
tilizers have put that county on the map commercially as well as

A still better illustration is the cotton crop of the South. Any
banker or railroad man will tell you that the South is absolutely
dependent on the fertilizer industry to grow the cotton crop. It
is true that they are not producing as much cotton per acre as
they ought to produce and will produce with improved seed,
crop rotation, and better methods of cultivation. It is also
true that they are not producing in the South as much corn per
acre as is being produced in Illinois and in New England, and we
in New England are profitably producing on our so-called "ex-
hausted farms" by the use of fertilizers, almost 50% more per
acre than is being produced in the Corn Belt, or 45.5 bushels in
New England to 32.8 bushels in the Corn Belt.

But the South will never produce corn so long as it can produce
cash crops such as cotton, sugar, rice, and citrus fruits. And you
in the Middle West ought to be thankful that it will not. It is


your place to grow the corn, the cattle, the wheat, and the oats,
which the South cannot so well produce. Let each latitude grow
the crops naturally adapted to it and in the end it will make for
better conditions the country over.

Some Jolts and Some Boosts

New England has prided herself upon being advanced, but
recently she has been jolted out of her complacency, the last
severe jolt being the collapse of her railway systems. She has
waked up to find that Chicago is competing with her in music
and art, Indiana in literature, and Wisconsin in progressive legis-
lation, while the Middle West is sending men to reform her
railroads and reorganize her colleges. The Middle West claimed
for years, and justly so, that agriculturally it was the richest
section in the country, but the last Census gave her also a bad
jolt. It showed that she was falling behind in agricultural
production, and in the number of resident farm owners. Viewed
from the outside it would appear that the two most important
questions in the Middle West are, how to increase production
and how to deal with the tenant farmer.

A Boost,— J. J. Hill's Experiments

James J. Hill has conducted some wonder-working experi-
ments with fertilizers, which have not received the attention they
deserved in the West. Is it because the West does not want to
admit that it needs rejuvenation, or is it because she is complacent?
Hill showed in one season, by the use of fertilizers, that he could
double the yield of cereals in the Middle Northwest. It matters
not at this time whether it was done at a profit (as a matter of
fact it was with profit) ; the important thing is to demonstrate
that yields can be doubled by a certain treatment. Thirty-six
years ago Bell demonstrated that he could talk over a wire from
one room to another. Today we know the result. The fertilizer
industry has nothing to fear from such experiments as Hill's,
even if all of them are not at first commercially successful. It
has nothing to fear from any experiments provided they are
carried on without bias and by men who have no hobby to ride.

Will it Pay? No Longer an Academic Question

The value of commercial plant food has passed beyond the ex-
perimental stage in Europe and in the eastern part of this
country. Why not accept the testimony of seventy-five years


at Rothamsted, of fifty years at Halle, and of thirty years in
Georgia and in Maine. We sometimes wonder if the agricultural
teachers and writers in the West are not standing in the way of
agricultural progress by still considering as an academic ques-
tion the value and need of fertilizers. The question is not —
Are commercial fertilizers good and useful? — but will it pay to
use them as James J. Hill has done in his part of the country.
In our opinion, Mr. Hill has answered the question, "will it pay?"
in the affirmative. By the use of a little over $5 worth of fer-
tilizer per acre he practically doubled the yield of wheat, oats
and barley, and you can figure whether it paid or not. We wish
that other railway officials might follow his splendid example.

The Hill experiments are along the lines of intensive agricul-
ture. The fertilizer industry stands for intensive agriculture,
which includes good seed, thorough cultivation, rotation of crops,
cover crops, and the plowing in of green crops wherever it is
necessary to keep up the humus of the soil. Its best fields are
where the best agricultural practice is in vogue.

The Industry vs. Criticism .,

The industry knows its own shortcomings and it is not unmind-
ful of the benefits of criticism, but in the face of criticism and
opposition it has grown in the last forty years from half a million
to nearly 7,000,000 tons. In the last five year Census period
the use of complete fertilizer increased 104 per cent.

Criticism and ridicule which retards the day of the introduc-
tion and use of commercial plant foods in the Middle West serves
no economic purpose. It is as shortsighted as it is unsound. In
Europe, government-paid officials and teachers who are unfair
to legitimate industry are the exception. State and Federal paid
teachers who call fertilizers "soil stimulants," and "patent soil
medicines," who imply that they are composed of "fillers," and
who deliberately exaggerate the profits of the industry to dis-
courage their use, are not fair, to say the least. They neither
serve the true interests of agriculture nor promote the welfare of
the Nation which employs them.

It would seem that an industry which has stood the test of
three-quarters of a century, that conserves every pound of plant
food it can find, that delves in the earth and taps the air in
order that more abundant and cheaper fertility may be supplied,
is an industry that is quite worth while.



Taken from the Census and from Experiments

According to 1910 Census Bulletin "Agriculture,'' page 18:


Online LibraryWilliam H. (William Henry) BowkerThe problem of fertility in the middle west : address → online text (page 1 of 2)