An Agricultural Testament outlines four important observations from nature we should all take to heart today.
In his book An Agricultural Testament, first published in 1943, English botanist Sir Albert Howard pointed to the fact that soil health should be mankind’s concern more than most others. Widely attributed to be the father of the modern organic agricultural moment, Howard wrote in the preface:
Since the Industrial Revolution, the processes of growth have been speeded up to produce the food and raw materials needed by the population and the factory. Nothing effective has been done to replace the loss of fertility involved in this vast increase in crop and animal production. The consequences have been disastrous. Agriculture has become unbalanced: the land is in revolt: diseases of all kinds are on the increase: in many parts of the world Nature is removing the worn-out soil by means of erosion.
With the vision of a seer, Howard already saw industrial agriculture as a disaster that must be thwarted – this he understood back in the 1930s. What would Howard say if he saw today’s industrial farming practices that have killed the soil and caused the disease of millions of people?
In his book, Howard refers to soil as the planet’s great “capital” to be husbanded. In his own words about why he wrote the book, Howard prefaced, “The purpose of this book is to draw attention to the destruction of the earth’s capital – the soil; to indicate some of the consequences of this; and to suggest methods by which the lost fertility can be restored and maintained.”
So, what do we make of this importance Howard places on soil? We should make the utmost of it, starting out in our minds and then in our practices.
The very first sentence of the first chapter of An Agricultural Testament lays out the problem for us. Howard points the finger at industrial agriculture as being the cause of the reduction of soil fertility and therefore productivity. He wrote, “The maintenance of the fertility of the soil is the first condition of any permanent system of agriculture. In the ordinary processes of crop production, fertility is steadily lost: its continuous restoration by means of manuring and soil management is therefore imperative.”
And by “ordinary,” Howard was referring to the established agricultural practices in Europe and North America at the time.
What solution does Howard offer us? He suggests we take our lead from the ecosystems themselves. “Little or no consideration is paid in the literature of agriculture to the means by which Nature manages land and conducts her water culture. Nevertheless, these natural methods of soil management must form the basis of all our studies of soil fertility.”
And not only the study of soil fertility, but the practical application of what we see in nature to our agricultural practices.
I am convinced that contemporary agricultural has not only killed the soil, but has therefore required the need to apply synthetic elements in order to make the soil simply a medium by which artificial nutrients are conveyed to crops.
According to Howard, this is completely unnecessary and now extremely costly for the farmer who now needs government subsidies in order to make their operations feasible.
One does not continue to add air to a leaking tire if you want to get very far and not ruin the tire. But, it seems that is all modern agriculture wants to do. Why is this? The ever-pressing goal of increased production has caused farmers to resort to artificial means to gain this growth.
Enter the agrochemical and agrogenetic companies who offer short-sighted solutions to farmers to increase their yield– solutions that have contributed to the death of our soil and human disease, according to Howard. Once the soil is no longer fertile, they offer fertility in a can. They offer pest resistance in a bottle. They offer drought resistance in a bag. All at a cost that an ever-increasing number of farmers cannot afford.
But, according to Howard, none of this is needed because the land is already capable of maintaining fertility through its natural processes that we can mimic in our regenerative farming practices.
Howard indicated there are four systems of agriculture we can study to determine which is most effective: the agriculture of nature, the agriculture of nations that have passed away, the agriculture of the Orient and the industrial agriculture of the Occident. Naturally, Howard pointed to nature itself as the model for agriculture, but it is his description of the agriculture of the Roman Empire that is telling for our times today. He summarized:
Judged by the ordinary standards of achievement, the agricultural history of the Roman Empire ended in failure due to inability to realize the fundamental principle that the maintenance of soil fertility coupled with the legitimate claims of the agricultural population should never have been allowed to come in conflict with the operations of the capitalist.
The famous advocate for regenerative farming and a student of Sir. Albert, Wendell Berry similarly points out that farming is not business, but rather a cultural partnership. Farming is about joining in partnership with creation and its systems. Chief among the responsibilities of that partnership is soil husbandry.
Here are four observations of nature that can be drawn from Howard’s writing.
Observation: Nature practices diverse farming
In our stewardship of the soil, Howard suggests that we must first observe nature to see its successful practice of agriculture. He pointed out that nature practices mixed farming. No monocropping. This includes all the forms of biota that include animals from invertebrates to large mammals, and even fungi.
Howard taught that these all must be allowed to exist together in order for soil to be healthy. Howard wrote, “Whatever may be the reason why crops thrive best when associated in suitable combinations, the fact remains that mixtures generally give better results than monoculture.” What we see in modern agriculture is the exclusion of other species from our fields.
Observation: Nature protects its soil
When left to itself, creation works to defend the soil from harm. Soil is protected in nature. Whether in the forest with a canopy of trees or in the prairie with dense grasses, soil is shaded from direct sunlight which can vaporize its precious moisture and harm the soil’s contents.
The crops of nature also protect the soil from the kinetic effects of rain and subsequent runoff. The leaves of the canopy and grass of the prairie diffuse the rain into a finer and gentler spray and slows down the irrigation rate. Even in the fiercest wind storms, the flora of any natural region slow the gales to a harmless breeze at the soil surface level.
Modern agriculture, on the other hand, plows up wind breaks and hedgerows in favor of annual crops exposing the soil to transporting winds during a large portion of the year.
Finally, creation does not disrupt the soil in order to propagate its crops. Overturning and overly cultivating soil harms its structure, exposes it to run off and wind and allows for greater evaporation and degradation of some of its chemical and biological elements and processes.
Observation: Nature lets soil breathe
In creation’s diversity, there exist species with root system used to promote the aeration of the closely packed soils. In creation, soil is not solid, but latticed with great surface area for transpiration, dissolution and slow movement of water. Irrigation is diffused, and allowed to cling to the greater surface area of the elements of a latticed, aggregate soil. Solute and solvent are allowed to interact and migrate to absorbing root systems.
In creation, there are also organisms that create additional breathing space in the soil. Invertebrates not only help in the soil-making process, they also create paths and channels in the soil.
Observation: Nature maintains a strict economy
In creation, nothing is ever lost or wasted. Upon examination, healthy soil is a mixed residue of plant and animal manures (used here in the broader sense) converted by fungi and bacteria into humus. This economy ensures a proper balance of nutrients cycling from soil to plant and back to soil and so on. Even when the fauna dies, it enriches the soil to feed organisms and plants that are consumed by fauna again and then replaced upon their death. Additionally, in nature’s economy, she grows some crops that take up nutrients, such as nitrogen, and she also grows plants that contribute nitrogen to the soil, creating another symbiotic system that is self-replicating. Nature also usually sequesters carbon in the soil rather than releasing it into the air – quite the opposite of industrial agriculture.
Upon making these observations, farmers, ranchers, and homesteaders must determine ways to adopt or mimic these natural activities and systems in our own practice of agriculture. An example is to practice diversity and soil economy by using crop rotation and planting leguminous crops in that rotation. Another example would be to keep cover crops in the rotation and never expose the field’s soil. Finally, the addition of animals into the system will complete the plan.
A great mind shift is needed in agriculture in North America that sees soil as the first crop to be grown as more important than the subsequent cash, subsistence, or manure crop. This shift in thinking will be the only way we can realize that the planet’s great “capital” is soil, not water nor oil nor precious metals nor even intellectual ideas. Soil is and always will be the life upon which mankind depends.
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