Tuesday, June 8, 2010

F.H. King, an Agriculturalist Worth Remembering...

Franklin Hiram King was born on this day in 1848. He was an early advocate of sustainable agriculture and a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he studied soil and soil fertility.

His name might not mean a lot to the average Forge Farmer. But his work is recognizable everywhere -- particularly on the landscape of rural America. Consider what The Writer's Almanac said about him today as part of a birthday dedication: "His most famous legacy from his years at Madison was the invention of the cylindrical silo. He was always looking for ways to reduce waste in farming, and he was struck by how much silage rotted in the corners of traditional rectangular silos. So he invented a cylindrical silo, which quickly became the standard for farmers across the country, transforming the rural landscape."

More important, King was a pioneer of scholarship about soil and soil fertility -- and his work is as relevant today, in an age of resource pressures, as it was in 1911, when he wrote Farmers of Forty Centuries. The book -- part travel writing, part agricultural study -- explores the farming methods and rural culture of Japan, China, and Korea. King believed that these cultures had maintained a knowledge about growing a lot of food for a lot of people on very little land, and he thought the West would profit from studying them. He saw soil erosion and depletion, in particular, as the great problem facing Western farmers, and he believed that chemical fertilizers were at best a temporary solution. In the introduction, he wrote:
The great movement of cargoes of feeding stuffs and mineral fertilizers to western Europe and to the eastern United States began less than a century ago and has never been possible as a means of maintaining soil fertility in China, Korea, or Japan, nor can it be continued indefinitely in either Europe or America. These importations are for the time making tolerable the waste of plant food materials through our modern systems of sewage disposal and other faulty practices; but the Mongolian races have held all such wastes, both urban and rural, and many others which we ignore, sacred to agriculture, applying them to their fields.

The Asian farmers, he found, used everything to support their farming methods -- there were no waste products, not even human excrement, which was used to fertilize the fields.

King's observations and ideas, now almost 100 years old, may be radical today. They may be absolutely necessary someday in the future.