Organic Wisdom From Old Agriculture Books

Sometimes old agriculture books, magazines, and pamphlets have all the information homesteaders and small farmers need about cultivation and pest control without synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

| January/February 1981

I'm a book hunter. Whenever I visit a new city, I immediately search out the musty, cluttered, used-book stores that can be found in almost any urban area. However, unlike the book collector —who is after rare or antique volumes—I hunt books for the knowledge they contain ... that knowledge, in particular, which can be found in old agriculture books and publications.

Today's "chemical farming" is a relatively recent phenomenon. Our grandparents routinely used various homegrown methods and remedies to contend with the same problems that "modern" agricultural science handles with toxic sprays. Manure, crop rotation, and compost were often the only soil builders available to our farmer forebears, and the pesticides used on the crops of yesteryear were generally concocted from everyday materials such as lime, soap, and kerosene.

Of course, there are a number of good sources of contemporary organic farming information, but many of the ideas that we now consider "new" were "old hat" two generations ago, and the books that taught those old timers their gardening techniques also contain many notions that have yet to be rediscovered. Naturally, these volumes sometimes advance some ideas that are outrageous and even harmful (folks back then did, after all, use arsenic by the bucket), but it isn't terribly difficult to separate the useful information from the obsolete.

And, besides the gold mine of agricultural data to be found in old books, there is also the thrill that comes with discovering a first edition copy of Faulkner's Plowman's Folly or F.H. King's Farmers of Forty Centuries. (Of course, the actual cash value of some older books isn't to be overlooked, either!)

My personal interest centers upon fruit culture, so I always look specifically for volumes that deal with this aspect of farming. A used-book shop nearly always has some sort of organization (although most of them seem to be absolutely chaotic and unhealthily dusty). So if you're interested in farm publications, look for the sections or aisles marked "Agriculture," "Gardening," etc. In these categories you'll probably find old ragged copies of Organic Gardening magazine (which are invaluable sources, though they're not as "slick" as today's editions). You'll also probably see some of the Department of Agriculture's annual Yearbooks ofAgriculture, as well as ancient veterinary texts and books on flower arrangement and the like. All you have to do is find your field of interest and take your pick. (If you're as intrigued by "organic" farming methods as I am, look especially for books printed prior to 1915. I've found them to be usually chock full of helpful hints.)

Some Antique Answers

To show you the kind of information available in old books, here are a few tips that I've found between the covers of my musty mentors:

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