Organic Wisdom From Old Agriculture Books

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Old agriculture books have a lot of information pre-dating the adoption of "chemical farming" that would be of great interest to organic farmers.

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:

Samuel B. Green, the author of Popular Fruit Growing (1909) , claims that you can control codling moths if you keep hogs in your orchard to clean up the fallen, infested fruits. Green also recommends wrapping six-inch-wide bands of burlap around the tree trunks and checking underneath these covers–once every 10 days from June to September–to destroy the moth’s larvae and chrysalides that will hide there. And, should you be troubled with the plum curculio, Samuel B. recommends early morning exercise; he says that–if you place a sheet beneath the tree around dawn and then pound the trunk and branches with your hands or a rubber mallet–the insects will fall to the cloth and can be destroyed in hot water.

There are more fruit tree hints in The American Fruit Culturist (1855), by John J. Thomas. This volume suggests that peach worms and borers can be kept away if you heap about “half a peck” of air-slaked lime or wood ashes around each tree’s trunk every spring. Then, come autumn, you can simply spread the material out beneath the tree for fertilizer. Thomas also laments the morals of his day with a recommendation on how to control human fruit pilferers … he suggests planting a good, thick thorn hedge around the entire orchard!

Jacob Biggle’s Biggle BerryBook (1899) is part of a series called the Biggle Farm Library and offers the latest berry culture ideas of its day. Old Jacob covers everything from a recipe for a fertilizer for strawberries (chicken manure, bone meal, and wood ashes) to a method of salvaging partially winter-killed blackberry canes (cut them back to within a foot of the ground in the spring).

But, the most useful book that I’ve found (so far, anyway) is a 1906 college text called Economic Entomology, by John B. Smith. I almost didn’t buy the volume–because I thought it might be too technical–but it’s been a real storehouse of information. Economic Entomology is a guide for the identification of insects, complete with control techniques for those pests that are harmful to crops. Although much of the scientific jargon has changed, Smith’s suggestions are still valid today. For example, he advocates painting tree trunks with whitewash to prevent borer damage, and dusting asparagus with finely powdered lime every morning to discourage the asparagus beetle larvae.

Another of Smith’s “pet” solutions is tobacco as pesticide–used either dry or as a decoction. He claims that coarse tobacco leaves and stems (if worked into the soil around a tree trunk all the way out to the branch drip-line) will keep root lice away from peach trees. And one pound of tobacco–boiled in a gallon of water–is the author’s chosen pesticide for infestations of plant lice, leaf hoppers, flea beetles, and soft-bodied insects in general. Smith warns, however, that at this concentration the extract might “spot delicate leaves and flowers”. (Smokers can draw their own conclusions from the turn-of-the-century practice of fumigating greenhouses with tobacco smoke … “kills bugs dead!”)

Economic Entomology also recommends pyrethrum powder (stretched with two parts “cheap flour”), white hellebore, quassia, kainite, sulfur, and even hot water as weapons for the gardener to consider. The hot water–Smith claims–is (at 125°F) safe to use on most foliage but fatal to many insects. The book even suggests methods of ridding tree bark of lichen and other plant growths. Smith maintains that if you wash the limbs and bark with a strong solution of caustic soda or potash (one pound to two gallons of water), you’ll discourage these parasites and stimulate your tree’s bark!

The ultimate protection of protections, though, says Smith, is “good farming.” He advises that crops be kept in “the most vigorous possible condition, with plenty of plant food … and–in orchards–allow no dead wood of any kind to remain over the winter season.”

Get That “Old Time Readin'”

Aside from my searches through used book stores, I also find valuable older books in city and university libraries … and farm auctions usually offer one or two cardboard boxes of antiquated volumes that can contain some real literary treasures.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that you don’t keep up with the latest in wholistic farming practices, but don’t ignore the old ways either. Book hunting for volumes from a different time–no matter what the subject–can be fun, sometimes profitable, and always informative. After all, “there ain’t nothin’ new in this world.”