Owner Built Homes and Homesteads

Three chapters from books by Ken Kern examining agricultural practices and concepts in living space design for people who want to establish owner-built homes and homesteads.


| January/February 1973



019-091-01

The shallow, medium, and deep root systems food plants can develop depending on the chosen method of cultivation.


ILLUSTRATION: KEN KERN

—Nevada Chief Smohalla's reply to agricultural directives from Washington  

In 1952, Richard St. Barbe Baker led a Sahara University expedition into the Libyan desert to visit once forested lands the Roman Empire had converted to grain production. As Mr. Baker observes, "An iron plow is a dangerous implement, because it loosens the earth to a considerable depth, allowing the soil to be washed away in the first torrential downpour." In equatorial regions, especially, the clearing away of extensive areas for the production of row crops, such as corn or cotton, leads to certain disaster . . . even to the decline and fall of otherwise thriving civilizations.

Actually there is only one remaining ancient row-crop-based civilization: the Chinese. This fact rather impressed a University of Wisconsin soil scientist. In 1910 Professor F.H. King determined to study firsthand the row crop farming methods of the Chinese. His delightful travel book, FARMERS OF FORTY CENTURIES, appeared the following year. In it King describes the tilling, fertilizing and planting techniques that have enabled survival (and even improvements in soil structure and fertility) throughout these many centuries. Even before his trip to the Orient, maverick King found little acceptance to his theories of minimum tillage . . . which he pronounced in 1890. When he later gave credence to the use of human excrement as a row crop fertilizer, his colleagues discredited him completely. Professor King was perhaps the foremost soil scientist of his time, and FARMERS OF FORTY CENTURIES is the most important book on food production . . . yet it is not even listed in the Department of Agriculture's bibliography of 500 important books on soil management (SOILS AND MEN, Yearbook, 1938).

Chinese row crop production methods are not presented here as the final word. Rather, their sensitive regard for fertilizing, tillage, and planting establishes a neat basis for discussing pre-modern and post-modern row cropping techniques.

Traditionally, the Chinese till their row crops to a very minor extent. Mainly, they broadcast legumes such as soybeans or cereals among row crops . . . when the plants reach a few inches tall they are worked into the soil with a hoe. The Chinese realize that young green manures are best for feeding microbe populations. Soil will soon lose its crumb structure following the cultivation of annual crops, and must be replenished by a system which permits an accumulation in the soil of active humus capable of cementing the soil into crumbs. Instinctively, the Chinese had a concept of growing space which we would do well to understand and appreciate . . . one might call this space the humosphere, the vital, most active upper-six-inches of the soil. It is in this zone that 80% of the organic matter is concentrated. Antibiotics are also produced in the humosphere by aerobiotic microorganisms, and tillage buries and asphyxiates these sensitive microbe populations.

There is also a substantial loss of nitrogen when the soil is tilled. The tillage process suffocates organic matter and at the same time introduces excessive oxidation into the soil structure. Ordinarily the oxidation process is slow . . . which allows the ammonium salts to produce an intermediate ammonium nitrate stage before finally breaking up into nitrogen and water. Ammonium nitrate is an unstable (even explosive!) substance and readily dissipated—wasted—to the atmosphere in conditions of excessive oxidation.





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