One Seed to Another – an excerpt
by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
The Farming Bug
Coming to more recent times, we might visit a pair of small farmers to whom we owe much. Luther Burbank (1849-1926) and George Washington Carver (1864-1943), were both known for their practical plant and crop innovations. Both have been viewed with skepticism by agricultural academics, dismissed as scientific amateurs since neither kept meticulous notes or conducted formal experiments. Both were too busy garnering practical results. Perhaps their backgrounds will suggest why.
The thirteenth of fifteen children raised on a Massachusetts farm, with an eighth-grade education, Luther Burbank had the heart of a small farmer, buying his first 17 acre farm at 21 with a small inheritance following his father’s death. There began his real studies; there he developed his first improved crop, the Burbank potato. With the $150 he was paid for it, he moved from Massachusetts to Santa Rose, California, where he bought 4 acres of land, and widened his experiments to include citrus fruits and flowers, even cacti. He eventually bought 18 acres in Sebastopol, which he named Gold Ridge Farm. In all he developed or domesticated 262 fruits, 9 grains and grasses, 26 vegetables, and 91 ornamentals, many of which continue to be mainstays worldwide.
Born into slavery in Missouri, as a free youth George Washington Carver moved to Kansas to pursue his education. There he homesteaded on the prairie, plowed 17 acres of his claim by hand without the aid of animals, planted corn, rice, and garden produce, as well as fruit trees, forest trees and shrubbery. There he maintained a small conservatory of plants and flowers and a geological collection. There he also worked as a ranch hand and did odd jobs in town.
Though he earned fame as a teacher and researcher, Carver’s farming skills were as much in demand to feed the students and staff of Tuskegee Institute through its early years, and support it with the sale of surplus crops as any classroom or lab work he did. Recalling his own beginnings, he worked to break the economic dependency of Southern sharecroppers on cotton, and pioneered crop rotation to fight the soil depletion of that cash crop, focusing on peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans and peas. He preached a quiet, steady message of diversification and fertility. To build a foundation for peanuts as a crop, he offered 105 new peanut recipes and developed over 100 alternative uses for peanuts ranging from cosmetics and plastics to dyes, paints and fuel.
Both men were eminently practical in their approaches and pursuits. Both consciously looked to empower the small farmer, and share the living tools for a more diverse and widely based success. Though they were childless, both were mentors to children, and influenced statesmen by their advice and example. Both were committed to spiritual and philosophical inquiry. Carver’s accomplishment in poetry, painting and race relations also offer us a model for the well-rounded individual, capable of reaching out in new directions, while keeping a firm footing in what matters most.
The Straight Dirt
Good farming soil doesn’t grow on trees — it grows beneath them in leaf mold, and in the cane brakes and lush growth of river bottoms and flood plains. It is a blanket of the living gone before. What we call dirt is the Middle English variant from the Old Norse, of drit — excrement — hinting at its connection with manure. Manure itself is an ancient euphemism, the Middle English word for cultivating son, from the Vulgar Latin manuoperare, literally to work by hand. Rich crumbly dirt, loaded with decaying organic matter that will grow things, is not inexhaustible and should not e allowed to wash or blow away, not be worked when it is too dry, not be wantonly stripped or paved or built on, simply because of its location. It needs to be treated as a prime investment, nurtured over time by regular deposits and careful husbandry, since fertile soil is the bank that holds our future.
Dirt hasn’t always been seen that way in this country. The original pattern of farming all along the frontier — except for rocky New England, but including most of the South — with few exceptions was exhaustive and exploitative. Fields would be cleared, corn or what or cotton planted until yields dropped low enough that fields would have been left fallow, at which point the planter would move on. Tom Lincoln moved his lanky family five times in twenty-four years, from Elizabethtown, Kentucky to Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana, to Macon County, Illinois, and finally to Sangamon County, Illinois, chasing a decent yield for his labors. This pattern was followed by even large landowners, who would continue to break virgin ground on their holdings, then ultimately move west when they ran out of fertile soil. In certain areas the original topsoil might be more substantial, nine to twelve feet thick in parts of Kentucky, six to ten feet thick in the Willamette Valley and California’s Central Valley, up to twenty feet thick in North Dakota, and in such places the lucky farmer could count on a longer tenure of plenty. But the hard lessons of soil conservation seldom rose to consciousness until after the frontier effectively closed in 1890.
But even without the allure of free land, and early farming’s extravagant bingers, change was slow coming. It wasn’t until the manmade Dustbowl disaster of the 1930s blotted out the sun for days across the Great Plains, stripping a hundred million acres of topsoil off an are reaching from the Texas panhandle clear up into central Canada, that erosion created enough alarm to provoke changes in how things were done. Farmers adopted the two still common practices of contour plowing and strip cropping. And a third notion — leaving some marginal lands well enough along.