Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Soil and Health

Sir Albert Howard, The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture (Culture of the Land), with a new introduction by Wendell Berry, The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

This book is one of A Series in the New Agrarianism by UPK, edited by Norman Wirzba, that bears the title Culture of the Land. The book was originally published in 1947. It followed the publication and good reception of An Agricultural Testament in 1940. (One may hope that An Agricultural Testament will also be added to this series or reprinted by some other publisher soon.) This book is one of a set of classic texts, along with F. C. King's Farmers of Forty Centuries,
Lady Eve Balfour's The Living Soil (Soil Association Organic Classics), and the like, that have occasionally been reprinted and should remain always available in print. One suspects that they will be widely accessible again as soon as they enter the public domain. In the meantime, short run or print on demand--or re-sale by and the like--must suffice to keep a new generation of readers informed.

This book certainly deserves the reputation it has received as a "classic." Sir Albert Howard is plain spoken and easy for any agricultural practitioner--including this one--to understand. Though it is somewhat getting the cart before the horse to say so, Howard truly exemplifies the purpose of the series, demonstrating a profound appreciation for the "intimate and practical connections which exist between humans and the earth." Perhaps that is because Howard was, as is often stated, a pioneer and founding source for the New Agrarianism and the organic movement. Nowhere have I seen the connection between humans and the earth more profoundly and clearly stated than in the progression of Howard's outline for Part II of the book, "Disease in Present-Day Farming and Gardening." Howard moves with deliberation from diseases of the soil, through diseases of crops, to disease and health in livestock, and ultimately to a brief and convincing statement of the relationship between soil fertility and human health.

I was bemused to discover again the depth of my ignorance. I am a product of U.S. public schools--primary, secondary, and college all in the great agriculturally dependent state of Tennessee--from 1972 to 1984. I took "biology" as a school course (not counting the units of biology in early science classes) twice, once in High School and once again in college, but never do I recall hearing of the "Mycorrhizal Association" or the "web-like mycelial strands" that surround and invade some plant roots. As recently as 2007 I took the Master Gardener course from the Purdue Extension service, and again do not recall having heard anything about the mycorrhizal association in some roots. Certainly there was an emphasis on keeping organic matter high in our gardens and an emphasis on care in working the garden not to destroy the soil structure (not to work too often, or when the soil is too wet or too dry), but nothing was said about the importance of the symbiotic relationship with some microbes for the growth of some plants. It is clear that the association is understood as scientific fact and that its importance for plant growth is also understood, though the remedies (adding more synthetic phosphorous to what Howard would have called the "artificial manure" mix) are not necessarily ones embraced by organic agriculture. (e.g., Purdue note regarding the effect of flooding on helpful fungi.)

The fact that the mycorrhizal association is recognized and still studied today as an aspect of forestry and natural resource management suggests that Howard's drawing of connections between the forest (Howard recommends "afforestation," including forests in the long-term agricultural rotation) and a sustainable agriculture and human health is true, even if viewed by today's agro-science technicians as impractical. The book, 300 pages of small type, is too extensive to do it justice with a single review. Perhaps the best recommendation for the book is its constant citation by others more qualified than I to speak about organic agriculture. I think it is for good reason that Howard and his "Wheel of Life" (with its imperative to return everything to the soil whence it came) has formed a constant touchstone for authors like Wendell Berry (e.g., "The Use of Energy" in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry). Perhaps the best and most important thing to take from a first (hopefully not the last) reading of Howard is that "The first duty of the agriculturalist [farmer or gardener] must always be to understand that he [or she] is a part of Nature and cannot escape from his environment" (p. 194). This maxim leads everywhere in the book to delightful conclusions like the following: "the attempt to raise natural earth-borne crops on an exclusive diet of water and mineral dope--the so-called science of hydroponics--is science gone mad; it is an absurdity which has nothing in common with the ancient art of cultivation" (ibid.)

To which this reviewer can only add "amen!"

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