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In order to the successful prosecution of any undertaking, and not less so in regard to agriculture than in other departments of business, it is needful that we have both a clear idea of the end to be attained and of the means best adapted to accomplish that end.
The ultimate end aimed at in agricultural operations is the production of human food, and this to the greatest amount practicable from a given area of land; but when we inquire as to the means by which the desired end may best be accomplished, we enter upon a subject, which in regard to its general outlines as well as in regard to details, has not received the degree of attention which its importance demands; and one upon which many farmers have no such clear views or well grounded opinions as are needful in order to direct their operations to a successful issue. If our soils were inexhaustable and all we get from them, year after year was so much clear gain, the answer could be given very briefly and easily—but so far is this from being the fact, that if we should attempt simply to sow grain and grow bread, we should soon find our lands barren and ourselves hungry and starving.
Experience has abundantly demonstrated that to grow full crops year after year, the land must be supplied with as much as it is deprived of in the crops taken off. If the whole of these were obtained from the soil, the whole would have to be returned to it, to make good the deprivation, but happily such is not the case Only a part is thus obtained, and so, if we return such a part, we can live on as well as before, and if we return more to the soil than came from it, we can grow richer by adding to its original fertility.
Such is the lesson taught by the experience of all who ever tilled the soil, and yet until the pinch of necessity is actually felt, few have profited by it as they should. Instances are not wanting in the present generation where farmers in Maine have taken oats after oats from unmanured land to be sold for consumption in a logging swamp, until the crops were scarcely worth harvesting, and both the owner and his land sadly impoverished thereby.
If we look back to the first settlements of the country we find
the early colonists giving their attention chiefly to the growth of grain, their cattle being allowed to shift for themselves and left to subsist as they best could on the natural grasses, herbage and browse within their reach.
In subsequent years the sons of these same colonists in their progress westward have pursued much the same mode. After a period, varying with the natural fertility of the soil, but equally sure to come, whether at Plymouth or Jamestown, in the Genessee valley, in Ohio, or on the prairies farther west, the yield of grain is found seriously to diminish, insomuch that the inquiry is forced upon them, how shall we live? The same inquiry was long ago forced upon the attention of others. The problem has been satisfactorily solved and we may profit by their experience, if we will.
We are accustomed and with good reason too, to regard the agriculture of England as immensely in advance of ours, their average crops of grain being larger than our best ones grown upon yirgin soils (except in rare instances) and some of their land so rich as to require two grain crops in succession to reduce it to a condition fit for the next crop in their rotation. But such was not always their condition. Less than three centuries since, Sir Hugh Platt, an agricultural writer of the sixteenth century, thus states his motive for undertaking to give instruction in husbandry. "What eie doth not pitty to see the great weeknes and decay of our ancient and common mother the earth, which now is grown so aged and stricken in years, and so wounded at the hart with the ploughmans goad, that she beginneth to faint under the husbandmans hand and groaneth for the decay of her natural balsam. For whose good health and recovery and for the better comfort of sundry simple and needy farmers of this land I have partly undertaken these strange labours, altogether abhorring from my profession, that they might both know and practise some further secrets in their husbandry for the better manuring of their leane and barren groundes with some new sorts of marle not yet knowne or not sufficiently regarded by the best experienced men of our daies." Seeing that he recommends hair, fish, malt dust, salt, ashes, the offal of slaughter-houses, &c. as among the useful fertilizers “not yet brought into any public use," it can hardly be wondered at that the land began to faint under the husbandmans hand.”
The first step to be taken in such case doubtless is to practice the utmost economy in regard to all fertilizing materials at command, but this, of itself alone, is insufficient; and another step is equally needful, -namely, to manufacture a greater amount of manure, and this we can do by reason of our facilities for growing abundant crops of grass. We can produce food for animals in larger quantities and with greater ease than we can grow human food, and this, if consumed upon the farm by cattle and sheep will yield beef and mutton, butter, cheese and wool—and more—for by its consumption we make both meat and manure, and we can sell the one and retain the other, so that, if the plan be judiciously carried out, each succeeding year will find both the amount which may be sold from the farm, and the ability of the farm to produce, steadily increasing.
We are so accustomed to a mixed husbandry and to the use of as much manure as can be hail from the present small amount of stock kept, that this strain of remark may appear to many the utterance of self evident propositions and so entirely superfluous and unnecessary, but notwithstanding the fact, that scarcely a farm can be found in New England where more or less stock is not kept, the manure from which is almost the only reliance by which to enrich the land, there is reason to believe that very few comparatively among our farmers are conscious to the full extent and in all its force, of the connection which exists between the production of animal food and that of human food; nor is it easy, without extensive and minute statistical information, to present the same in its full force.
Unfortunately the value of such information has never been appreciated among our people, and consequently we have little in the way of statistics in this country to which to look, but in respect of other countries we are better supplied, and an examination of facts will abundantly show that such is the intimate and necessary connection between a stock husbandry and continuous and increasing fertility of soil, that it is safe to regard the degree of attention given to the culture of food for animals, as a certain index to the progress of agriculture, and this not in our own country only but in all northern countries of moderate natural fertility, (these being the only countries where agriculture has ever made any progress worth speaking of.)
The relative proportion of meadow and pasture land compared with the whole amount cultivated, appears to be in various countries as follows: in France one-fifth, in Germany one-fourth, in Great Britain three-fifths, in Holland five-sixths.
France, possessing a soil and climate naturally more favorable to success in agriculture than that of the British Isles, has one-fifth only devoted to meadow and pasture, while more than two-fifths are in cereal crops, but in Great Britain with three-fifths in meadow and pasture, only one-fifth is cropped with grain. Let us now look at the results of such widely differing systems of husbandry. In France upon one hundred and five millions of acres of cultivated land the annual production of meat amounts to eight hundred and eighty millions of pounds, or about eight and one-third pounds per acre, while in Great Britain, upon fifty millions of acres, the production is eleven hundred millions of pounds, or twenty-two pounds per acre. The grain crops of these countries also presents a contrast equally striking. In France the average production of grain, including wheat, rye, buckwheat and maize is only a fraction over twelve bushels per acre, while in Great Britain the average production of wheat (alone) amounts to twenty-eight bushels
In the British islands the production of food for cattle is considerably greater than in the whole of France with twice the extent of surface, and the quantity of manure is proportionably three or four times greater, the yield of grain more than twice as great per acre, in quantity, and three times as much in money value.
In Holland, where nearly the whole surface is devoted to hay and pasture, land bears a higher value and commands a higher rent than in any other country.
The significance of such facts cannot be mistaken. They show plainly that an indirect course is not only the surest, but the only safe one, towards accomplishing the end of agriculture.
The prevalent husbandry of Maine is a mixed one and it will be long, if the time ever comes, when it will be otherwise, but whether sooner or later, it is of great importance for farmers to investigate and ascertain, the relative adaptation of stock and arable husbandry to the circumstances and surroundings amid which they are placed, so that they may bestow their labor where it will yield the best returns and at the same time increase the fertility of the soil.