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New Books Take a Hard Look at Farming, Commerce, and the Politics of Manure

Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America

Author:Steven Stoll
Publisher:Hill and Wang
Pages:287
Genre:Non-Fiction

By Scott Carlson | Posted 10/2/2002

The environmental movement has a few reliable, if predictable, villains to trot out to stoke the public's ire: corporate lobbyists and chemical manufacturers, Texas oilmen and oily Texas politicians--sometimes they're one and the same.

But stoking criticism of agriculture is a harder sell--a daunting public-relations barrier for the environmental movement. These days, farms are far away from the everyday lives of most people. Mention farming, and the public tends to picture a classic farmer dressed in grass-stained overalls, his hands caressing the loam and his weary eyes on the sky above. In this vision, harnessed and promoted by big agribusiness giants such as Monsanto Co., the farmer is a laborer connected to the health of the land and dependent on the generosity of nature, striving to bring wholesome nourishment to the American dinner table.

That American farmer doesn't exist much anymore, and perhaps he never did in substantial numbers. Fatal Harvest, a coffee-table book for the agrarian apocalypse, is meant as a shrewdly composed assault on the sentimental corporate image. Enormous, full-color photographs illustrate what farming really means in the United States today--that is, that genetic engineering, massive applications of toxic chemicals, and indiscriminate plowing and clearing have reduced the agrarian tradition to a manufacturing process. On page after page, Fatal Harvest shows rows of vegetables more orderly than an industrial line and orchards more barren than factory brownfields. There's nary a pair of overalls in sight; the "farmers" here wear mainly lab coats and gas masks.

The images alone compose stirring and necessary propaganda, but Fatal Harvest's creators have enlisted leading environmental activists, farmers, and other commentators to write some 50 short but punchy essays to drive points home. The book's editor, Andrew Kimbrell, an environmental lawyer, seems to have kept a rein on his writers; to his credit, the essays stick closely to facts, figures, and common-sense arguments, never straying far into embarrassing green sentimentality or fluffy nature worship. The writers here--including Wes Jackson, Jerry Mander, Jim Hightower, and the chef Alice Waters, among others--seek to make the reader think every time he or she walks through the supermarket or picks up a fork. The always-pragmatic Wendell Berry, author of the classic The Unsettling of America, sets the tone early in his opening essay, "The Whole Horse": "It is ultimately futile to plead and protest and lobby in favor of public ecological responsibility while, in virtually every act of our private lives, we endorse and support an economic system that is by intention, and perhaps by necessity, ecologically irresponsible."

The subsequent essays buttress the theme on various agricultural fronts, and pesticides are a recurring topic. We learn that wheat farmers apply 16 million pounds of pesticides, or 300 pounds per acre, to their crops every year; that "2 in 25 apples have levels of pesticide residues so high that a two-year-old child would exceed the government's safe exposure levels by eating just half an apple"; that a 1998 study found methyl parathion, a highly toxic and banned pesticide, in 78 percent of baby foods containing pears. The essays also address issues as varied as deforestation, food irradiation, soil erosion, fish kills, the plight of farm laborers, and the triumph of monoculture (farms growing only one crop). Most essays offer alternatives and hope, illustrating the ways that organic methods could fix problems.

At every turn, the writers seek to show that organic farming is not just morally upright, but economically sensible. Jim Hightower, in his delightful essay about old-time farming, charts the conversion of Texas farmer Jim Crawford from chemical to organic methods. Crawford's first years relying on manure compost were lean, and his neighbors snickered. "By the third year his soil was getting plenty stout, and his corn yield was one-and-a-half times better than what his neighbors were getting the chemical way," Hightower writes. "The snickering was replaced by area farmers stopping by, digging their boot heels into his plowed field, and saying: 'Manure, huh?'"

American farmers learned this lesson more than 150 years ago, but they've largely forgotten. Yale University historian Steven Stoll, in Larding the Lean Earth, intends to revive it. His book is a history of "improvement," the early-19th-century campaign to use manure and compost to restore fertility to overtaxed soil.

Now, a history of common soil and manure might sound like a dreadful read, but in Stoll's lucid and often poetic prose, it's absolutely vital and compelling. He explains early on that soil is a nonrenewable resource--it takes nature almost 10,000 years to create a foot of it--and that the erosion of societies has often followed the erosion of their soil. "Soil is the tablecloth under the banquet of civilization: no matter what people build on it, when it moves all the food and finery go crashing," he writes.

Some early European-Americans understood this and were disturbed by the widespread slash-and-burn approach to farming. Without the regeneration of manure compost, soils began to wear out and crops came in lean. Farmers would then pick up and move to the West, depopulating and destabilizing the communities in the East and leaving wasted earth in their path. To the improvers, this was not only aesthetically odious but economically devastating. They advocated recycling farm nutrients: use animals to create manure, rotate crops, compost waste. Feed the soil and it will feed you. The improvers believed that careful attention to the land would not just maintain decent harvests, it would enhance nature's, and the crops', potential.

Improvement was at the center of public discussion for several decades in the 1800s, though Stoll says that relatively few farmers actually followed the method faithfully. He charts its decline with the advent of farm machinery and the first commercial fertilizer, bird guano, which was imported from South American islands in the latter part of the century. These forces flattened and straightened out the nutrient cycle on a small farm, as farmers could now import (or discard) all of the fertility they needed. Industrial agriculture was born.

But the lessons haven't been completely forgotten. For his epilogue, Stoll visits David and Elsie Kline, who farm the Amish way on 122 acres an hour south of Cleveland. They follow many of the techniques laid out by the improvers of the 1800s, including manuring their soil and leaving open space for trees. Though the Klines' farming techniques might seem backward to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other proponents of industrialized agriculture, Stoll points out that the Klines' farm is enormously productive and profitable compared with modern peers who depend on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and the massive (and costly) machinery used to spread them. The Klines' wheat crops generate 75 bushels per acre a year, compared with an average of 45 bushels per acre among modern Kansas farmers.

And, compared with typical farmland, the Klines' plot remains more valuable, both in terms of real estate and ecology. The advocates of improvement said that their farming techniques improved not only the soil but the surrounding wildlife as well. Likewise, David Kline sees farming as a collaboration, not a competition, with nature; songbirds, deer, and small mammals thrive on his land. "By working and farming the way the Amish have traditionally done, we make our place more attractive to wildlife," Stoll quotes Kline saying. "Should we be removed from the land and our farm turned into a 'wildlife area,' I'm almost positive that the numbers and species of wildlife would dwindle."

The farm as both profitable economic engine and nature refuge? That perspective runs against modern conceptions of farming, and perhaps even against popular conceptions of environmentalism. But it makes sense, in a way. Eden, after all, was not a wilderness but a garden.

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