National Geographic Magazine/Volume 31/Number 3/Soldiers of the Soil

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Soldiers of the Soil[edit]

Our Food Crops Must Be Greatly Increased

By David F. Houston, United States Secretary of Agriculture


The importance to the nation of a generously adequate food supply for the coming year cannot be overemphasized, in view of the economic problems which may arise as a result of the entrance of the United States into the war. Every effort should be made to produce more crops than are needed for our own use.

Many millions of people across the seas, as well as our own people, must rely in large part upon the products of our fields and ranges. This situation will continue to exist even though hostilities should end unexpectedly soon, since European production cannot be restored immediately to its normal basis.

It is obvious that the greatest and most important service that is required of our agriculture under existing conditions is an enlarged production of the staple food crops. Because of the shortage of such crops practically throughout the world, there is no risk in the near future of excessive production such as sometimes has resulted in unremunerative prices to producers. This is particularly true of the cereals and of peas, beans, cow-peas, soybeans, and buckwheat.

There is no danger of overproduction[edit]

In view of the world scarcity of food, there is hardly a possibility that the production of these crops by the farmers of the United States can be too great this year, and there is abundant reason to expect generous price returns for all available surplus.

The most effective step that may be taken to increase the production of these crops is to enlarge the acreage devoted to them in the regions where they are grown habitually. This expansion of acreage should be to the limit permitted by available good seed, labor, and equipment.

The placing of too great emphasis on production in new regions is inadvisable, since the introduction into a farm operation of a crop not usually grown frequently involves practical difficulties not easily foreseen nor quickly surmountable.

Taking the winter-wheat territory as a whole, winter killing has occurred to an extent very much greater than usual. This, obviously, if not compensated for in some way, will mean a material reduction in the supplies of our most important bread cereal. Where winter wheat has been damaged sufficiently to justify the abandonment of fields, it should by all means be replaced by spring-planted food crops, preferably small grains or corn.

The condition of our winter wheat, as shown by the Department in its report of April 7, is more than 25 per cent below the average “condition April 1” for the past ten years. This condition forecasts a production this year nearly 243,000,000 bushels less than the crop of 1915 and 52,000,000 bushels less than that of 1916, when our harvest of winter wheat was also poor.

What this loss means will be appreciated from the statement that one bushel of wheat contains sufficient energy to support the average working man for 15 days. By producing 240,000,000 bushels of winter wheat less in 1915 we have lost enough flour energy to support 10,000,000 people for one year. But as no man lives on bread alone, this shortage represents wheat sufficient for the needs of 20,000,000 men for a year.

The usefulness of oats and barley[edit]

If land intended for spring wheat cannot be put into good condition early enough for seeding, oats or barley can be substituted to good advantage in the sections where these crops are known to do well. Barley can be relied on in the proved areas of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, and Montana, while oats have a much wider range.

The ease with which barley may be substituted directly for wheat in human food and its usefulness to replace wheat milling by-products as feed in the production of the milk supply render its abundant production important. Barley, where it succeeds, yields a larger weight of feed per acre than any other small grain crop.

With an abundance of oats and barley available, much closer milling of wheat than at present could be practiced, if necessary, without endangering the milk supply, which constitutes so important an element in the dietary of consumers.

The place of rye under present conditions is an important one. The crop this year should be harvested and utilized with more than the usual care. Considerable acreage is planted in some sections for plowing under in the spring for green manure. Where conditions are suitable, part of this acreage might well be held for harvesting, and followed with a suitable summer or fall crop for plowing in later.

Buckwheat may be planted later than any similar crop, and often does well on old meadows or waste land that can be broken after the more exacting crops are planted.

In some sections, where experience has demonstrated that the cereals, except rye, cannot be relied on, buckwheat is a crop of considerable importance. The acreage could well be increased, especially in portions of New York, Pennsylvania, and New England, where the crop now is grown to a considerable extent.

Rice at present prices provides more food for the money than most of the other cereals. Fuller appreciation of its value should stimulate production quickly in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and California to an extent that would increase the total food supply greatly.

Expand the corn acreage[edit]

Corn is the leading food and feed crop of the United States in geographic range of production, acreage, and quantity of product. The vital importance of a large acreage of this crop, properly cared for, therefore, is obvious. Because of the prices obtained for the last crop and the world demand for this grain, its profitableness to the American farmer during the approaching season is clear. The 105,954,000 acres planted to corn in 1916 yielded 2,583,000,000 bushels, or more than 400,000,000 bushels less than the large crop of 1915, and considerably less than the five-year average—2,732,457,000 bushels.

Conditions now warrant the planting of the largest acreage of this crop which it is possible to handle effectively.

Although fall is the proper time for breaking sod for corn, there are many unproductive and foul meadows and indifferent pastures in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and the Middle Atlantic and Northeastern States that, under existing conditions, can be broken and planted now to advantage. The resulting reduction of hay and pasture would be more than replaced by the corn stover, ensilage, and grain produced.

Earliness of maturity, other factors being equal, is advantageous in the case of practically all grain crops. Relatively early maturing varieties should be selected where possible, and the planting should be done at the earliest suitable date. With the small grains an advance of three or four days in stage of maturity frequently saves a crop from serious damage by rusts. With corn a similar advantage is obtained by early maturity, when severe droughts are encountered and when killing frosts occur toward the end of the season.

Cow-peas and soy-beans valuable for food[edit]

The usefulness of cow-peas and soy-beans as human food has been recognized only recently in this country. Existing conditions warrant the planting of all the available seed of varieties known to do well in the several sections. The soy-bean, in particular, has proved sufficiently resistant to cold in spring and to adverse weather during summer to warrant heavy planting, especially throughout the South. The value of the beans for oil production, as well as for human food, has become recognized so quickly and so generally during the past year that the crop has acquired a commercial standing far in excess of its previous status.

The high food value of field beans and the shortage of supply due to the light yields of 1915 and 1916 render them of great importance in the regions to which they are adapted. This is especially the case in portions of the New England States, New York, Michigan, and California, where the chief supply has been grown for many years, and in sections of Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, and other Western States where beans have attained importance recently.

The seed supply, while high in price, is well distributed.

Reserve sufficient hay, forage, and pasture land[edit]

A deficiency of hay and forage for the next winter would jeopardize the future meat and dairy supplies of the country and result in a shortage of roughage for military draft and saddle animals.

In regions where dairying dominates, the full acreage of clover, alfalfa, and the grasses that is in productive condition should be maintained. Under the conditions prevailing in most dairying sections, these crops can be carried with less man-power than that required for tilled crops.

The older, thinner, and less productive grass lands, however, frequently can be made to produce much larger yields of feed in corn than if left, as they are, in unproductive grass. The seeding down of small grain fields for next year's mowing should by no means be neglected, for the maintenance of effective rotations of crops will be found as important in the future as in the past.

For the Gulf States, perhaps no forage crop of which the available seed supply is relatively abundant exceeds the velvet bean in potential value. This legume possesses also the ability to make a crop when planted relatively late.

Seed potatoes should be conserved by planting on the best lands available for them and planning for thorough tillage and protection of the crop against disease and insect pests.

Potatoes and vegetables[edit]

Potatoes can be grown most advantageously near the centers of population in the Northern States, where transportation cost may be reduced to a minimum. This crop is capable of quick and large increase of production when conditions are favorable.

There is, however, considerable risk of unprofitable production of potatoes when they are grown at long distances from the consuming markets, owing to their disproportionate weight and bulk in comparison with the cereals.

Such vegetable crops as carrots, rutabaga turnips, onions, and cabbage are worthy of much more attention than they generally receive, especially in the eastern United States. All these crops are capable of large production on suitable land, under intensive culture, throughout the more densely populated portions of the country. The supply of seed is ample and their culture comparatively simple.

The holding of these vegetables for the winter food supply is relatively easy where suitable, inexpensive pits, cellars, or lofts are prepared in time.

The old practice of drying vegetables is revived[edit]

The practicability of quickly drying vegetables for longer preservation was demonstrated on a large scale last year in western New York, where quantities were dried in the available apple evaporators and in rapidly constructed dry-kilns, for export as army supplies.

This was a repetition of the experience of the Civil War period, when desiccated vegetables assumed considerable importance in the army ration, and the equipment required for their preparation proved the forerunner of our present fruit-drying equipment. Existing conditions warrant heavier planting than usual of staple winter vegetables in the sections where canneries and fruit evaporators exist, and probably in some sections where the provision of such facilities later in the season may be justified.

In the southern half of the country perhaps no crop has larger possibilities for quick increase of production of food for both men and animals than the sweet potato. Methods of handling and storing this product, demonstrated and advocated by the Department workers for several years, make possible much fuller utilization of it than has occurred generally in the past.

The peanut, in many sections of the South, also is capable of greatly enlarged production, with little risk of oversupply, as it is in demand for oil and peanut-butter manufacture, as well as for direct use as food, both for man and hogs.

Increase farm production of vegetables and poultry[edit]

The high prices for foodstuffs that have prevailed during the last few months have stimulated interest in the increase of home supplies of vegetables, poultry, and dairy products on farms.

This interest has been quickened most noticeably in the South, where for several years this Department and the States, through their extension workers, have urged such an increase as necessary for economic reasons, even under normal conditions. Other parts of the country have responded to these appeals, but emphasis on this feature should be continued by all agencies in position to operate effectively.

Through increased attention to poultry on farms, it is possible to add quickly and materially to the food supply. Because of the importance of an increased supply of eggs, under present exigencies, farmers should not market hens of the egg breeds, such as the leghorns, which are less than three years old, or of the larger breeds which are less than two years old.

By the immediate preservation of eggs for home consumption through the use of water glass or lime water, larger supplies of fresh eggs may be made available for marketing later in the season, when production is less and prices higher.

Every person who raises chickens, from the novice to the poultry husbandman, should see that infertile eggs are produced and all surplus marketed promptly, so as to eliminate waste through spoilage.

When conditions render it feasible, small flocks of poultry should be kept by families in villages, towns, and especially in the suburbs of large cities. The need for this extension of poultry-raising is particularly great where consumption exceeds production, as in the Northeastern States.

Through utilization of table waste, scraps, and other refuse as poultry feed, much wholesome food in the form of eggs and poultry for home use may be produced at relatively low cost.

Many families in the villages and on the outskirts of cities also should consider the advisability of keeping a pig, if sanitary regulations permit. In most cases, however, it will be profitable to keep a pig only when a sufficient surplus from the household and the garden is available to furnish a considerable portion of the pig's food.

Consumers living in villages and in the suburbs of cities do not appreciate sufficiently the possibility of adding materially to their food supply by utilizing suitable idle soil in yards, vacant lots, and unused outlying fields. The total contribution to the food supply of families and communities which can be brought about through such activities is great.

Gardening is peculiarly an activity in which the family and the community may share with resultant mutual helpfulness and benefit.

The duty of the individual farmer, at this time, is to increase his production, particularly of food crops. If he has control of tillable land not in use, or money lying idle, or labor unemployed, he should extend his operations so as to employ those resources to the fullest extent.

This does not mean that he should rob his land, waste his capital, or expend his labor fruitlessly, but that by wise planning and earnest effort he should turn out a greater quantity of food crops than ever before. He will not lose by it, and he will perform an important service in supporting his country in the task that lies before it.

Source: David F. Houston (March 1917), “Soldiers of the Soil: Our Food Crops Must Be Greatly Increased”, The National Geographic Magazine 31(3): 273–279.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.