Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/July 1888/Lines of Progress in Agriculture
|LINES OF PROGRESS IN AGRICULTURE.|
THE recent progress made in the study of social and political science, in which the principles of evolution have played an important part, must aid us in gaining a better knowledge of the laws of industrial development, and more consistent views of the real objects and available methods of industrial education.
The recognition of the fact that in the social and industrial progress of peoples, as well as in the relations of natural phenomena, there are laws of growth and development, of universal application, under which the modifying influences of surrounding conditions are brought in harmony in determining results, has widened our methods of study and research, and thrown a light on the history of the world's progress that enables as to trace the relations of cause and effect in many cases that had before been involved in obscurity.
In agriculture there is pressing need of the application of principles and methods that have aided in the development of other industries, to enable the farmer to devise the best possible system for the profitable practice of his art under the world-wide competition which surrounds him, as the result of the wonderfully increased facilities for the transportation and exchange of commodities. He can no longer claim that the empirical knowledge of farming he may possess is the only consistent guide in practice, and he can not safely ignore the many lessons presented in the marked progress and revolutions that have been made in other industries, or the manifold benefits he may derive from the wide circle of sciences, which are now in their rapid development suggesting important applications in every interest and process of the farm.
Practice and science must go hand in hand, with the most hearty co-operation, if the problems in farm management arising from the world's progress and the consequent depression in prices are to be successfully solved. Every hint which the latest discoveries in science may present for his consideration must be closely studied, and its relations to practice carefully determined, or the best results can not be obtained. From the complexity and interdependence of all agricultural processes and their intimate relations to every department of science, it must be admitted that there is no business or profession in which so wide a range of knowledge can be profitably made use of as in farming.
The ruts followed by narrow specialists, and the ultra-conservatism of the so-called "practical men," are alike to be avoided, if real progress in the practice of agriculture is made. A broad and liberal culture, with special training and aptness for the work, is required in dealing with the practical applications of the latest contributions of science, as no department of research can be safely neglected in the broad field which embraces such widely different interests; and this fact must be fully recognized in the management of our agricultural colleges, or they will fail to accomplish the end for which they were established.
In the popular discussion of manual training in schools as a phase of the modern demand for industrial education, there is danger that too much stress will be laid upon the assumed advantages of manual dexterity as a preparation for acquiring some handicraft or trade, and that its real value as a factor in mental development and discipline will be overlooked in the efforts to give a practical bias to an elementary course of instruction.
A brief glance at some of the conditions under which the world's work is now performed will make it evident that breadth of culture and thorough training in methods of scientific investigation are of greater importance than manual dexterity in any special direction. The trades or handicrafts which formerly required an apprenticeship of several years for their mastery are now, in effect, made nearly obsolete by the invention of machinery, and specialization in the processes of production, together with the demand for large investments of capital, in every department of manufacture, to meet the intense competition arising from the rapid development of new and improved methods, and increased facilities in the means of transportation and distribution. In manufactures of all kinds the margin of profits has been reduced to an extent that is fatal to small establishments, and production can only succeed when on a sufficient scale to make an aggregate of the small items of profit an object worth seeking.
The subdivision of labor required in the specialization of manufactures on a large scale, where machinery, adapted to the particular purpose, is made use of in every process, tends to diminish the demand for skilled artisans, unless they are needed as superintendents of labor; and even then executive ability, general intelligence, and a knowledge of business methods, are of greater importance than mere technical skill.
The work done by a skillful mechanic, under former methods, is now performed by an unskilled workman and a machine, under proper supervision, and with greater economy and certainty in the results. Dexterity is required in only a single movement or operation, which is soon learned, and, when a machine is properly adjusted to perform its special function, a boy with its aid becomes the equal of the most skilled artisan in the routine of work he has to do. With the exception of localities with scattered population and remote from the lines of trade and distribution, we shall find that wagons, carriages, agricultural implements of all kinds, boots and shoes, tinware, clocks and watches, and, in fact, almost every product of the industrial arts, can be purchased at a lower price than the artisan can afford to make them under the old methods of his trade, and his skill as a workman is only in demand to repair the articles originally produced under a specialized system of manufacture.
Moreover, in many of the industries competition is so sharp, and the margin of profit so small, on the leading object of production, that the utilization of what had been waste products has been found to be essential to financial success. In response to this demand for the working up and utilization of residues, the applications of chemistry have produced remarkable results, and in many instances what had been rejected as a waste has assumed a dominant position in the industry, and the original article of manufacture has in its turn become the by-product and of secondary importance on the score of profit.
Large investments of capital, specialization in production, the use of machinery in every process, and the consequent subdivision of labor in particular lines in which the technical skill of the handicraftsman is not required, together with the utilization of waste products and the rapid exchange of commodities, mark the progress of activity in the industrial arts.
Industrial education in its widest sense, in which mental development and liberal culture are the leading aim, in connection with a thorough knowledge of the industries in their relations to science, should be promoted as an important factor in the world's progress, and the gaining of technical skill in the handicrafts which have been so largely superseded by modern improved methods should not be allowed to usurp a dominant influence.
In the struggle necessarily involved in the progress of civilization and social development, agriculture is fortunately exempt from many of the conditions of production which have a decided tendency to reduce profits in other industries, and aside from the effects of bad seasons, the ravages of insects, and similar agencies which are local in their influence, the competition arising from the rapid increase in facilities for transportation, which give remote localities a ready access to the markets of the world, becomes the most important element in determining the low price of farm products.
This competition can not be evaded, and its tendency must be to prevent any wide fluctuation in the market value of products; and the farmer can have no reasonable expectation of again obtaining the high prices for his products which have been realized in the past. As in other industries, the fact of a world-wide competition and a resulting small margin of profits must be accepted as a probable constant factor in the farming of the future. This should not, however, be considered as a discouraging outlook, but it should serve as an incentive to activity in developing improved methods that will give satisfactory results under the prescribed conditions of production.
To those who are familiar with the details of farm practice, and have also a knowledge of the manifold applications of science that are available in every department of production, the direction in which progress can be made in devising remedies for the present diminished margin of profits in farm products is obvious. Attention must be directed to the development of a complete and comprehensive system of farm management, in which the intimate relations and interdependence of interests, in every department of production, are fully recognized, and every detail of practice, under thorough business methods, is made to yield the best direct results, and at the same time contribute indirectly to the aggregate of profits by its favorable influence on other details of equal importance. This will, of course, involve the systematic and consistent application of every contribution of science to the art to secure the utilization of every element of production, and the strictest economy in the distribution of the required labor.
From the prominence given to the economics of farm management and the inseparable relations of practice and science, as factors in the progress of agriculture under its present well-defined conditions, the notion must not be entertained that a complete revolution in practical methods is needed. The general principles of farm practice have been well established by the teachings of experience, and the leading rules of the art are not likely to be superseded or essentially modified by any discoveries in science. The old landmarks which have been obscured or lost sight of from too exclusive attention to specialties of comparatively little importance, must be restored and clearly defined, as a foundation on which a superstructure of improved practice in harmony with the principles of science and the prescribed conditions of production may be safely developed. New methods are not so much needed as a systematic adjustment of details, under the old established rules, in order to secure greater certainty and exactness in results.
Development, and not revolution, must be the watchword of progress, and the generally accepted methods of practice should only be modified by a proper arrangement of details to adapt them to the new environment. Exclusive attention to special farm products, and intensive systems of cultivation, have been urged as a royal road to success, in what has been called "progressive agriculture," by those who have noticed some of the improved methods in other industries, and attempted to apply them in agriculture without any definite knowledge of existing methods of farm practice, or the available applications of science in the art. These mistaken views do harm from the defective data and hasty generalizations on which they are based, which tend to bring true science undeservedly, into disrepute, and also by diverting attention from the real methods of improvement.
From wide differences in the conditions of production, it must be readily seen that the centralization and specialization in manufactures, and the consequent subdivision of labor, which have been found essential to success in other industries, can not be applied in agriculture. With the exception of the comparatively few cases in which peculiar local conditions may warrant a departure, to some extent, from correct principles of general practice, it will be found that the specialization of products, instead of mitigating the evils arising from active competition, will only add to their intensity.
The tendencies of high farming are in the same direction. Sir John Bennet Lawes has clearly shown, from experimental data, that intensive farming can only be successfully practiced when comparatively high prices for farm products are obtained; and he concludes that high farming can not be recommended as a remedy for prevailing low prices. In agriculture, increased production beyond a certain limit, which will vary with different conditions, involves an increase in the cost of the product, and with low prices an increase in yield, under an intensive system of management, may be made to cost more than its market value. With prevailing low prices for staple products, mixed farming, when conducted on a comprehensive plan, that gives to each interest its legitimate influence on the aggregate of results, has many advantages which recommend it as the best general system of practice.
Of the available suggestions which the rapid progress and development of other industries may present for the farmer's consideration, strict economy in the management of labor, and the thorough utilization of waste products, are undoubtedly the most significant. These two topics are so closely connected in practice from their intimate relations to every department of production, that they can not be separately considered in planning a system of farm management.
The direct influence on the margin of profits, of the distribution and efficiency of the labor performed on the farm throughout the year, is, however, so obvious that it will answer our present purpose to refer to it as an element that can not be neglected in discussing other methods of improvement. The waste products of the farm, which are so generally neglected, require more than a passing notice; but the limits of this article will not permit a full discussion of the subject, and we can only call attention to their great economic value.
From a careful estimate, based on the best obtainable data for the year 1884, in which the most important elements of fertility are valued at their market price in the form of commercial fertilizers, the barn-yard manure (or what should be utilized as such under a good system of management), in the State of Michigan, is worth at least $35,000,000; and in the United States this residue, under the same method of valuation, gives the astonishing aggregate of $1,092,950,000, which is more than twice the market value of all agricultural exports for the same year.
Persons familiar with the details of farm practice in different parts of the country will consider it safe to assume that at least one half of this valuable residue is lost, through neglect and errors in management, from lack of knowledge of the best methods of conserving the elements of fertility. The annual loss to farmers of the United States of a sum equal to, or exceeding, the market value of all agricultural exports, which they may readily prevent by a thorough and consistent system of management, is a matter of the first importance in considering the available means of agricultural improvement.
It does not aid the farmer in the ordinary routine of his work, or place him in a better position to overcome the evils of the intense competition to which he is subjected, to urge upon him the dangers of soil-exhaustion from the loss of the elements of fertility in the products sold from the farm. Profitable farming can only be practiced when the surplus products of the farm can be disposed of at remunerative rates in the markets of the world; and these products must of course contain chemical constituents that might, under proper conditions, be looked upon as elements of fertility. But of what use are elements of fertility if they can not be converted into products that can be sold and made to contribute to the legitimate income that is the object of the farmer's labors? It is a false assumption in economic science that the sale of a product is to be deprecated as a positive loss to the means of production; but farmers are not alarmed by such sensational claims, as the fallacies of the proposition are readily detected.
American farmers will continue to sell grain and animal products of various forms as long as there is a demand for them outside of their farms, and this is of course the only available resource of profitable production; but they need not fear the evils of soil-exhaustion from this source, notwithstanding the warnings of alarmists who overlook the complex compensating agencies of Nature, and fail to recognize the real sources of diminished production. The history of agriculture and our knowledge of science agree in teaching that the causes of diminished productiveness that are often noticed and referred to as indications of soil-exhaustion, can not be exclusively attributed to the loss of constituents removed from the soil in the crops sold from the farm, but rather to the failure to conserve the available elements of fertility, and keep them in active circulation, by a judicious system of cropping and soil management.
If the fertilizing constituents of the barn-yard manure which are now wasted were utilized by being converted into farm products of marketable value, the gross agricultural exports of the United States might be more than doubled without making our soils appreciably poorer in any of their essential constituents.
It must be admitted, if the figures already given are approximately correct—and there is good reason to believe that they understate rather than exaggerate the real facts of the case—that the disposition made of the residues of the farm is of far greater importance in the farming of the future than the aggregate of soil constituents contained in the products exported.
Under the present conditions of production the problem for the farmer to solve is. How can the sale of farm products be increased without diminishing the productive resources of the farm? For many obvious reasons the purchase of commercial fertilizers can not be admitted as the constant factor required in the solution of this problem. The profitable use of purchased manures must be limited to particular localities and special conditions of production, and they can not be made available to any extent as the staple source of fertility in general farm practice, as the markets of the world could supply the wants of but a very small proportion of the farms of the country.
Improved breeds of animals, and improved plants and seeds, in great variety, especially adapted to particular purposes, can now be obtained on every farm., and the rapid development of the mechanic arts has provided the most perfect implements and machines for economizing labor in every process. These lines of progress furnish important contributions to the means of profitable production, which the farmers of the country can not fail to appreciate. There remains, however, an extended field that is practically unworked, in which original investigations are needed to place our system of agriculture in full harmony with the requirements of the age.
From a practical standpoint, and as offering the most probable means of substantial progress, under present conditions of production, the subject of paramount importance to the farmer, and which should, therefore, receive a prominent place in a course of instruction in practical agriculture, is the utilization of farm residues of all kinds, with their available stores of the elements of fertility. Among these, barn-yard manure, from its obvious direct relations to the economics of production, should receive the share of attention its importance demands; but it must not, by any means, be looked upon as the only residue of the farm of economic interest. In a consistent system of practice, these residues must be made an efficient part of the circulating capital of the farm, and converted as rapidly as practicable, and with the least possible waste, into products of marketable value.
From the complex phenomena presented in the nutrition of plants and soil metabolism, the best methods for utilizing these residues can not be formulated in specific rules of practice that are of universal application. On every farm special conditions will be found which require intelligence and judgment in the application of general principles; and opportunities will be afforded, in each particular case, for the adjustment and balancing of the many contributions of science to meet the practical demands that arise from the varying combination of details presented in a wide range of topics, including the amelioration of soils by drainage and thorough tillage, the judicious arrangement of a succession of crops that will provide for a suitable supply of food for the animals of the farm, and the profitable appropriation of every element of fertility as soon as it is made available for the purposes of plant-growth; together with the economic conversion of the vegetable products into marketable animal products, and the efficient distribution of the required labor throughout the year in accordance with strict business principles.
In order to realize the full benefits of efforts to improve the practice of agriculture in this direction, the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the applications of science in practice must be promoted and encouraged as an essential element of success. There has never been a time when the advantages of agricultural education were so clearly apparent, or the conditions of practice so favorable for the general recognition of the practical value of a knowledge of science.
Under this encouraging aspect of the times, the agricultural colleges of the country can now be made to command a dominant influence in developing an improved system of agriculture, by conducting their practical departments on a higher plane, that will fully supplement and emphasize the economic value of the class-room instruction in science, so that farmers may look to them with a reasonable expectation of obtaining the information needed in planning the best systems of practice.
A course of instruction in practical agriculture can not be consistently confined to the limited range of the established routine of farm-work, but it must be supplemented and widened by a full discussion of the applications of science in every process of the art, and the practicable means of making them available sources of profit. The labor system must likewise be made to contribute its share to the leading purpose, it should have in common with other departments, of developing in the student correct habits of observation and investigation, and he should be made to trace, in every detail of farm-work, illustrations of the principles taught in the class-room, so that he may acquire a proper appreciation of the intimate and legitimate relations of practice and science.
The sciences relating to agriculture have already made sufficient progress to place the leading principles of farm economy on a consistent basis, and they serve as a safe guide in tracing the lines of future progress, or the direction, at least, in which improvements in agriculture may be made; but there are, as yet, many unexplained details that need further experimental investigation. The invaluable experiments made at Rothamsted during the past forty years have fortunately laid the foundation of a consistent system for utilizing the residues of the farm; but it must be admitted that, aside from these admirable researches, there are few, if any, experiments on record that are of practical interest in this direction. The importance of additional experiments on the lines of investigation so successfully followed at Rothamsted can hardly be overestimated.
The annual preventable loss to the farmers of the United States of over $500,000,000 must serve to emphasize the advantages that may be derived from the thorough and systematic study of the economics of agriculture, and the pressing need of the increase and wider diffusion of knowledge in the domain of applied science. With clear and well-defined notions of the scope and essential factors of the required work, including an extended and accurate knowledge of science in its several departments, and an intimate acquaintance with the details of farm practice, a well-planned system of experiments, conducted with reasonable persistence and skill, can not fail to give results of great practical value to every farmer.