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Fattening Fallow Ground

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American ingenuity solved fertilizer challenge

Virgil, the Roman poet who lived from 70 to 19 B.C., wrote the following lines about renewing the soil: "Yet sprinkle sordid ashes all around, and load with fattening dung thy fallow ground."

Even though the idea of using manure to make soil more fertile is an ancient concept, early American farmers, reveling in the rich and abundant virgin land, were slow to take advantage of it. Starting in the middle of the 19th century, American agriculturalists began emphasizing the benefits of putting manure on fields to increase yields. Eastern farmers, whose fields were small and had already been run down by over-cropping, heeded the advice and hauled manure in carts and wagons, spreading it by hand. But hand-spreading was slow, hard work and the results weren't very satisfactory since the manure tended to be thrown out in large chunks instead of being pulverized and evenly distributed.

Some feeble attempts were made from 1850 to 1875 to perfect a manure spreader, but nothing much came of them. Then, J.S. Kemp of Magog, Quebec, Canada, developed a practical machine that was patented in the U.S. on May 1, 1877. A year later, the Kemp & Burpee Manufacturing Co. was formed in Syracuse, N.Y., to build the new spreader, but the machines, being totally new to the American farmer, were slow to be accepted, especially west of the Mississippi River.

In the vast wheat fields of the plains, where the early settlers believed the deep, rich soil could never be depleted, manure spreader salesmen grumbled, "Those farmers out there don't know what manure is for!" However, after years of growing the same crop without putting anything back into the soil, farmers found that even this land began to return smaller and smaller yields. Because it was impossible to spread manure on this large acreage by hand, due to time constraints and the huge amount of labor required, the wheat grower looked for a way to conserve his manure supply and spread it economically.

Meanwhile, improvements had been made to the Kemp spreader. The machine began to be sold in larger and larger numbers as farmers everywhere saw the advantages of the machine's thorough pulverization and even spreading of manure.

In a 1917 book on farming by Dr. W.E. Taylor, director of soil culture for Deere & Co., Taylor claimed the value of cattle manure per ton to be $2.02, hog manure, $3.29, and chicken droppings, $7.07. Dr. Taylor went on to compare the cost of spreading for three farmers. The first man hauls his manure to the field on a wagon, dumps it in piles and hand-spreads it later, just before plowing; cost: 44 cents per load. The second farmer hauls his to the field the same way, but spreads it by hand from the wagon; cost: 40 cents per load. The third farmer uses a spreader, which costs him only 20 cents per load.

These costs seem mighty low to us until we look at the figures for the yields. Corn raised on ground where manure had been hand-spread made 50 bushels per acre, while 62 bushels per acre was raised on ground where a spreader had been used. Only 40 bushels per acre came from ground where no manure was applied. At the time, corn was bringing 40 cents per bushel, so even a savings of 20 cents per load of manure was significant.

Also keep in mind that this was in the days before chemical fertilizers were readily available, although lime, wood ashes and marl (a mixture of clay and calcium carbonate found in natural deposits) were used. Farm-mixed fertilizers could be made, but the process was messy, time consuming and dangerous (see article below), so it's little wonder that farmers didn't use much fertilizer, other than manure, if it took all this trouble to make the stuff.

- Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@yahoo.com